with Robert Haaland
Republished with permission
Foucault, Dr. Harry Benjamin, and its a party!
March 8, 2006
'I don't feel that it is necessary to know exactly
what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone
else that you were not in the beginning.' Michel Foucault, 1982.
When I attended undergraduate school at Berkeley
in the mid 90s, I was a re-entry student. I had transferred from
Laney, a community college in Oakland after two years there.
Postmodernist thought was all the rage back then
and I had to play catch up to attempt to understand writers like
Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. I'm not sure I ever did understand
them but their works continue to provoke me. Foucault was incredibly
critical of power and how various institutions create definitions
of normative behavior and how those institutions police behavior.
If one of the goals of education is to provoke thought
and deepen a student's analysis, then at least one of the goals
was met for me in undergraduate school. I'm surprised how many
times I find myself thinking of Foucault's writings in every day
life. Even once when I was in jail after a protest, I was sitting
in my jail cell at 850 Bryant thinking that Foucault would have
been fascinated with the architecture of the jail. Foucault wrote
extensively about prisons and how architecture was used to enforce
power. In the new jail, they don't have bars on the cells and
the sheriffs are on a platform overlooking a circular area that
has cells surrounding the platform. The sheriff is able to see
every inch of your cell and every inch of the entire area. And
while there are no bars on the cells, there is no privacy at all.
The gaze of the sheriff is constant and incredibly powerful and
acts as the bars would. When you have to go to the bathroom, you
stand at the edge of your cell, wave at the guard to ask for permission,
and then go only after being waved on.
Foucault focused on several institutions, including
the history of psychiatry, prisons, and schools. Over the centuries,
these institutions have frequently been used in troubling ways
and I believe they still are, psychiatry being one that is incredibly
pernicious since it is ostensibly meant to be helpful. His critiques
of psychiatry helped me to understand how culturally and historically
specific our ideas of what is good or bad normative behavior.
I remember when homosexuality was considered a mental illness.
Actually by some, it still is. There are those who are still doing
what is called "conversion therapy," a treatment that
is supposed to help people overcome their same sex attraction.
Years of advocacy by lesbian and gay activists led to the American
Psychiatric Association declaring that homosexuality was not a
I'm sorry to report though that they still consider
being transgender to be a mental disorder. The "good"
psychiatrists want to cure us by giving us medical treatment that
allows us to have our bodies be consistent with how we perceive
they should be. The "bad" psychiatrists try and cure
us by making us understand why we should stay the gender we were
assigned at birth. Transgender teenagers have even undergone shock
therapy by the so-called helping profession to help them "understand"
normative gender. Right. Thanks.
So forgive me, but I was a little suspicious when
I learned that I was supposed to go to therapy for six months
to get testosterone ten years ago when I came out. I saw and continue
to see this as a question of control of your own body, kind of
like abortion. The decision that I make about my body is mine,
not some stupid kid barely out of school who wants to write a
paper on me cuz, well, gee, they don't have trans people back
in Wisconsin. I didn't go. I just walked in, looked the doctor
in the eye, and told them to give it to me. He did. That was over
ten years ago and since I went off testosterone and now am back
on again. What is shocking to me is that there are those who still
have to go to therapy to get testosterone. I'm on this chat board
for FTM folks from all around the country and I read how psychiatrists
are torturing them for six months. Now granted, it is clear to
me that many of the folks who start out on testosterone are emotionally
fragile. Jesus. How could you not be when you are going through
such a major change? And it isn't like most folks haven't gone
through extremely difficult emotional challenges all of their
lives. The problem is that there is such a power imbalance and
if the therapist doesn't know what he or she is doing, they can
inflict intense damage on their client during this incredibly
vulnerable time. So if I seem a little protective of my transgender
brothers and sisters, well, I am. A lot.
You have to go through this because of the Dr. Harry
Benjamin standards of care. Dr. Harry Benjamin was the first "medical
expert" on transsexuals. Now, don't get me wrong here, but
I do have a fondness of Dr. Benjamin, despite him being, as historian
Susan Stryker called him, a paternalistic advocate and expert.
His work both helped and yet undermined the transgender movement
by making it possible for people to transition medically but also
giving the medical profession immense power over our lives, making
the doctor the gatekeeper to us becoming who we are.
Now we all hate gatekeepers until we become one,
and then we think, well, we will do it better. Chances are we
won't. Granted we will all try our best, but it is human nature
to make mistakes, to go too far, even by accident. So given that,
I'm not a big fan of the model we have in place now. I don't trust
the gatekeepers and history has shown them to be wrong over and
over again about the most basic things. And given that most trans
folks are poor, they can't afford a good therapist nine times
out of ten. They end up going to some barely graduated, cheap
therapist who doesn't know what they are doing. But gosh, aren't
we grateful that someone out there is taking care of us? Well,
no. Thank you very much but we can take care of ourselves.
So on a more festive note, I'm having a birthday and I thought
I would throw a party. But it's more than a birthday party, it's
a thank you party, and it is a benefit.
Monday, April 3rd
1390 Market Street
10th Floor of Fox Plaza
The party is a benefit for two organizations that need your help,
the Housing Rights Committee and the 40th Anniversary Commemoration
Committee for Compton's Cafeteria Riots (the SF version of the
Words are pretty hard to come by to describe how grateful I am
for having people like you in my life. And I want to say thank
you for having my back the last few months, the last few years.
A lot happened and I also want to say thanks for all that you
have all taught me. I'm a pretty lucky guy.
I hope you can come. I know you all care about affordable housing,
tenants' rights, transgender rights, and honoring the living history
of the queer/transgender community, and probably you care about
the left in sf so this will also be an opportunity for you to
give if you so desire. What could be better than hanging out with
a bunch of tenant activists and transgender activists? And showing
support for their work?
The party will be a fundraiser, so there is an actual host committee.
State Senator Carole Migden, Assemblymember Mark Leno, City Attorney
Dennis Herrera, District Attorney Kamala Harris, City Treasurer
Jose Cisneros, Assessor Phil Ting, Supervisor Tom Ammiano, Supervisor
Chris Daly, Supervisor Bevan Dufty, Supervisor Jake McGoldrick,
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, and School
Board Member Eric Mar have all agreed to come and help raise money
for these causes. Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and Alice B.
Toklas LGBT Democratic Club are also co-sponsoring. So stop by
and say hi. Get a soda and catch some great conversation with
a bunch of trans and tenant folks.
All of you know the amazing work that the Housing Rights Committee
does. Folks like Tommi Avicolli Mecca, Sara Shortt, Rebecca Logue-Bovee,
Stephanie Brandon, and Hing Chee-Chan rock the world and do their
best to ensure that people have a roof over their head.
And if you haven't heard of the Compton's Cafeteria Riots, check
out Susan Stryker's video called Screaming Queens that interviews
and documents this important part of our history when some trans
women, mostly women of color, fought back against police brutality
in 1966, years before Stonewall.
If you can't make it but you want to give to these amazing organizations,
please send the checks to 39 Downey Street, SF, CA 94117. Make
the checks out to the Housing Rights Committee and for the trans
event to SF Pride which has agreed to be the fiscal sponsor of
the event. If you would like to help fundraise for these great
organizations or volunteer to help, please let
Robert Haaland publishes leftinsf.com.
Email Robert Haaland