Panic! in the Locker Room: On Fighting for Trans* Youth with Words as Weapons

“You are a verbal terrorist, and a coward. A verbal terrorist because you will do the most hurtful thing you are capable of doing, with the intent of hurting or threatening to hurt those who don’t agree with your ideals. That is what a terrorist does. The difference is, you cant bomb a building, so you use your keyboard. A coward because rather than stand up and face the ramifications of your ideals, you chose to fling out hate-speeches riddled with profanity, knowing that you have no accountability whatsoever.

I am ashamed of you.”

The irony is that I was supposed to be taking a break from writing. April and May had been two months of research, writing, deadlines, and apartment-searching, all while working about 55 hours a week. I was looking forward to taking a few evenings to drink beer and catch up on Doctor Who. If Morgan Freeman was narrating this, right now he’d say “But Fate had other plans,” in that tone that is both amused and foreboding.

I’ve been a freelance writer for almost three years. I’ve written plenty of stuff for no pay or no byline, just to build my resume. My stint at one particular publication — let’s call it Whatever Mag — was like that. It was a political commentary site, and I wrote a few pieces before abandoning them for paying work, but I remained on their contributors’ email list.

I mostly ignored the emails, as anyone with an overflowing inbox does. But this subject line caught my eye: Boys in the girls locker room, legally? WTF?!

Maybe now is a good time to mention that I identify and visibly present as genderqueer. In my day-to-day life, I experience curiosity, harassment, occasional verbal abuse, and a lot of invasive questions. My sister and I have joked about making t-shirts that say “MY GENDER = not actually your business.” On the back, we’d print “Owing you an explanation since approximately never.”

Despite the quiet, sane voice in my head telling me to delete the email and move on, I opened it. The body of the email said, “Left, right, or independent, this is an absurd topic. Please, PLEASE someone (preferable someone from all parties) submit an editorial on this proposed lunacy.” The editor of Whatever Mag then linked to a proposed bill in California, AB-1266, which would amend the California Education Code like so:

A pupil shall be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.

In other words: trans* students would be able to use the bathrooms, locker rooms, and join the sex-segregated sports teams that fit their identity, rather than being forced into ones that fit the F or M on their birth certificate, or being made to use an entirely different space.

Lunacy. Absurdity. The litany of fuck this, fuck transphobia, fuck everything began to crank and lurch in my head. I started writing one of my trademarked Why U Gotta Be So Bigoted emails, but five sentences in, I stopped. It occurred to me that this was an open call for editorials. I emailed the editor and told him I’d love to write a piece on the bill. A few minutes later (bless the quick turnaround of the internet), he replied enthusiastically. I cackled evilly for a while, cracked a beer, queued up a playlist of The Gossip and Pansy Division, and started to write.


 

What exactly defines certain actions as trolling? Is it acting with the goal of causing reaction? Is it the dirty-fighting nature of it, hitting below some metaphorical belt line? Is it the profanity, the intent to offend, to cause rage?

If so, I trolled the hell out of this guy.

My editorial talked about the bill and the reasons that its proponents were fighting for it–the harassment that trans* kids face in school, the high incidence of assaults and bullyging, the fact that they’re more likely to skip classes or school, the high rates of suicide and depression. I listed statistics from Injustice At Every Turn and Harsh Realities, and the 21 names of trans* people who had been murdered in the first two months of 2012. I wrote about my experience of being genderqueer: getting glared at in restrooms, having verbal abuse slung at me on public transportation, being interrogated by complete strangers. I wrote about the email itself, how it had intruded its way into my night and made me heave with rage, like there was a hurricane bottled up in my chest. Then I named the sender.

I used the word “fuck” a lot. Profanity is a weapon, and I pulled out my entire arsenal.

So fuck you, too, [editor of Whatever Mag]. Fuck you for thinking that people like my friends and I deserve the violence we get, the discrimination, the harassment from our peers and from the people entrusted with our care. Fuck you for thinking that equal rights and protections for at-risk youth is “absurd” and “lunacy”. Fuck you for your ignorance. Fuck you for another night I lost to anger and impotence.

Also, please unsubscribe me from [Whatever Mag]‘s contributor mailing list. I never want shit like that in my inbox again.

Overreaction? Maybe. That didn’t make it any less cathartic.

panic in the locker room

The piece was rejected. A day later, I got an excoriating email in my inbox, full of hurt feelings (“How is your belief any important [sic] than mine?”), transphobic hysteria (“I am furious that little girls are at risk of being forced to the humility [sic], embarrassment, and a myriad of other harmful things that will occur, should this AB1266 pass.”), and comments on my emotional stability, (“You are in a horrible emotional state, a bitter person, and contributing to the massive acceptance gap between those who agree with you, and those who don’t understand you.”)

None of it was unexpected; it read like a list of common reactions to any call out. All the stages were there: denial, anger, derailment, and counter-accusations of bigotry. What was surprising was the offer to print my rant if the editor could include his full response with it.

After talking with some friends who are more level-headed than I, I crafted a reply to his response. I reiterated my main points, and addressed some new ones: like the fact that he kept repeating “little girls showering with teenage boys”, which was decidedly creepy, not to mention offensive, and his insistence that trans* people were the instigators of violence rather than overwhelmingly the victims of it. I even reined in my profanity, though I let loose a little bit at the end:

So, why do my personal beliefs trump yours? Because you want to continue discrimination against people like my friends and I. Because you value your comfort over others’ rights to safety and full integration into a community. And I want at-risk kids to be able to grow up, get an education, and become fabulous adults who change the world. Thus, no, I don’t give a shit about your beliefs. They’re conservative, bigoted, and outdated, and they warrant no respect from me.

I signed it “Nicole Cipri, Genderqueer Warrior,” and sent it off.

For that, I got called a verbal terrorist. Because calling someone “a bigoted fuckwit” is totally the same as planting a homemade bomb in a building.

 

Dubious life milestone: being called a verbal terrorist.

The best advice I during this weird debacle was the following: remember that this fight is about trans* youth. I didn’t exactly follow it, of course, but here’s what you should know now:

AB-1266 has since passed in the California Senate, and if governor Jerry Brown signs it, the California Education Code will be amended to protect trans* students’ right to inhabit their own identities. This is a huge victory, and one that I had a personal, if distant, stake in.

The last time I went to a spa, a woman confronted me: “This is the ladies’ locker room,” she said, gesturing at the stick figure in a skirt on a door. It’s for this reason that I don’t go to spas often, which tend to be havens of uber-femininity. I’m not a woman, much less a lady. I’m a rude, ambiguously-gendered weirdo.

People have a habit of looking at me, then looking again, a little closer. Sometimes I ignore them, but sometimes, I’ll look back, force myself to meet their eyes. If I have no choice in being objectified and scrutinized, then I can at least choose this: to be a mirror, to stare back, to confront them.

A number of friends and family have told me to wear the moniker of “verbal terrorist” proudly. Make buttons, a t-shirt. Make light of it.

But that would belie how shaken I was by it. Was this supposed to be a victory? It had just deteriorated to two people writing angry emails at each other — the very thing I aimed to avoid in the first place. After reading the editor’s last foaming-at-the-mouth email, when he called my writing hate-speech, my actions cowardly, and my words the equivalent of a bomb in a building, I wanted to hide under my bed. I stood by everything I said. I agreed to have my name attached to a profanity-laden attack on someone’s transphobia, confident that while I came off as overly emotional, this editor came off as seriously unhinged. I’m guilty of trolling a transphobic man, and while I don’t regret it, I also don’t think it changed anything, much less his bigotry. I can’t help but wonder, what did I actually gain through this? A weird story to amuse a future date, maybe. Other than that, it’s been an exercise in futility and frustration.

Instead, when I went home, I pulled out my laptop and started to write. Writing is first thing that I reach for when trying to make sense of the world, or carve out a place for myself in it. Words are a weapon, double-edged and quick to cut, but still the best that I’ve got.

Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” column exists for individual queer ladies to tell their own personal stories and share compelling experiences. These personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.


 

When not committing acts of verbal terrorism, Nicole enjoys books, bikes, adventures, martial arts, gender neutral pronouns, and drinking tea. You can talk to them on Twitter (@nicolecipri) or Tumblr.

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24 Comments

  1. Thumb up 6

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    “…while I don’t regret it, I also don’t think it changed anything, much less his bigotry. I can’t help but wonder, what did I actually gain through this? A weird story to amuse a future date, maybe. Other than that, it’s been an exercise in futility and frustration.”

    Been thinking about this kind of stuff a lot lately–not just gender, but how effective this kind of back-and-forth really is. Unfortunately, I don’t have any kind of conclusion. : /

    • Thumb up 5

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      Yes to the ambivalence. This stuff is a temptation to an indulgent pettiness. Such gutter slinging tends to just muddy everyone and leave bystanders with their eyes rolled. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it sometimes, if only to hold ground. And we can learn from it. And should, always.

    • Thumb up 3

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      I just did this exact back-and-forth, waste-of-an-evening process of writing a response to someone who clearly is too ignorant about the issue at hand to even glean anything from the response except that I’m angry (and therefore probably misguided and therefore they’re probably right). I wrote drafts of what I’d like to say in varying degrees of subtlety for literally three hours.

      What I ended up sending said something along the lines of “We’re both adults who can form our own critically-thought-out opinions. I hope both sides of this issue continue to learn from the other side.” And then I added a link written by someone who had once had the same views of the person I was writing to, but who had learned a lot and come around to closer to my point of view (which is the real Truth, btw, duh).

      So here’s what I got out of it: I felt let down that I didn’t send my verbal-terrorist’s response, but then I felt calm knowing that I sent the best thing I could: the thing that is most likely to make them actually think a little. And I also felt good because the act of writing out all my emotions and reasoning was cathartic. And I felt productive because even though those hours seemed wasted on a five-line email, at least their futility got me thinking about ways proactive ways I can personally reach out to inform ignorant people before they reach the bigot stage my correspondent was at.

      Moral of the story: writing is almost always a useful and productive exercise in some way.

  2. Thumb up 10

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    I was reading the comments on Gawker’s article on this (I know, I shouldn’t, but I’m a masochist) and was both irked by people’s ignorance/bigotry on this topic and surprisingly touched by the large volume of commenters calling them out on the aforementioned. Honestly, it’s as if some people 1. don’t know how bathrooms work 2. think way too much about the genitals of the people in the stall next to them, but at least those of us with more sense/empathy also know how to use keyboards. I’d call you a verbal freedom fighter more than a terrorist, but, eh, semantics.

    Also: I actually once met a human wearing a sweatshirt that said “my gender is shut up,” and they directed me to zazzle to find one for myself.

    • Thumb up 2

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      That is one wicked t-shirt!
      I was really hoping as I read this that you’d be like “and they decided to publish what I wrote!” Good for you for standing up to this guy. Who knows for sure what impact it had, but I like to think that if we all continue to be loud and stand up for what is right then collectively, progress will occur somewhere along the way.

  3. Thumb up 2

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    Thanks for sharing your advocacy and experience. I would say if you experienced some catharsis in advocating for yourself and others, regardless of whether it changed douchymcdoucherton editors perspective, then it definitely served a positive purpose. IMHO.

  4. Thumb up 13

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    “I also don’t think it changed anything…”

    Oh, but good gentleperson, you did change something. Somewhere in the great beyond, a transsexual woman who had a deep case of trans feelings today is now on her feet giving you a literal ovation for the succor you brought her.

    Um, me. I’m constantly derided as morose, judgmental, and not personable (not a person?) by the happy faces who squint at my aftermarket body. As if I were an unlucky cur begging for scraps of respect at their pristine spatted cis heels. So I’ve having myself lobbed a few return salvos in this war which is visited upon us.

    Sometimes words are just plain fucking garbage; it’s up to those of us who are willing to strap on the shit-gloves now and then to take them out to the curb. Words which prop up regimes of brutal inequality deserve the rubbish bin. And when little children are concerned, TAKE THEM OUT WITH PREJUDICE. We earn these chips on our shoulders like field promotions. Wear them with pride.

    Nicole, I salute you in heartfelt solidarity for your unruly vigor. And I applaud you for your insurgent spirit. The cost to your heart wasn’t for naught; for you have further honed your skill through this adventure. And told the tale those who needed to hear it. May you live to word-bomb another day, comrade!

  5. Thumb up 12

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    Nicole, i totally get the frustration, feelings of PTSD and desire to give them back twice what they’ve dumped on you. But, ultimately, I think the screaming matches, snark tournaments and pissing contests make for a very emotionally exhausted person, don’t bestow peace nor do they really bring community forward. I’ve had a lot of sadness about the “die CIS scum” thing. Maybe it is said with irony and a subtext of ‘how do you like getting what we get’ but, ultimately, it’s just (IMO) not something anyone should say to anyone else. There’s a lot more of them than there are of you, so if you’re going to fight back, you need to fight smart and to do so in a way doesn’t burn up your spirit in the process. Cool maturity and letting people stew in their own ignorance proves a wonderful and powerful contrast to childish playground behavior, but I know it ain’t easy when buttons get pushed.

  6. Thumb up 4

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    Nicole, first off, I’d like to say I think you’re super brave, and thank you so much for sharing your story!

    As to the effectiveness of the back and forth with the editor–in my opinion, the only thing worse than bigotry is bigotry that goes unchecked. So the fact that you were actively identifying bigotry and fighting against it means progress for queer people.

    Plus, I feel like “verbal terrorist” sounds like an awesome name for a queer punk band. I would mosh to that.

  7. Thumb up 8

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    I hate to say it, because I know you’re probably thinking it, but I really wish you’d written your profanity-riddled letter, set it aside, and then written another editorial with all the same facts but with less anger and frustration. You’re right, screaming matches don’t solve anything, and though I think this man is someone you never could have convinced, there are people out there, maybe people who read this magazine, that CAN be convinced, and your words could maybe have reached them. As great as Autostraddle is, for the most part, we are screaming into an echo chamber. While your piece is wonderful, you’re preaching to the choir. I do it too – I get pissed off and I yell, instead of calmly explaining, because sometimes we all just get sick and tired of having to calmly explain the most basic shit for bigoted fuckwits, but it is only through calm explanation and mutually respectful dialogue the anything in this world will ever change.

    I think some good probably did come out of your exchange with this editor. At the very least, maybe he will do some thinking, And you got to share this story with all of us here, which is no small thing either.

    Keep fighting the good fight, verbal terrorist. Words are the best weapons in the world, and we will all live to fight another day.

    • Thumb up 5

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      I agree. I think a more effective troll piece would have been to write a brilliant article undermining his bigotry without naming him directly in a tirade of profanity.

      Also, for writers and editors of a magazine, it’s frustrating to see how poor grammar is just accepted on both sides.

      • Thumb up 0

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        Having spent about six hours yesterday crafting researched and cited replies to detractors on the National Post forums, I wish that that approach worked. In practice, the links to peer-reviewed scientific articles were downvoted, the explanation that Alberta Catholic schools DO receive funding from non-catholic taxpayers (using a link and quote from the Catholic board’s own website) was dismissed as ‘no they don’t’, and endless logical fallacies were presented as if having equal weight. In short, might as well get the venting out on occasion ’cause they sure aren’t listening, and the screaming match can be cathartic.

        My favorite exchange:
        Me: We aren’t poster boys for some political hacks, we asked our MPs for help on these issues because of the discrimination we face, despite what SHOULD be protected under the Charter. This wasn’t started by politicians, but by people on the ground trying to better their lives.

        JG:Show respect for the country and culture you are blessed to live in; we might show you some respect back.

        Me: LOLWTF? Um, I do that by participating in the political process, voting, and helping my friends and neighbours in my city. Where did you get the idea that I disrespect Canada or it’s culture?

        JG:Sure. How you getting along with your muslim immigrant neighbours, Dear?

        Me:This is my favorite reply of the day

        • Thumb up 1

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          Common strategy for those that can’t support their own beliefs.. circular talk, getting angry, making random nonsensical arguments, all in an attempt to distract from the fact that they didn’t/can’t intelligently reply to your question/statement. I know this well.

  8. Thumb up 0

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    i feel you but also realized/decided after several incidents like this that email is an intrinsically aggro medium. now i always try to pick up a phone. seriously…the emotional destructiveness of email. it is the worst! talk about holding onto the bomb for too long…

  9. Thumb up 2

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    “My sister and I have joked about making t-shirts that say ‘MY GENDER = not actually your business.’ On the back, we’d print ‘Owing you an explanation since approximately never.”‘

    Okay, first, I would totally buy that!

    Second, none of this would matter or even come up if our society wasn’t hellbent on sex segregation and strict/narrow binary gender roles. Not only does it cause discrimination, it also creates the mindset of rape culture to begin with. So, not only are people like this editor helping to encourage a system that defines a person by their genitals rather than who they are as individual people, they are also supporting a system that creates the very problems they claim to worry about and want to prevent.

    While profanity laced emails or discussions don’t often work in getting one’s point across in such a way to educate others, sometimes its very hard to rein in such a reaction. I mean maybe if you were less angry in the email you would have gotten your point across better and maybe he’d have some sort of mini break through, but probably not. His very first email looking for commentary showed that he was not going to budge even if Jesus himself came down from the sky and told him that he was wrong. So, even if he wasn’t going to budge from his ignorance no matter what, you let him know that some people don’t agree and won’t simply shut up and hide for fear of assaulting his bigoted fragile sensibilities.

    As for the terrorist comment, they call environmentalists terrorists in many cases too, and all they’re trying to do is protect life. It’s a buzz word, like communist used to be and socialist often is now. Just a word used to throw at someone, no matter the context, to rile other people up and to “sting” you, something they think you can have no defense against, the worst of the worse, the lowest of the low. Ignore him, he’s obviously an idiot.

  10. Thumb up 1

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    I think it was great that you wrote an impassioned response to the editor’s call for a hateful article. He went looking for anger and he found it…just a very different kind of anger than he expected.

    You asked, “what did I actually gain through this?” Personally, I hope that you find your voice. If after this experience you can channel the futility and frustration of facing evil into your writing, that could be something wonderful.

  11. Thumb up 2

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    Thank you for sharing this.

    People like that, they want to vilify us, demonize us, erase us. Being emotional and angry may not change any minds, but these are our identities and our lives. And when we get emotional they try to silence us, by declaring us irrational, “verbal terrorists,” but our voices are important. And if yelling is the only way to them to acknowledge my existence, even if they don’t hear my voice, well then I’m going to keep yelling. Because we matter, our voices deserve to be heard, even if we’re the only ones listening.

  12. Thumb up 0

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    Thank you for validating “gender-ambiguous” as a lifestyle. I’ve often felt pushed to choose one or the other, male or female, to present as. I’m glad to find another, strong person, who is confident and self-assured to identify as both/neither/none-of-your-fucking-business. Blessings be.

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