Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Stacy Blahnik killed; Philadelphia Daily News reduces her to trans status and beauty

Edit 10/14: This post originally appropriated the words of Helen G and attributed them to a cis woman. This is an act of centering the voices of cis people yet again, and I apologize. There's more  at the end of this post, but go here to read Helen's explanation of why this is so very wrong.

Trigger warning for degendering language

Stacy Blahnik, a 31-year-old woman who lived in Point Breeze in Philadelphia, was found dead by her boyfriend at their home on Monday evening. Blahnik is survived by her partner, her dogs, and many friends and colleagues.

Blahnik was known locally and nationally as an activist and mentor with the House of Blahnik. She held a position of leadership, the "Overall Mother", and focused on the emotional and sexual health of those in the community marginalized by race, sexuality, and gender identity. From their website:
The Undeniable House of Blahnik, a ballroom focused community based organization founded in 2000 by African American and Latino gay and transgender persons whose primary goal was to form a social network of progressive, supportive, and creative individuals dedicated to developing and garnishing the talents and gifts of the “ballroom” community. Our mission is to positively affect the social development of our members and to provide nurturing spaces for self-expression, and personal and professional growth.
The cause of death has yet to be announced, and some suspect homicide. A large bald white man was seen leaving her place on the day her body was found.

Details on this case are scant. Initial reports claimed that she was found with a pillowcase around her neck. Police later denied that and said that there were no signs of trauma on her body. Given that trans people face a rate of violence twice that of cis people, it is certainly more than likely that her tragic death was violent in nature.

Her death has been remembered and reported by police and media not with respect for her life as she lived it, but with incorrect information borne of bigotry and and sensationalism. This ABC news report has done an excellent job of giving basic information on the case that does not degender or dehumanize Blahnik, but it did so only at the urging of the Transgender Foundation of America. The police report and this report from Philadelphia Daily News reporter Stephanie Farr are both stunning and typical examples of how trans women are treated by the forces of cissexism.

Blahnik is referred to with male pronouns and a name she did not use. She is dehumanized from the very start, when "transsexual" is used as a noun, rather than "woman". Her clothing at the time of her death - the clothes she was wearing in private - are heavily highlighted to sexualize her death. Throughout the Daily News piece, her beauty is referred to again, and again, and again. Her body gave other women complexes! She got attention on the street! These are not compliments, but transmisogynistic exploitation of her gender and appearance.

This sexualization is not only reflective of Blahnik's gender, but also of her race. Black women have long been seen as hyper-sexual; women of color are frequently reduced to their shape and appearance and sexual attractiveness.

Two good posts on Blahnik's death and the media coverage of it have already been written. From Helen G* at Questioning Transphobia:
[I]t’s because of a legal system which is too busted, and those who run it too bigoted and transphobic, to allow for the possibility that, although some women may well be trans, that’s no reason to dehumanise them by denying appropriate documentation. By the look of it, the local PD in this instance is another one which has yet to make that great leap forward into the 21st century, where trans women are treated like the humans we are.
From Monica Roberts at TransGriot:
That means Stacey's name should not have been placed in quotation marks, since once again, she was obviously living publicly as a woman and your interviews with her neighbors should have established that.
Blahnik's life is not worth covering to reporters, and her gender is exploited for shock value. Farr, aided by the police report, focuses not on Blahnik's death, not on the circumstances of her case, not on her life and time, but instead upon the womanhood that she so clearly views as questionable. This is ground in with the very last line, which misgenders, objectifies, and trivializes a life lost: "'Whatever she was - transvestite, man, woman - she didn't deserve to die like that,' one man said."

Blahnik was a positive influence in the lives of many: her neighbors, her boyfriend, the people she worked with and for. She should be mourned and remembered for her life well lived: her good work, her relationships with her loved ones, and her considerable contributions to her community.

ETA: Please check out and share Lilith von Fraumench's open letter to the Philadelphia Daily News as well.

*Originally mis-identified as Helen Boyd, who is a totally different person. Apologies, and thanks to Queen Emily on tumblr for alerting me to my mistake.

ETA: I made a huge and very harmful mistake when I posted this yesterday by attributing Helen G's work to a cis woman with a history of appropriation.  

I deeply regret my actions and apologize to Helen G.

My act of verbal violence was a part of the long cis tradition of taking trans voices and issues and appropriating and centering them around cis voices. It was careless and cruel. 

Furthermore, I apologize to her and to my readers for not identifying my error and apologizing for my attack on her sooner. Both are indications of carelessness and unexamined privilege on my part. I will refrain from posting about trans issues for a while as I struggle to understand and atone for my actions.

Here is Helen G's explanation of why what I did was so wrong.

I also apologize to Kinsey Hope, whose expertise and friendship I selfishly used for my own learning experience.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Turkish women attacked at third European Transgender Council; police harrass, degender victims

The logo of Transgender Europe. The graphic is a cog-like circular design in yellow, and the letters TGEU are in blue.
Two weeks ago, Transgender Europe held the third European Transgender Council in Malmo, Sweden. The Council hosted over 200 delegates from thirty-five countries, and it offered a number of worthwhile speakers, workshops, and other activities. But cissexism cast a shadow over this event when random transphobes attacked two Turkish delegates; police degendered and harrassed the targets rather than protecting them.

On the evening of September 30, the first night of the Council, the two women went to eat at a restaurant. As they entered the building, a couple of bystanders began yelling slurs at them. These two men invited several more passersby to join them. When the women emerged, they were attacked physically, with fists and eggs, by a crowd of men.

The attack was apparently motivated not only by cissexism but also by racism. Turkophobia runs high in Europe and has for hundreds of years.

After the incident was reported to the authorities, the police on duty did not do their job and seek out those responsible for the hate crime. Of course not. They further penalized these activists for their nationality and their gender by referring to them with incorrect pronouns, questioning their right to be in Sweden, and otherwise humiliating them. The delegates described their treatment as "".

The hosts of the conference are understandably enraged, though not surprised:
“There is no safe space for transgender people in Europe. Last night's attack showed once more that transphobia and racism are not only a problem of certain countries in Europe. Transphobia is everywhere”, says TGEU Vice chair Julia Ehrt.

“We express our solidarity with our activist friends. We are sad and angry and call upon the police to do everything to persecute the perpetrators,” says Dr Carsten Balzer from the “Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide” TvT- Research project..

The largest European Human rights event on transgender issues deals among other topics with hate crimes and violence faced by gender variant people. In the last 30 months 33 transgender people were reported of being murdered in Europe according to TGEU's TvT-project. 79% of trans people are subject to negative comments, harassment, physical and sexual abuse and violence according to the European Hate Crime Study published by Press for Change last year.

In the US, Public and police mistreatment of trans people, particularly trans women, is often egregious and violent. Duanna Johnson was killed brutally beaten at the hands of police, and countless women have been sexually assaulted by officers.

But such abuse is not limited to the shores of my homeland. Women around the world are hassled, violated, raped, and murdered, and that hatred is intensified if they are trans. When they are also a member of a marginalized nationality, they are even more vulnerable to the violent agents of the kyriarchy. And like many marginalized people, the police offer no recourse but instead another avenue of victimization. Organizations like Transgender Europe and the brave activists who populate them are vital to dismantling the global system of racism and cissupremacy that endorses and encourages such treatment.

sources 1, 2, 3

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Institutionalized racism on the court and in the classroom at Mullen High School

Last February, spectators chanted racist slurs at black players in a game between home team Mullen High School and opponents Overland. These slurs were not isolated and they were not stopped; officials allowed this harassment to continue throughout the game. No disciplinary action was taken against the students and parents who participated in this hateful cheering.

Why am I writing about this, a year and a half later? This is, to be sure, an awful act motivated by discrimination and hate. But such instances are infinite - why report on it now?

The admission of this action endorsed and grew an environment in which acts of systematic and individual racism are permitted and encouraged by race-privileged figures of authority. Recently, one of Mullen's most popular teachers, Timothy Thornton, was fired for a persistent pattern of racism after student Tyler Brown reported him to officials. According to students and confirmed by his own admission, he:
  • told racist jokes
  • used the n word as a slur, without critical context
  • broadcast his obsession with the KKK to his students
  • and just in case you thought that it was just talk, he bragged about giving students of color lower grades
He, of course, insists that he meant no harm by using his position of authority. He was just having fun. He is sure that it all would have been okay if he would have clarified that "he meant no harm by saying the things he said." Because intent makes everything okay! Because he's not racist, really! Because it's just a "stupid mistake"!

And of course, many students and parents have swelled up beneath him to clamor for his reinstatement:
Thornton's termination has fueled impassioned responses from the school and community at large, with a majority expressing outrage that a veteran and well-liked teacher should be fired for "a silly mistake," as one person suggested on a local news website. Students protested the decision by marching outside the school, while a number of alumni are said to have written letters to school administrators challenging the firing.
While Thornton enjoys this groundswell of support, the student who reported his egregious conduct is being vilified. He and his family are accused of playing the race card and of conspiring with black community activists to get the teacher fired. No one has bothered to speculate what possible gain Brown would realize by sharing the details of his teacher's racially motivated conduct.
Tyler Brown's reward for his bravery is harassment and suspicion. His treatment represents the other half of the creation and perpetuation of toxic racist environments: the silencing, second-guessing, and harassment of the people who actually receive racism. Brown is being punished for protecting himself in a real way. Instead of doing their job and protecting students from this kind of discrimination, school officials have left it up to their charges to do their jobs and call shitty teachers out.

This is how institutional racism is nurtured and weaponized in individual situations. Let one incident of racism go past without controversy or comment, and the school administrators feel like they've dodged a mine. But once that act of blatant hatred is past, another one trespasses...and another, and another. With every subsequent incident, white folks inclined towards active oppression realize that they're not going to see consequences - after all, no one else has - and so they push their oppression just a little bit further and a little bit further, and get a little more popular for it. With every subsequent incident, these people grow the power already granted them by the kyriarchy into something even more monstrous.  And of course, the school administrator wants to remain neutral. And so, they get away with it and get away with it, and the environment gets more and more toxic, and the racism gets more and more acceptable.

This is how kyriarchy silences students and encourages racism through education. These little things don't just add up, they multiply. Thornton's racist offenses towards his students got worse and worse, and Brown's attempts to counter his discriminatory acts only amplified the hate he received.

My major source for this post is Rhonda Hackett. A couple of the details I found in her opinion piece (specifically, that Thornton gave students of color lower grades) could not be found in my other sources for this article.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Why I use that word that I use: Fat

A speech bubble. Inside is a question mark in quotation marks.
The word fat holds a great deal of sway in the popular imagination. Everyone has a particular and often arbitrary standard for what fat means, where it begins and where it ends. In most cases, fat as an adjective is applied in an unambiguously negative way (e.g. "Mariah Carey got fat") , and denied in an unambiguously positive way ("what are you talking about? you're not fat at all, you're gorgeous!"). But as with the bodies it describes, "fat" is for my purposes value-neutral and relative: not necessarily good, not necessarily bad, and dependent on the context in which it exists.

Fat is an adjective used to describe size. Fat is measured by width or depth rather than height - I am fat because my hips are 47", not because my height is 5'11". Applied to humans, it usually means being large or upwards of the "normal" BMI. Applied to other nouns, it usually refers to abundance of mass. Its antonym is thin, referring to slightness is size. Fat is itself a noun; it is defined in this sense as a kind of bodily tissue.

Fat can be a positive word. It can denote a positive abundance: in health, in size, in finances (e.g. a fat wallet). Fat is often a sign of health; when I regained the weight I lost from anxiety (disability 2) and came back from thinness to fatness, it was a clear sign that both my body and mind were recovering from a severe and prolonged illness. In many bodies, fat is beautiful and attractive. Fatness is associated with fullness and a lack of want. Roundness, softness and other lovely textures are often associated with fat. The noun form of fat can be positive too: fatty tissue is essential to the human body.

Fat can be a negative word. In non-living nouns, it can refer to an overabundance borne of selfishness and greed - outside of bodies, there is such a thing as too big. It can also be negative in certain bodies, though not all of them: since I came back to my normal weight, I have slowly gained more weight because I've been overeating, overdrinking, and leading a sedentary life. Fat is not the cause of my lack of health, but in this case it is a symptom, a correlation. As Michelle of the Fat Nutritionist wrote, Health at every size ... does not mean that one individual can be healthy at every size."

Fat is a relative term. It changes based on intent, identity, and context. I am not read as fat in every situation - next to my fatter father, I look thin, but next to my thin mother, I look fat. Christina Hendricks and her alter ego Joan Holloway are likely not fat in a room of people who look like most of America, but relative to other actors, she is most definitely fat.

Fat is most often used as a slur, to insult an aspect of person's (usually a woman's) size and imply that their beauty and health are lesser. It can also cover a range of practices that discriminate against people of size: at the doctor's office, on the street, in the dressing room. When I am called fat as an insult, it is a form of discrimination, also known as sizism. Though such critics are not slandering me, they are attempting to devalue me based on my size.

As a fat person, I reject the definition of fat tainted by slurs, but not on the basis that I am not fat: instead, I reject that I am more lazy, less beautiful, less healthy, less worthwhile because I am fat. Its application as a slur is a demonizing misapplication by the arbitrary tastes and forces of the kyriarchy. Its sting makes it all the more powerful a word to apply to my own body with confidence and pride.

Fat is, as with everything, subjective. Its use is usually meant to communicate hatred, but that's not how I take it. Fat is an adjective, as neutral as red or blond, that has been perverted to mean something that it is not. But its application can and should be claimed for our own. In this space and in many other feminist blogs, fat is not necessarily anything: it's not necessarily unsightly, it's not necessarily unhealthy, and it's not necessarily the same for every body.


The use of fat as a positive descriptor is not a new one. As long as I've been even marginally active in online feminist discussion - close to ten years now - I've seen arguments for fat as a neutral to positive descriptor. This is not the first time I've written about fat as a neutral adjective, either.

Kate Harding, one of the most influential and widely-published women in the Fat Acceptance movement, put it like this:
[I]t’s important to me to reclaim the word “fat.” It’s not a bad word. It’s not intrinsically insulting. All it tells you is that this person has more visible fat on her frame than a thin person does — and since in my case, that’s the plain truth, I don’t have any problem with being described that way. I have a problem with people who would describe me that way with the intention to wound, but not with the word itself. I’m short, I’m blond, I’m pale, I’m hourglass-shaped, I’m fat. Some of those characteristics are more desirable in this society than others, but all any of those words tell you is what I look like. Not what I eat, not how much I exercise, not whether I’m healthy, not how strong my moral fiber is — hell, not even what my natural hair color is.
Tasha Fierce, writing for Bitch this summer, wrote about the place of the word in moving forward with fat acceptance:
“Fat” needs to be reclaimed and turned into a value-neutral descriptor, this is true. But “fat” is currently such a nebulous concept that it’s really going to take the elimination of euphemisms to describe it for it to coalesce into a firm identity, and we’re going to have to lay all our cards on the table when it comes to size privilege. We’re also going to have to convince fat people to call themselves fat, which in today’s fatphobic society is a somewhat scary thing when you’re not wholeheartedly dedicated to fat acceptance. We’re so used to defending ourselves from the word “fat” that euphemisms are comforting. Yet in order to move forward, we’ve got to face our fears.

Friday, October 1, 2010

September 2010 in review

It's the close of another good month here at Deeply Problematic! Blogging is rough to get through sometimes, but right now, I'm feeling very good about the work I do here. I'm lucky to have such a terrific, engaged readership.

My fundraising drive was a huge success! Thanks to those of you who donated. Your help was a huge boost; you're an essential part of what's driving me to continue to write here. A donation button is still up on the left sidebar - help is appreciated, but not necessary at the moment.

I've got guest posts up at Feministe and Don't Call Me Sybil right now. If you're coming over from there, welcome!

Mark your calenders for October 13. I'll be a guest on Healthy Place Mental Health TV show. I will be discussing OCD and my experiences with it, which you can read about here.

If you're on social networking doohickeys, you can support Deeply Problematic and interact with other readers there, too! I post new articles, pictures of cute things, and inane/brilliant thoughts at Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

Here are this month's top posts:

Top posts of September 2010

1. Wikipedia's main page mentions nine men for every one woman
2. Trans student not homecoming king because of Mona Shores High School cissexism
3. Why I use that word that I use: Kyriarchy, kyriarchal, and why not patriarchy
4. Disability and Comics: How Questionable Content's Faye and Hannelore normalize disability
5. Women in Questionable Content: Women-run businesses and Bechdel-passing friendships

Most commented in September 2010

1. Josh Eastman arrested for paying child to recite racial slurs on YouTube video - 35 comments
2. Wikipedia's main page mentions nine men for every one woman - 30 comments
3. Trans student not homecoming king because of Mona Shores High School cissexism - 9 comments
4. Paperwork & homework, anxiety & ADD: institutionalized and internalized ableism & Hundreds of children with disabilities die in Bulgarian state facilities - 6 comments
5 .A feminist reading of Achewood, part one: disability and Roast Beef & Why I use that word that I use: Problematic - 5 comments

Thank you so much for your support!
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