First Approximations

Fantastic Leaf-tailed Gecko / Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko

I once saw a good friend of mine by chance in line at a restaurant.  He was facing away, but I know him well, and I was confident from his height, the color of his hair, the set of his shoulders, his clothing style, that it was him.  I walked over and was about to say, “Hey, Tom!  What are you doing here?” when he turned to look at something out the window and I saw that it was not my friend after all.  I’d had excellent reason to suppose that he was Tom, but once I had more evidence I knew better.

And I knew that the person had never been Tom.  He did not go from being Tom to being not-Tom.  He was never Tom.

When I was a child, my Grandpa sometimes let me help him in his wood shop.  On one occasion, he told me to get him a piece of white oak.  I went and got a piece.  It felt good, to be helping my Grandpa, and I loved the smell of the sawdust and the wood stains.  When I handed him the wood, he smiled and explained that I had brought him white pine.  I had remembered him describing some of the wood in his storage area as “white” something, and had made a mistake.  He showed me how light it was, and how he could mark it with his fingernail, and he explained that it rotted easily, while white oak was dense and much harder, and reluctant to rot.

And I understood, even as a child, that the piece of wood I had brought him had never been white oak.  It did not go from being white oak to being white pine.  It was white pine all along.

Where I grew up, there were lizards which we called “bluebelly lizards”.  On top, they were a rough mottled sandy color, but their bellies were a light shade of blue.  If you were quick enough, and the day was cold enough, you could catch them and then hold them upside-down and look at their bellies.  And if you did, sometimes they froze in place.  They pretended to be dead.  If you didn’t see them before they feared your proximity, you would not know that they were alive.  But if you let them go, they flipped over and ran away.  I later learned that they are not unique; many lizards play dead, as a survival strategy.  Though I didn’t understand it in these terms at the time, I now know that they’re just pretending to be dead because past evidence1 has shown them that their chance of survival is better if they seem dead than if they seem alive.  So they play dead, because they don’t want to actually die.

And I knew, even as a child, that they had never been dead.  They did not go from being dead to being alive.  They were alive the whole time.

There was no shame in any of these “mistakes.”  They were reasonable conclusions, based on imperfect knowledge, incomplete evidence.  They were first approximations.  They all turned out to be erroneous, but that’s in the nature of first approximations; if they were always right, we could call them final conclusions.

I once met a woman who looked like a man.  She apparently had a man’s body, under her man’s clothes.  She had what sounded like a man’s voice.  She had facial hair.  But after awhile she transitioned to live openly as herself.  Her transition was difficult and expensive and awkward, and it was probably difficult for people to understand why on earth she would go through all that.  But I understood. She was doing what she had to do to live whole.  I understood that she was a woman.

And I knew that she had never been a man.  She did not go from being a man to being a woman.  She was a woman the whole time.2


  1. in the aggregate result of millions of generations of evolution []
  2. “…from the standpoint of people who reject the gender they were assigned at birth, transition and its related activities can be seen as taking what has been inside and bringing it out into the world for others to experience. The brain is ordered, it is simply that the brain’s orderliness is obscured for others by the screen of our bodies. …transition isn’t changing so much as revealing.”
    —Diana Powe, retired police officer, trans woman []
  3. I am indebted to Barry Deutsch, who suggested many edits, and made this a much better piece than it would have been. []
Posted in Transsexual and Transgender related issues | 22 Comments  

I’ll be in Salt Lake City tonight and tomorrow

I’ll be in Salt Lake City for the Utah Humanities Book Festival tonight (Friday) and tomorrow. If you’re an “Alas” reader who’d like to have dinner with me tonight or breakfast on Saturday, please get in touch (via barry dot deutsch at gmail dot com ).

Posted in About the Bloggers | Leave a comment  

Violent Rape Threats Are An Infringement On Free Speech

Bellechere, a professional costumer and popular cosplayer, has posted that she won’t be attending New York Comic Con, despite having a pass.

A man who didn’t like me saying that I cosplay for myself, not for other people, threatened extreme physical violence against me if I went to NYCC. He even went so far as to brag about his SO being in the NYPD, so he’d ‘get away with it’. My local authorities shrugged and told me there was nothing they could do (even though I tracked down the man’s name and home address). The NYPD gave me a run-around on the phone that resulted in nothing but wasted time. ReedPop refused to answer any concerned emails I sent them. So, while I don’t want to back down and let a bully win, I’m not exactly wanting to be knocked out and raped (his threats) either.

In an update, Bellechere reports that ReedPop (the company that runs NYCC) finally got in touch with Bellechere after Bellchere’s post – apparently they are saying that her previous emails (sent through their online “contact us” form) were not received.

Re: FBI. Friends of mine (cosplayers who have had similar threats/stalker issues) who have tried to involve the FBI regarding online threats/harassment have had extremely little luck in being taken seriously. For one friend it took over a year to get a simple restraining order. I dealt with a lot of anxiety when this was happening, and I didn’t have the time or energy to be put through another fruitless run-around. Needless to say, I’m extremely jaded regarding the justice system.

~ That said, ‘justice’ dealt by the people (ex: ‘outing’ the man by releasing name and address) is something I’ve been dissuaded from. When I approached the authorities regarding this, they told me not to rally people against this person, or I could be charged with organized harassment.

[...]We live in a world where ‘she was asking for it’ is still used as an excuse to sexual assault when a woman is wearing tight/revealing clothing. You know that if something happened to me, while wearing one of my costumes, that’s exactly what people would say. The blame would be placed on me, for what I was wearing, rather than on the assailant.

I don’t know Bellechere, but what she’s gone through should make everyone in comics culture furious. I hate this shit, because it’s horrible that bullies win, because misogyny sucks, and also because as a comics professional I want the comics community to be so much better than this.

In the past, when I’ve gotten into arguments about threats like those against Bellechere, I’ve been told that they shouldn’t be subject to legal penalty because free speech. There is a reasonable concern about the possibility of government overreach, although that concern can be overstated.

But the most relevant free speech issue here is that Bellechere’s right to free speech. Somehow, people rarely seem as concerned about Bellechere’s free speech as they are about the free speech of the people making the threats. Bellechere has effectively lost her right to free speech when she’s chased away from public events by rape threats that our legal system refuses to address. Let’s begin protecting free speech by addressing Bellechere’s lost right to free speech.

That the FBI and the NYC Police apparently refuse to take rape threats against a woman delivered over the internet seriously is no surprise, but it is appalling, disgusting, and misogynistic as hell. They should be ashamed. ReedPop, who runs NYCC, should be ashamed, embarrassed, apologetic, and falling all over themselves to explain how they’re going to fix this so Bellechere can safely attend next year’s NYCC. (To their credit – and the credit of the feminist website The Mary Sue, which has been pushing NYCC on this issue – their website now sports a clear anti-harassment policy, and they’ve put up signs like this one at NYCC. But how vigorously they address the threats against Bellechere is one way we’ll know how seriously they’re taking their new policy.)

The comics community doesn’t have to belong to the sexual harassers and the dirtbags who make threats. It should belong to professionals who love comics and want it to be a place for all our fans, girls and women included. It should belong to fans, including fans like Bellechere, who show their love for the stories and characters by bringing their own creativity to cons. And it should belong to kids like my nieces Sydney (10) and Maddox (8), who love cosplaying at conventions and are big fans of well-known cosplayers like Bellechere. I hope they’ll continue being fans and cosplayers as they get older – and I damn sure hope that they never get threatened the way Bellechere’s been threatened.

The US already has laws against “true threats” which make it a felony to make a threat of violence that a reasonable person could take seriously. But our legal system refuses to take “true threats” delivered via the internet seriously. That must change. The person who threatened Bellechere should be arrested, should be enjoined with threat of prison from ever again contacting Bellechere or being within 500 feet of her, and very possibly should spend time in prison (or perhaps a halfway house or some form of mandated therapy). Until that can happen, Bellechere and others who are threatened will not have full access to their free speech. And that is the most pressing free speech issue here.

* * *

Some recommended reading regarding misogynistic threats on the internet:

Trouble at the Koolaid Point — Serious Pony (Very long but worth reading). (If you’re not familiar with the context for this one, you can read the author’s – Kathy Sierra’s – Wikipedia entry.)

The Next Civil Rights Issue: Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet – Pacific Standard: The Science of Society

Let’s Be Real: Online Harassment Isn’t ‘Virtual’ For Women

When Misogynist Trolls Make Journalism Miserable for Women – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Feminism, sexism, etc, Free speech, censorship, copyright law, etc., Rape, intimate violence, & related issues | 24 Comments  

Cartoon: Affirmative Consent Explained


The cartoon shows two young men chatting. The man on the left is Asian and punky – he has his hair shaved into a mohawk, a nose ring and an earlobe plug, and tattoos. The man on the right is probably white and has a van dyke beard and a shaved head, and is wearing a black vest over a turtleneck shirt. There are six panels.

Panel 1
BEARDY: In the old days, rape was when a thug jumped out of bushes, not this “date rape” and “affirmative consent” nonsense!

Panel 2
BEARDY: If we define “rape” so broadly, how can I know I’m not “raping” a girl I’m hooking up with?

Panel 3
PUNKY: It’s really not hard! If she acts like she wants sex, by yanking your pants down or saying “fuck me now” – if she’s going for it just as much as you are – then you’re golden!

Panel 4
PUNKY: But if she’s so drunk that she can’t walk straight or talk clearly, then she might be too drunk to know what’s going on, so don’t fuck her. Or him, for that matter.

Panel 5
PUNKY: And if she passively “gives in” to sex, check that things are cool before going any further. Why is that so hard?
BEARDY: Because!

Panel 6
PUNKY: Because what?
BEARDY: Because then I might not get to fuck her!

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Rape, intimate violence, & related issues | 56 Comments  

Supreme Court Refuses To Hear Any Gay Marriage Appeals – In Effect, A Big Victory For Equality


From ScotusBlog:

With not a single dependable hint of its own constitutional view of same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court in one fell swoop on Monday cleared the way for gays and lesbians to wed in a batch of new states — starting first in five more states, and probably adding six more in the coming weeks. If that happens in all eleven, it will mean that same-sex marriages would then be legal in thirty states and Washington, D.C.

In seven one-line orders, released without explanation and with no report on how any Justice voted, the Court surprisingly refused to review any same-sex marriage case now before it and, in the process, prepared to lift a series of orders that had delayed such marriages while the issue remained in the Court. Almost no one had expected that to happen.

It may take a few weeks for the Court’s action to take effect in real-world terms, in the geographic areas where federal appeals courts have struck down bans in five states — the decisions that the Justices have now left intact. Because those appeals court rulings are binding on all federal courts in their regions, those decisions almost certainly dictate the outcome in six more states.

According to Huffpo, this will mean that about 60% of Americans will live in states with legal marriage equality.

So what happens next? Well, it’s probable that one of the right-wing leaning circuit courts (the Sixth or Fifth circuits seem likely) will issue a decision saying that state bans on marriage equality are Constitutional. This will create a split in the circuit courts, all but forcing the Supreme Court to decide the issue next term. But before that happens, more decision in other circuit courts could bring the total to 35 or more states, making it even harder to imagine any route to victory for anti-SSM folks.

Posted in Same-Sex Marriage, Supreme Court Issues | 3 Comments  

I’d rather vote for a Democratic slimeball than a Republican saint


(Fortunately for my preference, Democratic slimeballs don’t seem to be in short supply.)

In the comments at Ethics Alarms, “Michael R” writes:

How to tell if you are infected [with "partyism"]: if there is an election where the candidate for your party is known to be incompetent, corrupt, or a bigot but you vote for them anyway because you “can’t let …. have more seats in the ….”. I know a lot of people who refused to vote for someone in one local election that they admitted was intelligent, hardworking, and dedicated to bettering their community. They refused to vote for him because of his party, instead voting for someone that they admitted had none of the attributes above. The same people voted for someone with felony fraud convictions rather than his opponent, a man who only ran because he felt someone needed to run in opposition to said ex-felon.

Jack agreed, saying that he’d rather have a non-slimeball regardless of party affiliation.

I don’t agree. Michael appears to be talking about a member of the legislature (“you can’t let… have more seats”). When it comes to members of Congress, what’s important is how they’re going to vote, and which party they’ll caucus with. When it comes to Congress, I’d rather vote for a drunk puppy-kicking sidewalk spitter than vote for the nicest, most moral Republican on Earth.

Because when Republicans are in power, they do things like defund the UN Population Fund, leading to tens of thousands of women in the developing world dying for lack of good maternity care, and thousands more suffering needlessly from treatable fistula. Democrats reverse this.

The UNFPA is one example, but it’s not the only example. From food stamps, to climate change, to health care, the policies supported by the Democrats (as lousy as they often are) will kill fewer people than the policies supported by the Republicans. Even if you don’t believe that, at least believe that I believe that.

All else being equal, I’d rather have a good person who is a Republican in office than a Democratic slimeball. But all else is NOT equal. In the legislature, a good person with bad polices does infinitely more harm than a bad person with good policies. Votes based on “character” are, in my view, self-indulgent and unethical; it is voting to make the voter feel good, rather than voting to do the most good. Especially when it comes to Congress, the only ethical vote is a vote based on policy.

Posted in Elections and politics | 15 Comments  

Reza Aslan Makes a Lot of Sense Defending Islam. The CNN Anchors Sound Like Islamaphobic Bigots.

Author’s note: I’ve edited the title of this post to reflect more accurately the point I wanted to make.

Reza Aslan is responding here to this rant by Bill Maher:

It’s important to point out that Maher is right: Muslims who engage in offensive practices—whether they are individuals, governments, or groups like ISIS—should not get a pass just because they are Muslim and people are afraid to criticize them for fear of being called racist. Nonetheless, Maher’s critique of Islam is narrow and bigoted in exactly the way Aslan describes. And, frankly, the CNN news anchors are not much different.

Posted in Religion | 53 Comments  

What Do You Do When Your Student Tells You Her Father Threatened Her Life? 2

In my last post, I told you about a former student who came to my office distraught because her father had threatened her life. It’s now more than two weeks since I walked her over to the counseling center on my campus, and I hope the fact that she has not contacted me since then means that she is somewhere safe, where she can start to figure out how to live the rest of her life. What struck me most about this student’s situation, I said, was less her father’s threat, which was of course bad enough, than the network of men he was able to enlist, or simply count on, to help him keep his daughter in line. Those men, I went on, made me think of these lines from Sa’di’s Golestan:

To please the king who eats a sin­gle apple
from a subject’s gar­den, his slaves will pull
the tree up whole to plant in the palace yard;
and if he lets five eggs be taken by force,
his army will put to the spit a thou­sand birds.

“There’s always someone willing to ride the coattails of someone else’s power and authority,” I wrote, but what makes these lines particularly powerful for me is the story that gives them their full context. Here it is:

The hunting party had stopped to eat, but there was no salt to season the meat they were roasting for [King] Nushirvan, and no one wanted to serve him an improperly seasoned meal. So they sent one of the boys who was with them to get some salt from a nearby village. Before the boy left, however, Nushirvan told him, “Make sure you pay for what you take. Otherwise, the village will be ruined.” Surprised and more than a little incredulous, those who were standing nearby asked how such a simple thing as bringing some salt to the king could have such profound consequences. Nushirvan replied, “When the world began, oppression was a small hut that few people entered, but as more and more people chose to go inside, they built it up, and look how high it reaches now.”

To please the king who eats a single apple
from a subject’s garden, his slaves will pull
the tree up whole to plant in the palace yard;
and if he lets five eggs be taken by force,
his army will put to the spit a thousand birds.

As the king, Nushirvan was very aware that he could have ordered the boy to take the salt without paying for it, and he understood well the dire consequences such privilege could have for those he ruled, if he allowed it to be taken to its logical conclusion. By telling the boy to pay, Nushirvan was taking responsibility for that privilege. What interests me is whether the boy would have paid for the salt even if Nushirvan had said nothing. If not, he would have turned the king’s privilege into an admittedly minor but nonetheless naked display of power. More to the point, by refusing in the name of the king to pay for that salt, the boy would have been claiming some of that power for himself, and he would have been doing so by choice. In other words, he would have done so knowing full well he could’ve done otherwise.

The men who spied on my student for her father, whether he asked them to or not, were in the same position as that boy was before Nushirvan told him to make sure he paid. They knew full well that they could have chosen not to inform on her, but they did so anyway. Similarly, in the wake of the recent nude-celebrity-photo hacking scandal, we were all in that position. Every single person who looked at those photos, tweeted about them, linked to them, posted them on Reddit, or otherwise treated them as anything other than the stolen private property they were, could have chosen to do otherwise, but didn’t. On the other hand, those of us who didn’t chose not to enforce an idea about women’s place in society that is, in its essence, no different from the one my student’s father was enforcing when he beat her for being (in his estimation) inappropriately alone with a young male acquaintance.

I have no doubt that few of the people who looked at those pictures would openly declare themselves that father’s ally. Nonetheles, just like he valued his idea of family, and particularly women’s honor more than the flesh-and-blood woman his daughter is, the people who looked at those pictures chose their salacious value, and the power they could feel in viewing them, over the human value of the flesh-and-blood people whose pictures they were. Neither of which is very much different from the dynamic Sa’di describes, in which people who work for the king value the slice of the king’s power that they are licensed to exercise more than the humanity, to use the examples in Sa’di’s verse, of the people whose trees they are uprooting or whose chickens they are stealing.

Pick your cause. Whether it’s in the context of racism or environmentalism, militarism or poverty, sexism (including heterosexism), transphobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, unionism, or antisemitism, we all face this kind of choice every day, in ways both big and small. Do we value the human beings whose lives are materially at stake or do we value the power that creates the imbalance that turns these issues into causes in the first place? No one makes the right choice all the time. I certainly don’t, but understanding that the choice is, first and always, mine to make has made my life a lot more meaningful.


Posted in Feminism, sexism, etc, Iran, Rape, intimate violence, & related issues | Comments Off  

Embarrassments – Trans People and Surgery

Not too long ago, I went through a series of surgeries involving intercontinental travel to an unfamiliar country, general anaesthesia, significant trauma, and extended recovery time, including the usual post-anaesthesia depression. I was out of work for over a month. At work, I let it be known that the purpose of my absence was surgeries, but I did not specify what they were, or give any other details. A small number of my coworkers have not acted well toward me since the start of my transition, passing misinformation amongst themselves, a process which later bit me in the rear. I did not want to fuel that dynamic.

I am blessed with a tight and supportive family, and with many superbly good friends whom I have accumulated over the years. Most of them reached out with supportive messages. Some rendered assistance with travel and out-of-the-blue expenses.

None of my co-workers contacted me. 1

During my time out of the country, while I was in early convalescence, I corresponded with friends, one of whom was another trans woman, older and wiser than I, who transitioned a couple of decades ago. I mentioned at one point that I felt down that none of my co-workers had contacted me. Her response, paraphrased: “You expected them to? Kids these days. We’re an embarrassment, hon. That’s why we stick together and help each other out. No one else is going to do it. Support from your co-workers? As if.” She told me a story about another woman she met when she, herself, was recovering from similar surgeries, a trans woman who had scrimped and saved and travelled alone to a city she didn’t know to go under the knife of a doctor she had met maybe once before, a woman who planned to recover alone, doling out her pain medications alone, mashing up her food alone so that she could slip it past her healing gums and nourish her healing body, getting up to do her clot-preventing walks down the hall of her rented single-room apartment alone, working through the post-anaesthesia depression and despair and “what have I done?” alone.

Except that it turned out that she wasn’t alone, because my friend was there, then, and afterward, for months, when the daily e-mails my friend sent were the only communications this woman received from another human being.

It was a familiar story. Almost every trans woman I know who has had significant surgery has a friend she met in the hospital, a friend whom she still touches base with regularly.

What are the ODDS?

Pretty good, actually, that you’re going to form bonds like that when you find that there there is one other person who understands, who knows, and you find that there are no other bonds, when you discover that no one in your life can find it in themselves to send you an e-mail to say that they hope you’re okay.

I’m more fortunate than most. I have my entire family, and all of my close friends. So I didn’t need a hospital friend like that, which turned out to be a good thing, since I ended up not sharing a recovery room with anyone.

Sometimes I wonder: what about the people like me who didn’t meet anyone in the hospital, but who, unlike me, had no one else? We don’t hear about them. Partly, obviously, because they don’t have a friend to tell the story about how they met in the surgery suite. But I suspect that a lot of them die in the post-anaesthesia depression, which can rear up and bite you weeks after the actual surgery, long after you’ve flown home and the surgeon is busy with other patients and chalks you up as a success. Some probably kill themselves deliberately, having made it that far but having hit their limit. Some probably just… fade. It would be easy. Just get home, collapse behind your front door, and … don’t follow the post-surgical instructions well.

My friend is right. We are an embarrassment. People don’t know what to do with us, even sometimes people who would seem to be close to us, and so rather than risk the wrong thing, they do nothing. At the same time, she’s wrong. Times are changing. People still screw up a lot toward trans people, but there has never been a better time in modern Western society to be trans; the general population is learning. And, theoretically, police organizations are supposed to be tight and self-supportive, a result which flows from the simple fact that we get critiqued, constantly, from all sides, and so we look to each other for understanding. In theory, this is particularly true of tactical teams, which tend to be very tight.

And, despite my professional calling, I’m an optimist. I want to be able to say, “Yes, people did the right thing. On their own.”

But, of course, in order to be able to say that truthfully, you have to make room for it to be true, which means that you also have to give people the opportunity to demonstrate that it’s false.

For my tiny corner of the world, my optimism turned out to be misplaced. My friend was right. Even though my transition in police work was wildly successful when measured against most previous such transitions… it turns out that I’m an embarrassment. 2

I have another friend, a teenager (call her Teena). We met her when her mother read about my transition in social media and reached out, saying, “Can I talk to you? My kid is trans, and I need information and advice.” Teena is already socially transitioned and needs to access medical care, but her family is overextended handling other, unrelated, emergencies. I offered to help Teena get access to the puberty-blockers she so badly needs, and the therapy which is probably useful in itself and definitely required to access cross-hormone therapy eventually. Her mother accepted. I met with Teena to find out exactly what she wanted to do. She told me. I digested, and then suggested a plan of action. She agreed to it. At the end, she hugged me and said, “Thank you.”

“You bet, hon,” I said. “We have to watch out for each other. No one else is going to. We’re an embarrassment.”

She smiled, safe in a moment of support. Sixteen years old with her body going wrong on her and inexpensive treatment extant which she had not been able to access. There was not a trace of surprise on her face. “Yeah,” she said. “We are.”


[edited to correct a generalization]

  1. Contact methods available to all of my co-workers included work email, personal email, texting, cell phone, home phone, Google Voice mail which gets transcribed to my e-mail address, and of course, a letter to my home address. This was not a problem of access. In the end, technically, one did contact me, though not one I am close with. He sent me a single text, which I did not receive until I landed again in the US, and 99% of the expense, travel, recovery and general terror were done. []
  2. With that one belated exception. []
Posted in Transsexual and Transgender related issues | Comments Off  

Steve Salaida’s Controversial Tweets About Anti-Semitism, With Context

Posted in Anti-Semitism, Free speech, censorship, copyright law, etc. | Comments Off