Here’s hoping for greater diligence from CFI Ontario on trans issues

Yesterday, multiple people alerted me to an event announcement by the Centre for Inquiry’s Ontario branch about their participation in Toronto’s Annual Pride Parade. The announcement originally read:

This year we’re going to have a bit of fun- and show our support for the trans community BY DRESSING IN DRAG. Transphobia is an insidious and often overlooked problem which effects thousands of Canadians. Step out of your comfort zone for a few hours and into a pair of pumps- or sport a handsome handlebar mustache!

Note: You don’t HAVE to dress in drag or be gay to march in the parade- you just need to be awesome 🙂

Some hours later, it was revised to remove all mention of trans people or transphobia, reading:

This year we’re going to have a bit of fun BY DRESSING IN DRAG. Step out of your comfort zone for a few hours and into a pair of pumps- or sport a handsome handlebar mustache!

CFI Ontario executive director Jaimy Warner later issued a semi-apology/explanation on Facebook, reading in part:

I’d like to note that the intention of this event theme was never to mock. CFI has been working tirelessly with the LGBT community and the Ontario GSA Coalition over the past several months to get Bill 13 passed, we have a long track record of supporting LGBT rights and we’re very sensitive to in supporting issues of sexual/gender orientation. I admit that I could have worded the content better-it was not my intention to suggest drag and trans are the same (although ‘trans’ as in the transgender community does include drag performers and cross dressers) but to express that we don’t feel there is anything shameful or abnormal about cross dressing or playing with cultural gender norms. I can see how the juxtaposition of ‘drag’ and ‘trans’ could have easily been interpreted as offensive, and I have since removed that particular content from this event, the website and our newsletter.

That being said: we’ve marched in the parade for many years and I felt that it was time for CFI to really get into the spirit of things. Pride is fun, playful and expressive. We’re not donning a ‘gay costume’ we’re adopting a beloved aspect of LGBT culture as a visible sign of appreciation and acceptance (I completely agree that drag is an art). In another environment I can certainly see how ‘dressing in drag’ could quickly degrade into mockery- but this is not a frat house kegger nor are we a collection of close minded bigots. We’re a science educational charity marching in a Gay Pride Parade (with a professional drag queen helping us prepare, I should add) demonstrating we’re open minded and accepting.

A more substantial apology from Warner followed:

Please let me being by apologizing.

You’re right. My initial response was not an apology but a selfish attempt to explain the stance of my organization and our perspective. At the start of the planning phase for this event I spoke to a number of people in the LGBT community who thought this was a good idea-I thought it was a good idea- so it was easy for me to disregard the first negative responses I received here today. I fell victim to confirmation bias and ignored evidence that this may be a bad idea- this behaviour goes against the grain of what I stand for and I regret this truly. This event and my response to genuine concern has hurt, enraged and polarized people. This was a bad idea and I’m sorry so many people were hurt and made to feel excluded before I realized this.

CFI will not dress in drag.

I get the impression that CFI Ontario and its leadership still don’t quite understand what was wrong with this particular approach to showing solidarity with trans people. Really, I’m confused and taken aback that this could even happen in the first place without anyone at CFI Ontario or their contacts explaining why this is, to put it mildly, a bad idea. It seems some clarification may be in order.

Drag performers and trans people have a complex and sometimes openly hostile relationship, arising from their similarities, differences, and how mainstream society has (mis)categorized and regarded them. The definitions themselves are still unclear at times, and not always agreed upon. Warner states that the “transgender community” also includes drag performers and cross-dressers, but this is just one definition that many people don’t share or endorse. Yes, some people have advanced a “transgender umbrella” model that encompasses drag performers, cross-dressers, transvestites, genderqueer and non-binary people, transsexual people, and anyone whose identity or expression diverges from conventional gender roles. Others have pointed out that such a concept potentially includes any man or woman who doesn’t adhere to strictly masculine or feminine roles, presentations and behaviors, making the definition of “transgender” much broader than what was originally intended.

But regardless of how one defines what it means to be transgender, the mere fact that both drag performers and transsexual people have at times been considered “transgender” does not mean that performing drag is a meaningful, appropriate, or sensitive way to express solidarity with trans people. They may have been grouped together due to certain (extremely broad) similarities, but there are still a great many differences – including differences that are substantial enough to preclude the use of drag as a viable means of fighting transphobia.

Many people don’t constrain their understanding of “drag” to a certain established style of exaggerated performance, and instead use it to refer to any instance of what they perceive as cross-dressing – no matter how the person doing it identifies, whether they intended it as any sort of performance or recreational practice, or whether they even consider themselves to be cross-dressing. This last point is crucial: it’s extremely easy for people with little understanding of trans issues or gender identity to conflate trans people with cis (non-trans) drag performers or cross-dressers. In reality, they’re almost nothing alike.

Again, drag is a performance – a costume, an event, a temporary engagement for the purposes of entertainment. Being trans is none of these things. A trans person who dresses in accordance with their gender identity is simply wearing clothes that their culture has coded as representing the gender that they are, much like any cis person who does the same. A cis woman who wears clothing conventionally associated with women isn’t cross-dressing or doing drag. And neither is a trans woman. Trans people are not dressing “cross” to their gender, they are dressing as their gender. They are not wearing their clothes as some kind of costume, or to entertain anyone, or to put on a show. They are wearing the clothes they wear for the same mundane reasons that cis people wear the clothes they wear. Dressing in a way that reflects their gender is just as much of an everyday, non-noteworthy thing for trans people as it is for cis people.

Most trans people look nothing whatsoever like drag performers, a fact that’s rarely noticed and taken into account because trans people simply don’t stand out. Since people generally don’t have the opportunity to take note of all the trans people they don’t see as trans, those who have no (known) experience with trans people tend to derive their perception of us from people they do see and mistakenly identify as trans – like drag performers. Many trans people have come to resent drag itself for being a major source of harmful misconceptions about who we are and what we’re like. Some drag performers have only exacerbated this by frequently and unapologetically using anti-trans slurs despite not being transsexual themselves, or participating in advertisements with blatantly transphobic overtones and refusing to acknowledge that there’s anything wrong with this.

Whether drag in general is inherently problematic is a separate issue to be resolved, but there’s one thing I want to make very clear: Dressing in drag to “support” trans people is not acceptable, ever. It is perhaps one of the most unacceptable things I can imagine. It is so unacceptable that I struggle to find a suitably analogous situation to compare it to. If a cis man decided to don women’s clothing for the stated purpose of showing that he supports me as a trans woman, I would be deeply insulted by the near-total lack of comprehension and the implication that there is anything remotely similar about myself and that.

Drag queens are men in women’s clothes. Trans women are women in whatever they may be wearing. Linking drag to being trans, as CFI Ontario did, implies that we are somehow comparable to drag performers. By any relevant metric, we are not, but thoughtless ideas like this only reinforce what is perhaps the most common articulation of transphobia: that trans women, too, are just men in women’s clothes. While CFI Ontario probably didn’t mean to say that, they’ve certainly encouraged it. Such a denial of our identities is just as insulting as it would be to presume that a cis person’s gender is inauthentic and that you know their gender better than they do. It’s even more deeply wounding because of the price we pay for living in a way that’s consistent with who we are, a price measured in violence, discrimination, open ridicule, and the risk and indignity of being seen as less than human in our daily interactions with the rest of the world.

This is not something that happens because we’re in costume. It’s because we refuse to go through life wearing a costume that hides our true selves. Someone who performs in drag at a club or dresses up for Pride will have no understanding whatsoever of the unbearable pressure of ceaseless marginalization and constant fear, and for them to parallel themselves with us, even implicitly, only trivializes that brutal reality. It cannot possibly be a show of support, because all it shows is that they know nothing of our lives.

That’s what makes it so shocking for a CFI branch to propose something like this. I expect that as a skeptical and freethought group, they would comprehend what drag actually is before suggesting that their members dress in drag. I expect that they would understand who trans people really are before deciding how best to support us. I expect that they would do their research and recognize why the interaction of drag and trans issues in this context makes their idea utterly, shamefully inappropriate. Basically, I expect them to know what they’re talking about, before they talk about it. In this case, that did not happen. Given their claims of extensive collaboration with LGBT groups, it becomes even more incomprehensible that something like this could slip through the cracks.

While I’m glad to see that they eventually acknowledged that this was a mistake and eliminated the drag aspect of their event, it would have been better if this had never happened in the first place, and I’d like to know what CFI Ontario plans to do in order to prevent any similar errors in the future. Their desire to support us is admirable, but its implementation was badly mishandled here. If you really want to show your support, please do what we strive to do every day: Simply be yourself.

Here’s hoping for greater diligence from CFI Ontario on trans issues

41 thoughts on “Here’s hoping for greater diligence from CFI Ontario on trans issues

  1. 1

    I agree that they could have done a much better job of showing support, but I fail to see how they ever intended to support GSMs in the first place. Near as I can tell, atheist and religious groups alike come to pride parade for the same reason: to act like they know what’s best and play tug of war with us, as though GSMs were not people but one more bridge to take in their little war with each other.

    1. 1.1

      I don’t think that’s fair. I think a lot of straight atheists really do support queer rights and show so explicitly (with signs). But there’s probably a lot of the spirit you described, too.

    2. 1.2

      It’s hard not to agree with you on that one, Heather… Why bring theism and/or atheism into it at all? While I can see, one might want other to know “our *organization* supports you”, it’s not difficult to imagine an ulterior motive.

  2. 2

    May I just say THANK YOU for writing about this–covering even part of the tension between drag queens and trans women. I’m just a cis ally and have sometimes done a poor job of explaining “well some trans people like drag, but many don’t, because…” More references are good.

    Environments where gender-bending and crossdressing and such are permitted may be good safe spaces for transsexual people to begin exploring transition, and lots of people who fit under the broad transgender umbrella do use Pride as a safe place to crossdress. BUT that’s no reason for turning Pride into some mostly-cis-straight group’s “drag day”. It’s complicated, as Pride is fun as well as political–so non-queers and relatively privileged queers may only see the fun. Or may totally misunderstand how to show solidarity.

    Seriously, CFI people who want to show support for trans* people, get a legalize trans* Tshirt or hold a sign or something. There are atheists in pride parades who hold signs that say “Atheists support LGBTQ rights” and things like that, and this is great.

        1. I personally know a trans-male who is also a performing drag queen, and frankly he’s never more “manly” to me than when he’s doing his drag performances.

          Which makes a certain kind of sense. Traditional drag is, after all, a mostly male-created caricature of femininity.

  3. 4

    “It is so unacceptable that I struggle to find a suitably analogous situation to compare it to.”

    Dressing up in black face with slave-chains to support racial solidarity? Dressing up as Nazis and Camp-prisoners for a Holocaust-day memorial event? Wearing facepaint and making “whoop-whoop” noised to support Native American rights? Ok, they’re not exact analogues but they kind of capture the basic idea.

  4. 5

    When I saw this whole thing last night I was shocked that a group like this would be so insensitive. For all the reasons you said this was a terrible and insesitive idea.

    Let me add one my own experience:

    I lived with fear for decades. Being myself meant violence, derision, loss of friends, loss of family. I couldn’t dress in the clothing that expressed my true gender to the world for far too long for this reason. Instead I denied myself and went down a slow path of self destruction.

    I eventually found the strength to dress as the woman I really am. Going out of the house that way was the hardest thing I ever did. It was terrifying and liberating to declare my identity to the world.

    It was not something fun or something you can understand from one day in drag. How dare CFI make this seem like you could possibly understand or get this reality from one day?

    CFI, being an ally means listening. It’s our issue so its about us not you. If we tell you something and your first urge is to explain or deny instead of listen your not being an ally.

  5. 6

    I was a recipient of this email and it did not even phase me. I appreciate the opportunity to learn the difference. I am most certainly an atheist ally and would not want to be seen as causing offence. I won’t be walking in the parade due to an injury, but I will be in attendance.

  6. 7

    […] I can’t help but agree, Pride events are more and more for the well heeled, more for bending over to thank allies, more for the sponsors. It’s a serious question why an ally would be made grand marshal. And maybe an Occupy style response will turn out to be creative, fostering real dialogue. Before more space is given to allies at such events, it’s pretty clear they need to get up to speed on how not to be disrespectful or appropriative. A reader sent us notice that Ontario’s Center For Inquiry had plans to attend Toronto Pride this year … in drag. It is painfully hard to try imagining how that could have worked out for the best. Expect a much more thorough post from Queereka on that specific matter this weekend, and there’s already great coverage here. […]

  7. 8

    Thanks for this. Just yesterday I was looking at the CFI Ontario webpage and saw that posting. I almost wrote an email but then decided against it. I’m cis-male and gay and have been floating around the outskirts of the skeptical movement for a couple of years now and had been thinking that I’d like to be more involved, but seeing that carelessness made me think twice.

    It’s not that I believed there was any malicious intent, but I didn’t want to join a group and suddenly find myself doing “Trans 101” when I’m only barely aware of the issues myself (through blogs here and at skepchick, as well as friends who are trans and people I’ve worked with). The tone-deafness in that announcement was a real turn-off.

    Dressing in drag for Pride is not a bad thing in and of itself, and drag performance has its role in bringing to light some of the absurdities in the gender roles that people take for granted every day, but there’s no such thing as being “trans for a day” and to act as if there were is pretty insulting.

    I’ll look into the CFI Ontario group again, I’m sure, but probably I’ll wait until later in the year.

  8. 9

    The original email I saw didn’t explicitly mention transphobia, to start, but there seem to be a couple different versions floating around (the email also had a couple of the Ontario CFI leaders with MLP:FiM hair photoshopped on, which is a bit funny since at least 2/3 of them are MRA-ish).

    I noticed when this was posted on canadianatheist that someone in the comments linked to this as a resource:

    Do you think they might have been working off what they read there, rather than, like, talking to some queer folks first?

  9. 10

    As a CFI Toronto volunteer, I know Jaimy personally and can say that the statements she made were completely without malice. Her intentions were to support the LGBT community, and as full fledged member of that community I have to say that the CFI here in Toronto has been our ally for years. They were an integral part of the team to force the catholic schools to allow the GAY word in GSA’s in their schools (Bill 13). She made a mistake and apologized for it. I’m sure it’s been a ‘learning experience’ for her, and an embarrassingly public one at that.

    Hey, she’s an honest young woman trying to help and understand. Give her a break, eh?

    Janice in Toronto

    1. 10.1

      It’s good that Jaimy backed down. I don’t speak for other queers involved (I’m not even trans!), but I think we all are relieved about that. BUT because this happened, we need to have this conversation. It seems ZJ is writing this in order to make the issues clear, so that this will not happen again with anyone else in charge of any group, CFI or otherwise.

      It’s not necessarily about trying to make Jaimy feel guilty. It’s about using her example as a teaching moment–both for her to learn why there were objections, and also for others. Okay? There will be some unavoidable bitterness in this discussion. But to “give Jaimy a break” would, I think, mean to stop talking about it; and it’s not fair to ask that of the queer community–particularly the trans community.

      1. I don’t really think these two comments are incompatible.

        I’m starting to learn that trans issues are really, really challenging, at least at this point in history, partly because it lies at the intersection of so many different hot button issues; partly because casual transphobia is so pervasive that otherwise tolerant and open-minded people are not even aware they are engaging in it; and partly because the English language itself (and most other languages, for that matter) has difficulty dealing with any trans person other than the most clear-cut gender-binary, and even then… so in that sense, I vote yeah, “give Jaimy a break” in that this is an easy mistake to make for anyone who has not specifically educated themselves on trans issues in particular.

        On the other hand, hall-of-rage is absolutely right that this is a conversation that needs to happen, for basically all of exactly the same reasons the nobody should be too hard on Jaimy: Without these teaching moments, otherwise tolerant people are going to continue to engage in unintentionally transphobic words and behavior, simply because they don’t know any better and because trans issues are highly non-obvious for anybody who hasn’t been directly exposed to those issues.

        1. I’ve lived in the trans world for 10 years now and all I can say is that it’s a land carpeted with minefields wherever you look. Talk about a loaded issue!
          It’s good to see discussions like these. The topic needs to be talked about and I hope that in the end reason will prevail.
          We all want what’s best for the LGBT community, so if there are mistakes made they should be challenged like any other ‘hot button’ topics; hopefully cool heads will prevail.

        2. Let me just take the “trans issues are highly non-obvious” thing you said, and make one addition, because I’m afraid that other people (not necessarily you) too often follow this thought to a conclusion of “well then trans issues are too hard for me and trans people are a minority, so I might as well not try”. I see a lot of that attitude in queer spaces, and it drives me nuts–on behalf of my trans friends primarily, but also because it shows a misunderstanding of what parts of society do and do not affect them.

          It may be complicated to understand the various issues that different transgender people face, but this is mostly because sexism itself, including the attitudes that cause misunderstanding of queer people, is complicated. The ways society mistreats trans* people are often just more explicit versions of the complicated sexist attitudes that society holds, and trans feminists are often able to highlight sexism very clearly for the rest of us.

          Unfortunately, in the past many cis academics and gender theorists have realized something along these lines, and then decided “let’s study transgender people for our own theories (and not let them have a say in the conclusions)!” That’s not what I’m advocating. Cis people should be allies to trans people because they deserve respect, period. But there are benefits for everyone in learning trans feminism.

          1. Let me just take the “trans issues are highly non-obvious” thing you said, and make one addition, because I’m afraid that other people (not necessarily you) too often follow this thought to a conclusion of “well then trans issues are too hard for me and trans people are a minority, so I might as well not try”.

            Oh, you’re parenthetical remark is not necessary, because I confess that has been me from time to time.

            I wasn’t even really confronted with trans issues at all until Natalie started blogging for FtB. Then it was a whole lot all at once and I was just like, “Woah.” And frankly, at times I have just said, “Fuck it, this is too hard, I am not processing all of this,” and I just stop reading Natalie’s blog for a week or two and take a break from even trying to expand my consciousness in that direction.

            I guess the thing is, I never permanently stop trying… being a white, male, middle-class, cis, heterosexual, well, grokking issues of privilege is a looooong journey for me, so I just kinda do my best, try to keep humble and keep an open mind, and if I can’t get it right on Monday, I’ll come back to it on Thursday. I think that’s all a person can really do…

            You make a great point about it being intimately tied to issues of feminism in general. I off-handedly mentioned language being a problem… and you are right, that problem is a feminist issue in general, in that English is a highly gendered language with a tremendous degree of male normativity. Those problems are merely rendered more acutely when attempting to apply English to trans people or especially gender-fluid people, but they are there all the time no matter who you are talking about.

  10. 11

    Thank you for the very clear and detailed explanation of exactly what was wrong with CFI Ontario’s plan. I followed the Facebook discussion on this yesterday quite closely, and it was clear that a major mistake had been made, but through all the rage and “fuck you”s on one side and defensive pleading on the other, it wasn’t entirely clear what the issue was. It is clear now.

    Honest question: if there had never been any suggestion that the plan was to support the trans community, is there any way in which dressing in drag at Pride could have been made appropriate? I mean, if it were explicit that this was an exercise in wearing a costume for entertainment purposes, in keeping with the tradition of drag queens? Or is it offensive for a group of mostly cis straight people to dress in drag at Pride for any reason? (I suppose that this question presupposes that it is OK for drag queens to parade at Pride, which you leave as an open question.)

    1. 11.1

      I think what’s important is fostering an environment where people are safe to be themselves. If I see you in drag at Pride, I dont’ have a clue who you are or why you’re dressed that way. Which is okay. I don’t need to know either in order to accept you as you. aybe you are a straight cis dude who has always wanted to cross-dress and were too afraid, and now you feel like you don’t have to hide that part of yourself in this space. But then if you go around saying you’re a straight cis dude who is trying out this weird thing just for funzies, but don’t worry it’s not something you normally do as a normal person living your normal life, it can potentially damage that safe environment which most (if not all) Prides attempt to create.

    2. 11.2

      Since pride is a celebration of the GLBT community I think that non GLBT community and even certain members of the GLBT community should probably steer clear of making a costume related to any group. Our lives are not a costume.

      In particular doing this for the first time is a very bad idea unless you are yourself coming out and expressing who you are. While it is questionable to do this at your own event it is really bad form to do something so loaded at our event.

      I won’t say anything about the drag queen community being involved. This is something important for them and it is not my place as a trans person to judge them. As far as I am concerned they are more than welcome because it is not a one day have fun costume for them it is something they live. it is their community too.

      For the record I doubt very much that CFI consulted the drag queen community for what they think either. They might not find it all fun and games.

    3. 11.3

      There are a variety of views on drag itself and whether it’s necessarily troublesome even when not connected in some way to trans people. I personally wouldn’t have taken issue with it in this case if it wasn’t linked to trans people, but others might, and it’s kind of an ongoing conversation that doesn’t have any clear resolution as of yet. All I would really say to someone who isn’t trans and hasn’t done drag before is that if you do choose to do drag for an event, just keep in mind that you may be entering a bit of a battlefield and there’s bound to be some controversy.

  11. 12

    Honestly i view this as over reacting. Yes what they did was wrong and enforces the notion that drag and being trans are the same but they clearly didn’t mean any harm and apologized twice. What more do you want? Just educate them why they were wrong and move on.

    1. 12.1

      As you can see though, from e.g. “clueless straight guy” in the comment above thanking Zinnia for the explanation… more explanation is needed.

      I’ve been trying very hard to attune myself to trans issues ever since Natalie started blogging for FtB, and yet I still benefited some from this explanation. Despite trying hard to educate myself, when I read the announcement as quoted by Zinnia above, my initial reaction was, “That doesn’t seem right, but it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why.” Zinnia explained it nicely. That’s worthwhile.

    2. 12.2

      What specifically do you feel is the over-reacting part? Because this post seemed pretty much level-headed to me, and the comments, while some people disagree, have been very polite and well-behaved (IMO).

      Or do you think it’s too much for a group that’s habitually marginalized and faces physical and emotional violence on a regular basis to look out for their own interests?

      Would you prefer that no one ever said “Guys, don’t do that?”

      1. Usually, in. this context, I find that ‘overreaction’ is code for “hurting the precious feefees of cisstraights”.

        I’m totally detached from any real life (and most online) LGBT spaces because they’ve become gradually overrun by “allies”. These people demand increasing amounts of time, attention and input, until LGBT members. are forced out, or ragesuit, because they’re fed up of being human gay or trans 101 resources.

        People join LGBT groups for support, help with issues that affect us, and a safe space to be ourselves. What we end up doing is spoonfeeding “allies”, listening to their views on OUR lives, and trying to explain why tacky events and cheesy attempts at “solidarity” are offensive and tasteless.

        I. seriously cannot deal with the appropriation, exotification, and creepy objectification of our lives, in what is supposed to be our space.

        1. I’m with James and clueless – I might have been able to reason to understanding but Zinnia’s posting was clear and easy to understand. It moved my understanding along and clarified some iffy points.

          As to the “will the cis-allies please bugger off you’re tiresome” point. I see that as a legit complaint and have made similar points in very different contexts.

          Do the comment threads in FTB count as LGBT communities where we (I don’t necessarily think of myself as a cis-ally but it’s the best category for me if you must put me somewhere) should tread carefully? Does it depend if it’s Zinnia’s blog or Natalie’s or elsewhere on FTB? It’s pretty clear that Greta Christina views her blog as atheist primarily and not LGBT space, per-se.

    3. 12.4

      You, ah, have a very different idea of what constitutes “overreaction” than I do. The comments here have been, if anything, pretty subdued.

  12. 15

    It is so unacceptable that I struggle to find a suitably analogous situation to compare it to.

    I’m not trans, so I can’t know how accurate this is, but when I heard about this the first thing I likened it to how I’d react if straight, female pornstars who make lesbian porn for straight men showed up at a gay pride parade representing themselves as the victims of homophobia.

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