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On the spectrum

tambor-transparent.jpg"We can't be ourselves as long as there is even one man in the room," she said. The year was sometime around 1977, and the location was a women-only folk club, where I'd been booked to play. My instinctive reaction - unvoiced - was that given that the world's population is half men, they'd do better to figure out how to feel comfortable with men than to exclude them. Personally, I missed the lower tones in the sound of the audience singing along on the choruses.

I don't disagree with my former self even now, but I do recognize that the fact that I think that way probably makes me one of the lucky women who has known predominantly pleasant and honorable men and who has always been in a position to ignore or push back against the rest. Many women are not so fortunate, and who am I to deny them their "safe space"? (Plus, I've known some quite unpleasant bullying women whose presence in a space would not enhance its "safety".)

I remembered this incident while watching the episode (S2e09, "Man on the Land") of Jill Soloway's show Transparent in which two 30-something women - Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Ali (Gabby Hoffman) - take their trans parent, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), to a festival I read is modelled on the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. The episode fictionalizes (and satirizes) the real festival's highly contentious "intention" that anyone who isn't "womyn-born womyn" should stay away. I would be qualified to go, but would be far less comfortable than Maura is, at least at first. Shortly after arrival, Maura and Ali separately discover the festival policy.

For Maura, the welcoming, joyous, bare-breasted atmosphere suddenly turns sinister. Is that head turning to look at her? Is that giggling couple plotting to eject her? Is it safe to use the Porta-potty? Maura's increasingly hunted expression echoes two scenes from season 1, when she was just shedding Mort, her decades-old outward persona. In the first (S1e04, "Moppa"), those same daughters pull her into a swank department store ladies room, where she is challenged by a couple of mean girls and their mother. In the second, more resonant here, Maura and fellow closeted - we're not sure what - Mark/Marcy (Bradley Whitford) go to a weekend cross-dressing camp (S1e08, "Best New Girl). Like the music festival, Maura's first reaction is giddiness at having come home to her tribe. And there, too, it all turns sour, when casual conversation reveals that hormone treatments and anything else that smacks of wanting to live as a woman as opposed to playing one for a weekend could get you banned. Or divorced, as Mort finds back home when he tells his wife, Shelly (Judith Light), where he's been, and shows her Maura. Shelly shakes her head, announces firmly, "I'm done", and goes off to marry the kind man who's been inviting her to dinner and just wants to make her happy.

In a piece about the scene, Hari Nef, who plays Maura's 1930s ancestor Gittel (birth name: Gershon), argues that penises are not the problem. Rather, Nef blames patriarchy for damaging all types of women, going on to make many of the same points as Laverne Cox did in an interview with Katie Couric. Trans people are disproportionately affected by unemployment, homelessness, and violence. The emergence of a few highly lauded trans actors and a TV series that breaks ground by treating trans characters as people with human problems does not fix that, though every step helps.

The thinking that treats gender as binary and physiologically determined is remarkably well-suited for digital thinking. In Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, it was the "F" flag on bank accounts that allowed her dysfunctional society's males to seize control. Locking off access to women's accounts until a responsible male could be found to take them over was a simple matter of sorting on F. The ability to do this kind of sort-and-destroy operation doesn't change if you add more categories, as Facebook did last year for a total of 56 "custom" gender options. No matter how finely you slice it, it's still an attempt to impose digital steps onto an the most analog spectrum of all, human behavior. In most applications - recording audio, shooting video - you eventually reach a point where the grains are fine enough that further steps are beyond the limits of human perception. We can't be so cavalier about eliminating "insignificant noise" when what's left out is human beings rather than bits.

Most of the time, moving something onto computers means turning a fuzzy analog spectrum into digital steps. This is one case where the computers are merely mirroring existing human categories: gender must be the first and oldest attempt at sorting us all. It is one of the first two things we clock when we meet another human. No matter how enlightened parents think they are about letting their kid choose dolls or trucks, math or art, dress or pants, the reality is that the first question anyone asks whenever a baby is born is: Is it a girl or a boy?

So much is determined by the answer to that question. As George Bernard Shaw's Eliza Doolittle explains to Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, "The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated."

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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