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TransActive: Activism 101

| Feb 8, 2010
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christine_beatty“You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.” —  Ancient folk wisdom

“Profanity and obscenity entitle people who don’t want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you.” —  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Those of you who read last month’s TransActive may recall the tiny clique of angry transwomen who call themselves “Classic” or “real” transsexuals but whom I call the Transsexual Taliban. Their apparent mission is to very narrowly define the boundaries of “true” transsexual women and to divorce themselves from all self-identified transgender people, the transgender movement, the LGBT community and, especially, crossdressers. They want to be special, to distance themselves from everybody else, to try to win acceptance for their group. They have one enemy though worse than all of the others they would list: themselves. Or, more exactly, their anger and unreasonableness.

A badly delivered viewpoint can do far more to score points for the opposing view and even turn neutral observers away. These “Classic” transsexuals are their own very worst advocates, because the vitriol, name-calling and sheer obsession with their crusade helps defeat their very raison d’être. Thus, only those already predisposed to their point of view are likely to follow them for very long, and so, in the long run, they will fail. Theirs is a textbook example of how NOT to go about activism.

The tenets I’m about to offer go far beyond inter-community debates. In October of 2007 I participated in an online debate forum about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. One of the more prolific contributors, a gay man, stated near the end of the thread that his opinion had been swayed to the pro-transgender side of the debate. He said that what most changed his mind was the vitriol and illogical hatred evinced in the gay-only ENDA supporters. This underscores the traditional feminine logic that how something is said is at least as important as what is said. To this end I have prepared this primer on effective activism based on my nearly two decades of involvement on one level or another of TS/TG activism.

Take the High Road

In yet another online debate, one of the heavy posters, an anti-LGBT troll, went out of his way to antagonize others. When I saw what he was up to, I avoided his bait and stuck to debating the serious posters. My last post read, in part: “If you’re well-spoken, polite when called for and avoid being caught up in childish, unproductive name-calling, you win supporters and empathizers. Childish trolls, OTOH, end up helping convince the undecided to at least consider the kind of ridicule and contempt that we TGs face from haters like [the childish troll].”

Soon after, one of the other participants replied: “Personally I have learned a lot from you, [Christine]. And I totally agree with that last statement. I think you have won some people over.” Most people know little about us, so sometimes only one of us can make a positive impression (or a negative one) that, for good or ill, reflects on all of us. Some of the hatred we face is truly frustrating but getting personal is not going to stop the hatred and it may turn off those who are reachable. People generally respond to maturity, so if you can keep that element on your side of the argument then you’re more than halfway there to winning your point.

Keep a Cool Head

This goes hand in hand with taking the high road. She who can remain calm in a firestorm and stay in control of herself, makes a good impression. Sometimes it helps to back off, to allow yourself to cool down when someone gets personal or intentionally insulting. Nobody ever put out a fire by throwing gasoline on it. Keeping a cool head makes it easier to stay “on message” and to keep arguments rational.

Remember Whom You’re Arguing For

Quite often the person you’re trying to sway in a debate is not your opponent but your audience. Your opponent may be completely unreachable but your audience may not be. Debating, and activism in general, can be as much about PR as anything. In the great film Thank You For Smoking, tobacco lobbyist Nick teaches his ten-year-old son a debating technique to “prove” the opponent wrong. When his son says he isn’t convinced by the argument, Nick replies, pointing to the passersby,  “It’s that I’m not after you. I’m after them.” An activist’s job is to win as many hearts and minds as possible, which is much easier to do with a more neutral party.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

In another debate, one of the heterosexual posters kept asking the difference between gender role and identity even after I explained it. He stated “I’m trying to understand what this is, this gender identity thing, and I’m looking for a simple definition. I’m just saying there needs to be lots more education to happen before this can become law. . . The work of changing minds is yet to be done.” A bit later he posted about his wife’s recent ultrasound, “I found out yesterday I’m having a son. . .”

I immediately saw where I might help him relate to the real issue, which was not about understanding gender issues. I replied with “While there wasn’t ultrasound when my mom had me, she also assumed she had a son. She now loves and accepts me as her eldest daughter. What will you do if your child (congrats, BTW!) ends up like me? Will you say ‘I don’t understand why you are the way you are and until I do understand I cannot accept you or support equal rights for you’? Please consider that carefully.” He quit arguing against me after that.

Stay Constructive

In 1993 the American Psychiatric Association held its convention at Moscone Center in San Francisco. There was a large, organized protest by our community to protest the inclusion of transsexualism as a “mental illness” in the DSM. The event was covered by the San Francisco Chronicle. At the organized protest many of us got to state our side from a podium microphone. The press interviewed a few of us, and we were quoted the next day. We made a positive impression and by our behavior contributed to our argument that we are not mentally ill.

However, the night before our protest a few members of a group that called themselves “Transgender Nation” spraypainted “APA Go Home” and “TS out of DSM” on the concrete walls of Moscone Center. They were apprehended by SFPD and spent the night in jail. Which group do you think made the more positive impression and contributed to our argument that we are not mentally ill?

(BTW, the newspaper ran a picture of three of us and put my full name in the caption. Several guys looked me up in the phone book and asked for a date the next day. I was amused, but only a little.)

Don’t Make False Claims

If you’re going to cite facts, make sure you can back them up. Don’t make claims that are refutable or may be thrown back in your face. Every misstatement you make can be used to paint your entire message as inaccurate. For instance, I’ve heard more than one TS woman claim she is “legally female” because her doctor filled out a DMV form that got the “M” on her state-issued ID changed to an “F.” The fact is, if you still have a penis you are not legally female in any state, and in some states, like Texas and Kansas, not even a postop transsexual woman is considered legally female.

The same holds true about the likely/probable medical etiology of transsexualism and/or other gender issues. Do not state that studies “prove” anything because so far they don’t. “Proof” is a word that is held up to a high standard among scientists (and the legal system), and so far the BSTc neurological and other studies merely suggest a probable — and perhaps even likely — connection between morphology and gender identity.

Know What You’re Going to Say Before You Say It

Educate yourself about the issues so that you go into a debate equipped with irrefutable facts. Know your message and what you’re going to say ahead of time, especially your answers to points and questions that often arise. If you will be going into a debate situation, practice refuting the arguments and accusations so often leveled against us. It may also be helpful to assemble talking points that you’ve so drilled into your repertoire that even if you become momentarily rattled you can quickly return to your agenda.

If you want to be atop any argument, stay current on information and be able to cite studies an facts in the abstract. In my main YouTube video, “Average American Transsexual Girl,” I spend some time discussing the likely neurological cause. The video information section offers links to the scientific research that backs up my words. Dr. Lynn Conway’s website is probably one of the most up-to-the-minute clearinghouses for that kind of research, and you won’t find a more unimpeachable source.

Stay on Message

This could also be stated as Keep It Simple Sweetheart (KISS). Gender issues are complex, and many people can barely handle much more than sound bites. Even those who are capable of following along the complexities of our issues may not feel motivated to try to do so. This is why I suggest keeping the medical issue a relatively minor point in the ENDA debate. That poster who was having a son could more likely relate to a “what if it were my child” argument that a twenty minute lesson in Basic Transsexualism.

For those listeners who are motivated to learn more and dig deeper, by all means dig deeper with them, but always keep in mind that none of them will be as motivated to understand and be sympathetic to these issues than someone who must live with them. In addition, don’t allow the debate to be dragged off into misleading or minor tangents; focus on the steak instead of the peas.

A Final Word

If you know you’re going to be in a situation where you have an opportunity to educate a non-trans person, especially if you may find yourself an advocate for or representative of the community, remember that with so few of us in the public eye, yours may be the first impression of us that someone sees. Avoid generalizations, especially when relating your personal story. For instance, I make it a point to mention that, while sexwork and substance abuse played a part in my circumstances, neither issue must be inferred as commonplace among TS women, especially not in the last decade and a half.

Keeping these few tenets in mind may make all the difference in the world of winning hearts and minds somewhere in the future. While these points are valuable for real life interactions they are even more valuable when it comes to the printed word. When something is set down on paper (or computer disk) it’s pretty much forever, and it can be used against your cause forever. But if you remember to remain calm, reasonable, well-informed and empathetic, you too can be effective at winning over hearts and minds.

Christine Beatty is a transsexual author and journalist, a longtime activist and musician. Formerly from San Francisco, where she co-founded the rock group Glamazon in 1994, she now resides in Los Angeles. Her personal web page is at

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Category: Transgender Body & Soul, Transgender How To, Transgender Opinion


About the Author ()

Christine Beatty is a familiar name to TGForum readers. In 2010 she wrote the TransActive column here, and she was featured in the Perpetual Change column back in 2001 as part of the rock duo Glamazon. Along with her musical endeavors, she is also a TG activist, an author and a poet. She has recently published "Misery Loves Company" and has had articles appear in such publications as Chrysalis Quarterly, Transgender Tapestry, Spectator, and TransSisters.

Comments (2)

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  1. janet41 janet41 says:

    You’ve put it very succintly. Would I be able to curb my enthusiams when in a discussion. I usually try to use either “in my opinion” or “From a remote part of my mind, there is this bit of trivia whose soure is lost”.
    Congratulations on a well-written column.

  2. ronnierho ronnierho says:

    Good advice, for any debate situation.

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