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with Robert Haaland

Republished with permission

Foucault, Dr. Harry Benjamin, and it’s a party!

By Robert Haaland

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 mental disorder.

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 Stonewall riots).

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 me know.

Robert Haaland publishes leftinsf.com.
Email Robert Haaland at robert_haaland@hotmail.com.




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