Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The importance of the Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative; and introductions


I wrote about my problems with the language used to describe possible cuts to the Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative, but in doing so, I neglected the important work that the Initiative is doing and the San Francisco citizens who will suffer if it is cut.

I learned more about the Initiative when this article on it popped up in my reader. This Initiative provides vital services to the trans community in San Francisco. Beyond connecting members of the trans community with friendly employers, the program also offers job-training services – resume-writing classes, mock job interviews, and “legal help, mentoring and vocational services”.

The success of the Initiative is vital in a world where trans folks are not only violently oppressed, but consistently and legally denied employment based on their trans status. Its success has inspired a similar program in Los Angeles, and similar programs across the country are in development. The program relies on city funds, and in the current economic situation, its future is far from secure.

You can read more about the initiative here: http://www.teeisf.org/

The article linked above is itself is a subject of interest for how it does and does not respect the people and organization it profiles. The article I slammed last week (which appeared in the San Francisco Gate) did not consider those who use the services of this organization to be anything more than a punchline. In comparison, this article (appearing in the LA Times) is much better simply because it does not dehumanize or slur its subjects. The article profiles actual trans people and takes their concerns seriously and respectfully.

Unfortunately, it gets off to a real rough start:
Michelle WallowingBull was born a boy. But growing up on Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation, she knew from age 5 that she was a girl inside.
It’s great that this article starts with the actual name of an actual trans woman of color. But saying that a woman was born a boy invalidates her gender and necessarily questions the authenticity of her gender. To quote Lisa Harney at Questioning Transphobia:
It’s more accurate to say that nearly everyone has an assigned male or female sex. This is something that is done to nearly everyone born in the global north. You’re born, and the first thing that gets said is “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl.” There you go, a significant part of your life already defined for you right as you’re taking your first breath.
Furthermore, this beginning sentence is just not relevant to the article. The circumstances of WallowingBull’s assigned sex at birth are not directly relevant to her issues in finding employment. An article about employment shouldn’t begin with unrelated details about one of its subject’s backgrounds. It’s not particularly interesting – it’s just making the subject of the article into an object of curiosity rather than a person with relevant concerns worthy of serious consideration.

I'm focusing so heavily on this fraction of the article because an introduction sets the tone for any piece of writing. I’m a writing tutor, and this facet of writing is a daily topic of discussion with my students. I think that the first part of a piece of writing should define the topic and let the reader know how the writer plans on looking at the topic. This article’s introduction is unfortunate – in no small part because it doesn’t really reflect the rest of the article. The second paragraph would work very well as a first paragraph:
As a teen she bounced from the reservation to a South Dakota town to foster homes and back. In these remote communities, with a family steeped in addiction, she said, it was difficult to openly express the gender she deeply felt. Substance abuse and economic uncertainty followed — travails all too common for transgender people.
This is relevant to WallowingBull’s employment background. Though it's not attributing her past problems to systems of oppression, it recognizes that those issues are regularly felt in the trans community and presents that pattern as problematic.

The rest of the article is similarly well-constructed. The concerns of trans men and women are framed as valid and worthy of attention. Several different trans folks give input on the situation, and their words are centralized. In explaining the problem, the writer gives specific examples of how trans folks are forced into marginalized forms of employment such as sex work and drug dealing. Furthermore, she avoids victim-blaming by connecting high rates of illegal employment among trans people to the systems of legal oppression that keep trans folks from more traditional employment. [Sex work is great and I am all for it, but sex workers have few rights or protections and trans sex workers are particularly vulnerable.]

After a degendering introduction, the article actually does an excellent job (from my cis-privileged point of view) of presenting the work of the initiative as valid and necessary; the author, Lee Romney, is respectful of and sympathetic to the subjects of the article. If it weren’t for the cissexist beginning of the article, I think this would be a fantastic example of how to cover important trans issues in mainstream publications.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice analysis of the key difference between the two articles. Now if only more main stream news outlets would pay attention...

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