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Overview of 2018 books on transgender issues

I try not to let Donald Trump play too large a role in defining whatever level of topicality this column manages from week to week. The man is in the Oval Office, but he has no automatic claim on the space in our heads. Besides, it would be unfair to serious publishers to have book coverage be driven by the vagaries of a man who doesn’t read anything at all unless absolutely necessary, if even then.

But the latest move to undermine transgender people’s protection under federal civil rights law -- coming in the wake of last year’s effort by the Department of Health and Human Services to ban the very word “transgender” from use -- makes it appropriate to highlight a few recent books from scholarly presses that hold the line against troglodyte pandering. Here’s a brief look at some of the titles published in 2018.

The year began with Jack Halberstam’s Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (University of California Press, January). But for reasons that will become clear, we might best start this roundup with The Remarkable Rise of Transgender Rights by Jami K. Taylor, Daniel C. Lewis and Donald P. Haider-Markel (University of Michigan Press, October). The authors explore how, starting in the 1980s, the concept of transgender -- initially a rather ad hoc category that “brought together different groups that experience gender dysphoria” -- went from neologism to a social movement capable of significant impact “in a majoritarian political system where public policy often favors those with important political resources that the transgender community lacks: access, money, and voters.”

While concurring that “public discussions of transgender issues have increased exponentially,” Halberstam’s Trans* makes a more or less Foucauldian point: “With this increased visibility has comes not just power, but regulation, both in favor of and against trans people.” That asterisk signals the need to keep “at bay any sense of knowing in advance what the meaning of this or that gender variant form may be, and perhaps most importantly, it makes trans* people the authors of their own categorizations.” (Actually Halberstam’s concern may not contrast with Taylor, Lewis and Haider-Markel’s perspective as much as it sounds: they do acknowledge “transgender” as the name of a coalition, so to speak, more than the label for an identity.)

In a media-saturated society, politics always involves access to the means of representation -- getting it, keeping it, having some input in the flow of messages. Andre Cavalcante’s Struggling for Ordinary: Media and Transgender Belonging in Everyday Life (NYU Press, March) offers “a portrait of how transgender individuals lived with media toward the latter part of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century … a time of growing but uneven and scattered access to transgender representation and communication networks.” But it was also a period when what Joanna McIntyre calls Transgender Celebrity (Routledge, November) began to emerge, in part through the explosive growth of fame-generating platforms like new media and reality television. For all we know, the first transgender president of the United States is already out there, somewhere, with a YouTube channel.

By most standards, Ben Barres was never a celebrity -- just a professor and the chair of the neurology department at Stanford University. He died of pancreatic cancer in December 2017, not long after finishing The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist (MIT Press, October). The publisher describes the book as covering his life “from his childhood as a precocious math and science whiz to his experiences as a female student at MIT in the 1970s to his female-to-male transition in his forties, to his scientific work and role as teacher and mentor at Stanford.” And with the book in print, his mentoring can continue by other means.

Without underestimating the difficulty facing young transgender people, Ann Travers devotes a substantial part of her book The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolution (NYU Press, June) to “the incredible time, energy, love, intelligence and courage that supportive parents of trans kids devote to making it possible for their children -- and trans kids in general -- to show up as who they really are.” Sooner or later, those trying to deny that transgender identity is now a fact of public life will find themselves up against the strength of family bonds. They will lose.

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Activist speaks out against the Trump administration's stance toward transgender people.
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Rohit Parikh, distinguished professor of computer and information science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, is facing criticism for a Facebook post about immigration, The New York Post reported. Parikh wrote in a now-deleted post that “everyone who is illegally here should be deported but that the U.S. should support them in their home country.” He added, “Immigration, yes. Chaotic and illegal immigration, NO, NO, NO and NO!” Parikh addressed Hispanics, in particular, saying that they “are GOOD people, gentle and nice and not at all criminal.” But “are they really the population which America needs for the rest of this century when more and more education is required?” he asked.

Parikh did not respond to questions from the Post. His controversial comments were made in July but only recently came to light and have since been deleted. The college did not offer comment on the matter, which has prompted student groups to demand disciplinary action against Parikh. Student critics say that the Brooklyn campus enrolls undocumented students and that Parikh’s words represent a threat to their safety. Another Brooklyn College professor angered students and others late last month with a blog post calling sexual assault a rite of passage for men. That professor, Mitchell Langbert, a scholar of business, said it was a satirical comment on the confirmation hearing of now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The college condemned Langbert’s remarks but said they were protected speech.

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UC San Francisco Settles With Former Postdoc

The University of California, San Francisco, settled with a former postdoctoral researcher for $150,000 after she sued it, saying a high-profile tobacco researcher harassed her. The former postdoc, Eunice Neeley, alleged in a December lawsuit that Stanton Glantz, Truth Initiative Distinguished Professor of Tobacco Control, ogled her body, forced her to hug him and made inappropriate sexual comments during conversations. Neeley said Glantz also retaliated against her by removing her name from a paper after she filed an internal complaint against him.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the settlement also stipulates that Glantz will relinquish his rights to the paper in question and transfer authorship to Neeley. Glantz denies all of Neeley's allegations. Both Glantz and the university reportedly declined comment. Glantz has previously denied the allegations in more detail, including by saying that Neeley did not want her name on the disputed paper. The Chronicle reported that an internal university investigation found Glantz violated the Faculty Code of Conduct with Neeley, and that he now has the option to appeal the findings before a faculty committee.

The university has been paying Glantz’s legal bills, including to fight a second harassment suit filed by a former employee, a paralegal named Juliette Jackson. Jackson alleges that she reported Glantz to campus officials in early 2017 and that they mishandled her case, including through undue delays. Glantz has reportedly denied leering at Jackson, who is Native American, but admitted to calling Native Americans “Indians.”

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos typically takes a fairly anodyne approach to social media. But she went on the attack Tuesday after Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, blasted the details of leaked Title IX draft regulations.

The campus sexual misconduct rule, which is expected to be released this fall, would allow colleges to claim religious exemptions to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, even when under investigation, without giving prior notification to the department, according to leaked language. The Obama administration had required that those exemptions be made public.

“In practice, the draft regulation envisions a system of unaccountable and secret institutions where civil rights protections can be disregarded -- where an unmarried mother may be denied admission, where a young woman could be thrown out for using birth control, and where a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender student could be subjected to cruel punishment at the school,” Murray said in a letter to DeVos Friday signed by five fellow Senate Democrats. “Without question, this scheme will lead to unnecessary discrimination against students based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, and marital status.”

Murray repeated that claim on Twitter Monday, and on Tuesday DeVos responded -- without addressing the details of the letter -- by calling the statement “completely false.”

The social media spat put the senator and secretary in the position of debating regulations that have yet to officially be made public. DeVos has signaled elsewhere an interest in revisiting federal requirements for religious institutions. The Education Department will look to overhaul religious colleges' access to federal aid programs in an upcoming rule-making process.

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