Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Her Goal: Ending 'Trans' Bias at Work

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | April 04, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Best Buy, Vanessa Sheridan

Last week the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a piece on the work of Vanessa Sheridan, a consultant who provides diversity training for companies on transgender diversity issues.

I've read Ms. Sheridan's book, The Complete Guide to Transgender in the Workplace, and enjoyed it. I'm glad to see that this issue is getting notice in the Heartland. Of course, the placement of the word trans in quotes set my teeth on edge, because it is, in other contexts, a signal that trans identities are unreal and bracketed. The Star-Tribune panegyric obviously didn't intend this, but it is emblematic of the many ways in which well-meaning people can stumble in the area of cultural competence.

Vanessa Sheridan of Apple Valley is a consultant with clients that include Best Buy and HSBC Financial. She is a conservative dresser, an articulate professional and a churchgoing Christian.

She is also a transgender woman. Some folks might find this unusual, but Sheridan does not.

"I'm a normal person with a different gender identity," she said. "You can be happy and well adjusted and transgender. The trouble with the way we're portrayed in the media is that we're either prostitutes or punch lines."

Of course, some of you Projectors are going to balk at the "I'm normal" message, seeing in it a heteronormative plot to destroy the queer agenda. But if you want to succeed in corporate America, you need to tell them what they want to hear. Is there anything wrong with the message "I'm normal"?

I see a big divide in the LGBT advocacy community. Some want to advance the "I'm normal" message in order to provide greater appeal to those who value normality. Others want to make it okay to be different, without having to be "normal" in every way but one.

"Normal" would cut a lot of us out who don't adhere to the heteronormative. If you have an open relationship, you're not "normal" (despite the stats showing that 25%-50% of married people have had affairs). If you don't "pass" well under the heteronormative standards of masculinity and femininity, you're not "normal." If you're a single parent, you're not "normal."

I am glad that Ms. Sheridan is out there working on the culture of transphobia. We need more of that. I'm not sure about the "I'm normal" message. I think I would rather make the point that we're all different and that differences should be accepted and valued. And perhaps what the "I'm normal" message is saying is that "normal" should be expanded to include differences, like gender identity differences? I also recognize that reporters often take the message that resonates most with them and make it the central part of a piece, leaving out or unintentionally distorting certain points. That could easily have happened here.

I'm wondering what you think about the "I'm normal" vs. "Different is good" messages. Can these co-exist, or are they mutually exclusive? Is the first giving in to corporatist and heteronormative values, or is it doing the work of expanding the definition of "normality"?


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EscherEnigma | April 4, 2011 4:05 PM

I don't see "I'm normal" vs. "different is good" as being opposed, just taking a wider appreciation of what "normal" is. Fact is, very few people are "normal" under the "mommy, daddy, 2.5 children, golden retriever, white picket fence" ideal. "Normal" is a lot more diverse then we take it for.

So I don't think saying "I'm normal" has to be in conflict with "different is good", it's just acknowledging that the reality of normal is a lot more diverse then what we think it is, and that's normal too.

A Minnesotan friend of mine showed me this article last night. I had a few issues with the messaging (and it's hard to know what to attribute to Ms. Sheridan in some cases) but after some consideration, I let the "normalcy" thing slide. Her narrative isn't "normal", even within our community, and I think it can sustain a little reinforcement along those lines because it stretches cisnormative boundaries in other ways...ways I think most people would consider pretty radical.

"Her first challenge is often getting her audience to understand what transgender does and does not mean." Really? As it goes in the song by OutKast . . . "really, really, really"???

Normal? Give me a break! I'll ask kindly but pulleeeze, give me a break.


"a big divide in the LGBT advocacy community" ??? another dichotomy?, false, in my opinion. Life ain't that simple. Best Buy?, Life should be like just another episode of Chuck. I see. I wonder how soon it will be before people are screened so these companies can be sure their prospective hirees are taking their SSRI's and adult ADD medications. An outlier by another name is an outlier. Some of us had sex changes. We don't divide out into neatly organized pro and con factions.

Edith, I'm not sure what you're saying. You ask a lot of questions, and I got lost. Maybe I have too much on my plate. :)

It's kind of like subversive normativity?

I am not really trying to make sense. I just turned sixty. I am not transgressive. That much I will tell you. It's just that I go crazy when I see the word normal. I finished up Catholic school in 1969 and went to Woodstock. Then when I went to college they shut it down for spring semester. They shut almost all of them down that spring. I haven't been the same since. As Martha Stewart would say, "that's a good thing."

Things have been like this for as long as I can remember, except my parents always made sure I had my hair cut much shorter:

http://splitedit.wordpress.com/2010/04/29/mia-hates-gingers/

I try to be responsible, kind, loving and caring. Normal is completely off the table, however. I think people should just be allowed to be. I don't think you should be required to make sense. What makes sense about this world?

Johnny K. | April 4, 2011 7:43 PM

"Normal" does carry some baggage with it, and perhaps "regular" might have been a more neutral term, but not enough of an issue to get worked up over; it conveys the idea of being "not 'other'."

You mean "regular" as in "reg'lar folk"? Your formulation of "non-other" is quite interesting from a linguistic point of view. It's like referring to Americans as "non-aliens," Christians as "non-pagans" or heterosexuals as "non-gays." Then, of course, one could say "I am a non-othered person." Would that be the same as stealth? Ow, my head.

Thats actually an issue where I work at. during our last workplace transition people did ask "Are they normal?". Many companies worry that someone may not be 'normal' and violent or deranged. Remember, the majority of the population doesn't see Trans people as normal to start with, getting them to listen with the message "Yes this is 'normal' for a trans person and you may or will see this, this and this in days to come" helps those who've never encountered a trans person to be more comfortable with that person and a transition in the workplace if one is going on.

Gina, it sounds like when you say "normal," you (or they) are referring to "normal" as an antonym for "mentally ill." I suppose advocates for the mentally ill might have something to say about that.

Everyone has something to say...
'Normal' has many purmutations and meanings. Kind of like 'gifted' and like 'gifted' some are positive and some are negative.

To cut to the chase, what is 'normal' normally? See? Far more questions than answers and the answers can be tangents leading no where and every path has someone saying that its the wrong path to start with.

I know that biologically I'm 'abnormal'.
Mentally I'm 'normal' but the shrinks all say I shouldn't be and that me being 'normal' is 'abnormal'. (yeah, that ones a mind twister)
Financially I'm 'middle of the road' which is normal but my career is with a company and my position is such that while for my coworkers (who all have masters degrees) it is 'normal' once again I'm abnormal (because I only have my degree of hard knocks from the military and its pure experiance) because I came in thru the military and wealth of experiance.
So, for some things I'm 'normal', and some 'other than normal' and a few even 'abnormal' but no where is there a defining definition of 'normal'.

Considering that everyone I know who insists that they are 'normal' have the weirdest habits...
Who's Norm and Al?

Regardless of who you are and what labels can be slapped on you (or not), if you choose to say "I'm normal," then the definition of normal should include you. If you choose to be subversive, you should be subversive. I don't see that one label: gay, straight, trans, cis. . .any of those should suddenly drop you into the category of "abnormal" or "subversive." And I think that the argument that gay people seeking marriage rights makes them lesser because they choose to live lives similar to those of straight people is nonsense. Just because some people choose to "fit in" doesn't make them less straight, gay, bi, trans, whatever. And it doesn't make you any the less either. People should have the choice to define themselves in any way they find appropriate.

Maybe I could clarify a bit more what I consider to be the dangers of subscribing to notions of "normalcy". There are clinicians who consider "binary gender rigidity" to "stand(s) at the core of trans-gender states":

http://gaq.sagepub.com/content/43/2/141.abstract

He is to speak at this conference on the same program as Julie Bindel:

http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/pdf/TRANSGENDETimetoChangeprogramme20511new.pdf

which is going to be hosted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in May.

Here is his website:

http://www.drazhakeem.com/publications.htm

He is the author of 'Transsexualism: A Case of the Emperor's New Clothes?'

Think about how this person, who is a forensic psychiatrist working at the Portman Clinic, has contorted the idea of being normal into a pathology -- "The author’s hypothesis that binary gender rigidity stands at the core of trans-gender states."

Being transsexual or intersex, by their definitions, are not normal. It is o k not to be normal. Being gay or lesbian may be more normal but it really isn't, either, not relatively speaking. Then there is race and culture where "normal" is entirely relative. Normal is a very dangerous concept. I'll finish by saying queer, when it is not a matter of choice, is not the same thing as subscribing to "queer theory", which uses a lot of the same reasoning that is used to pathologize people who are queer by virtue of their mere existence. "Transgedender states" are abstractions. Nobody has to lecture me about what "transgender does and doesn't mean." I know it should be dissociated with transsexualism for all the harm it causes. I like my body. I have to finish my life out with it. There really isn't that much about it that is queer until someone starts analyzing. It isn't normal, however, but what the heck is wrong with that?

Johnny K. | April 4, 2011 9:00 PM

Edith,

You and Jillian are debating the term "normal" in an abstract, clinical sense. My point was that Ms. Sheridan means the word (generally) as an antonym for "strange, unusual"; so, I see your concern as valid, but not necessarily applicable here specifically.

Moreover, she's uses "normal" to describe herself personally; it's unclear that she uses the term professionally with regard to gender identity?

Johnny

No, I don't think what I am debating is the term normal in the clinical sense. I consider transsexualism simply a naturally occurring variation that can be very difficult to deal with because no one really prepares anyone for that eventuality. That is because transsexualism is unusual. In that sense it isn't normal. That is part of what I am saying but I am worried about a lot more than that.

Most often, when I think of normal, and particularly in the context it is used here, it implies conformity. Websters' first definition of normal is ": perpendicular; especially : perpendicular to a tangent at a point of tangency" - as in square, as in "being a square", as in "being part of the straight world", "the corporate cookie cutter world". Before the era of gay activism the word straight and the expression "not straight" had a more encompassing meaning than it does today. In my opinion there is way too much of a mindset that rushes blindly toward conformity in a straight undifferentiated world at the expense of individuality and, inevitably, creativity. It isn't something that has to do with race, gender, sexual orientation, but it has a lot to do with personal expression and freedom.

My reference to SSRI's and adult ADD medications sounds off the wall but with the acceptance of drug testing in the corporate marketplace there is now blind acceptance that a corporation has a right to extract fluids or take hair samples from your body to determine your fitness for employment. It is possible to determine genetic predisposition to certain conditions from hair samples.

The biggest push for drug testing comes from insurance companies that are convinced by their actuaries they will reduce risk and increase profitability by encouraging companies to take advantage of a prospective employees eagerness to accept what I consider a violation of a person's boundaries. Where will the intrusiveness end? How soon will it be before big corporations yield to health insurance companies insisting on minimizing risk by screening employees for their genetic predisposition to disease? What about enhancing workplace performance? What about performance enhancing drugs that help keep a person focused? What are people being prepared to accept in terms of screening?

Now, I suppose it seems I've gone off on a long ridiculous tangent. I don't necessarily see conformity as a bad thing but I think a blind rush to conform is at the root of many societal problems which evolve from huge institutional enterprises that end up completely out of control. I don't think the pressure to conform and be accepted in the corporate world is a good position to bargain from but it becomes the only one when people uniformly become consumed with being seen as normal in order to find acceptance.

I see modern civil rights movements as having grown out of various eras of rigid conformity, the fall of fascism after WWII and McCarthyism leading to the breakthroughs of the sixties. It seems to me it is the nonconformists who are not nonconformists for the sake of nonconformity but who simply can't conform for one reason or another who bring about change by questioning widely accepted norms.

My guess is that Hakeem is saying that when you ask transgender people why they want to transition, they say that they have a belief that gender exists and that theirs is incorrectly assigned. In response, he says, no, you are delusional because there is no such thing as gender because it's all a performance, and there is nothing to change, get over it, and let me put these electrodes on your head. How very Janice Raymond of you. Does Judith Butler, whom he quotes, support this bull? And by the way, what's with that Svengali-like pic on his website? I imagine him to be quite suavely dangerous.

I've always wondered how Butler in person would respond to these assertions. She is sort of the originator/primary advocate for the performance theory of gender performance, and the way Hakeem references her is consistent with the way I usually see her referenced (especially in feminist circles). It's also consistent of my (admittedly limited) reading of her work (to be clear, I disagree vehemently with gender performance theory).

"I imagine him to be quite suavely dangerous."

My thoughts, exactly. He is suave looking, very debonair. Those piercing eyes, very attractive. He'd be hard to say no to. Seems to have missed his calling. Should be playing saxophone in some posh London club, I think. Looks like a promo pic from Ronnie Scott's.

As a lobbyist and advocate, I tried to appear as professional as I could. If this is selling out, then I am a sell-out

Jill Davidson | April 5, 2011 1:49 AM

Does "normal" just mean "acceptably diverse"? (as opposed to the other kind?).

I think people think of "normal" in at least three senses, and it makes me nervous because of all its meanings.

One is statistical - how much diversity is there among people? Trans is normal because people are trans, and this is what trans people looks like.

Another meaning is the sense of functional or dysfunctional - Is this person capable of love and work? (Freud's sense of healthy).

And then there is the sense of someone who will follow rules, routines, customs. Is this person safe around me? Can I get along with them? Will they do their share of work?

In my transition, I have never wanted anyone talking about me in the abstract. The only people who find out are the people who knew me before and work with me now, and the people who meet me as Jill. They know me first, before they know transgender in the abstract (unless they know other trans people, and they often do). I'm not trying to revolutionize their world. But I'll be happy if they feel like they know a person who happens to be trans, and realize she happens to be many other things, she does good work, and is pleasant to be around.

The story "The ballad of Beta-2" by Samuel Delaney, is an interesting story on "normal" and how people react to differences to the "norm".

But that is what scifi is good at, self examination. There is little in the way of advancement without deviations from the norm, but most society hates deviation from the norm.

Why can't being different be normal?

I have never been normal, don't even know what normal is.
I am however, relatively typical.

I'm with Bil, in that my own answer to this constructed dichotomy is to elect for a different route altogether, following the wisdom of one of my favorite neo-realist philosophers, Popeye: "I am what I am."

Some will define normal in terms of interests or tastes or beliefs held in common; they must also inevitably come to grips with the fact that I am not like them, and that's OK. Being completely out might seem to shatter any notion of "normal," but perhaps by also cleaving to a few things we hold in common, you can build a few bridges across absolute differences.

IMHO, there's the big alternative to "I'm normal" and "I'm different," and that's "meh." There are people who are passively "meh," which is most of us, and there are more strident "meh"ers who argue that we don't have to follow any rules but don't expressly say we have to try to be different in a certain way.

The normal stance is a lot of work for some people. Just ask the "straight acting" crowd.

Rather than me commenting on "Dr" Hakeem's views, his screed "Transsexualism: A Case of the Emperor's New Clothes?'", Chapter 10 of 'Lectures on Violence Perversion and Delinquency' (Karnac Books 2006) is at http://books.google.com/books?id=FZBDGrF6aMMC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA179#v=onepage&q&f=false

"The Portman Clinic has been applying a psychoanalytic framework to the understanding and treatment of violent, perverse, criminal and delinquent patients since its foundations in the early 1930s. All Portman Clinic patients have crossed the boundary from fantasy and impulse to action – action that defies legal and moral boundaries but that also breaches the body boundary of the victims. Ultimately, the violence underlying most of such violent, perverse and delinquent action also attacks and disturbs the mind of both the victim, be that an individual or society and that of the perpetrator. In this volume, contemporary staff describe their thinking and clinical work. Theoretical underpinnings for the understanding of perversion and violence, questions of risk and ethics and the institutional difficulties which emerge during the care of these patients are presented alongside chapters on clinical work with adults and adolescents, including chapters on pedophilia, the compulsive use of internet pornography and transsexuality. "

He sees Trans rights as being fundamentally incompatible with Gay rights.