The Garden of Forking Thoughts

The Problem With Mike Krahulik's "Opinion" About Trans People

So Mike Krahulik, or Gabe of Penny Arcade fame, again opened his mouth and started a riot on twitter. This time it was about trans people - being a biological essentialist (which is to say, insisting that gender is defined by some sort of biological marker like, in this case, genitals).

Sophie Prell (@SophieJKL) engaged him and I had high hopes for that. She's trans herself and used to write for the PA Report (which by the way progenitors aside is magnificent and you should read because lead writer Ben Kuchera is a genius). Unfortunately what that consisted of was Sophie assuring Krahulik that none of what she wrote was intended in any way to tell him he was wrong or challenge his opinion, and Krahulik lecturing her about her body and not apologizing to anyone for anything.

First of all, this is an embarrassment. Both (I personally think) Sophie for legitimizing Krahulik's views, and Krahulik for being such a prick and acting like he was so validated in being horribly transphobic and mean because he managed to cherry-pick one trans person who'd caress his ego instead of challenging said transphobia.

But more important are just how wrong this "opinion" is (scare quotes because I hate it when people try to pass off unequivocally incorrect, materially harmful positions as "just my opinion"), and how Krahulik insisted upon it.

I said Krahulik "lectured" Sophie about her body. This is a... rather euphemistic usage of lecture [*] , "to rebuke or reprimand at some length". Yeah it's not that great a length, but I mean just look at it:

Wanna be a guy or a girl or a fox or whatever and I will be happy to treat you that way. But I think that is very different from the physical reality of your human body. [...] I hate the idea that because I think boys and girls have different parts I am "transphobic" that pisses me off it makes me angry and so I lash out.

"Fine I'll treat you like what you are but you know really you're not and I hate that I'm called transphobic for telling trans people they're really their AAB gender because of what I think their bodies are like" (nb: AAB: assigned at birth)

Dear reader, let me (as a trans woman) assure you of something. No trans person is under any sort of delusion about the physical structure of our bodies. Every trans person is acutely aware of every tiny infinitesimal way our bodies differ from a typical (or at least stereotypical) cis person's body. Many of us know more about biology as it pertains to sex and gender than most medical professionals do. Every one of us knows exactly what you mean and why you think it when you say "I think women have vaginas I think you call a person with a vagina a woman". We've all heard it before; we've heard it all before.

This, Krahulik's boorish insistence that he understands trans people and biology and his opinion is clearly obviously right, not what trans people have been saying, gives lie to any idea that this is an apology or improvement. "You're not really a woman," he's saying, "but I guess I can treat you like one."

The other issue is the position itself that Krahulik advocates. It's both fundamentally flawed and deeply, materially problematic.

The flaws are basic but understandable. Biological essentialists point to biology without understanding it. Point to any biological dimorphism and I'll show you where it's wrong. Hormones are easily manipulable. Secondary sex characteristics are also easy to change. Primary sex characteristics - genitals - are somewhat more difficult and expensive, but very much possible to change. The rest of the reproductive system - gonads and the uterus - aren't, but they're not relevant to gender. Genes can't be changed but they aren't expressed deterministically.

And when it comes down to it - none of these things contribute to gender in any way whatsoever. You can't ascertain a person's hormone levels without a blood test. Secondary sex characteristics vary wildly in humans. Primary sex characteristics remain hidden most of the time and somewhere around one in two thousand babies is born with ambiguous genitalia (one possible physical expression of an intersex condition). No one would say a cis man who had been castrated or a cis woman who'd had a hysterectomy and/or oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) were not a man and a woman respectively. The human genome is an amazing thing but what about XXY men (Klinefelter's syndrome), XY cis women (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome - it's an amazing thing), XX/XY mosaicism (both sets of chromosomes in different cells) or any other of a host of intersex atypical karyotypes?

So why is all this problematic?

I live in Washington State. There's a form from the DMV for a doctor to fill out to change the gender marker on my driver's license. There's no such thing for birth certificate but they'll accept anything along those lines. Passport and social security (both of which changed relatively recently, yay Obama!) have similar requirements. All they require is a statement that I have completed transition. These are, both on a scale of US States and a scale of the world, incredibly easy.

Some states simply don't allow changing gender markers on any documentation so only federal documents can be changed. Some states require surgery of some type - which means at a minimum around $5,000 for breast augmentation or reduction, at a maximum around $30,000 for bottom surgery. Despite these being recognized by all major medical organizations as medically necessary most insurance plans still either explicitly exclude coverage for transgender individuals or deny any transition-related care claiming it is elective. And so trans people - who are twice as likely as the general population to be below the poverty line and one in five of whom have been homeless for some period since first identifying as trans - are screwed. For many of us every single time we show ID (because let's be honest passports are expensive) we're involuntarily outed. In many places this is dangerous - correlated, approximately, with transphobic state policies is a violently transphobic electorate.

In two states, Republicans have introduced legislation which would criminalize trans individuals using the restroom appropriate for their gender - in the case of Arizona, it was introduced to override local law protecting that right.

These policies and others like them are driven by ignorant positions like Krahulik's. They're driven by the idea that trans people aren't really what we say we are - so why should we get our markers changed? Or that we're not until we get bottom surgery, ignoring that socioeconomic factors make it extraordinarily difficult for many trans people who do want that to get it.

Krahulik has declared all is well. But he hasn't changed. He didn't retract his problematic position, he reiterated it. He's learned nothing - he hasn't listened to anyone, just had his ego stroked that he was right to refuse to listen to people he hurt. His insistence on biological essentialism remains on the Internet with the blessing of a real live trans person for all his massive deifying fan base to see and be reassured that just because they don't think trans people are legitimate doesn't make them transphobic either and they are totally 100% right in responding dismissively to anyone who tells them differently.

This really isn't okay. This really isn't resolved. But this is what many of us have come to expect from Penny Arcade, or at least from Krahulik. And that's just sad.

[*]Let's be honest I'm saying "lecture" because you'd stop reading if I'd said "mansplain" but again let's be honest when it comes to trans stuff the proper neologism is "cissplain" because have you seen like Janice Raymond's writing I mean ugh it's not a dude thing it's a cis thing (yeah I know there are men and cis people who respectively don't do this and I know this is a significant number of people and I know a lot of readers are one of them and good on you really, I'm not talking about you)