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Friday, June 12, 2009

Grad School Essay

This is a cheaty McCheaterson post, since I spent 2 weeks crafting this for grad school, and not for this lovely blog. But I am very, very proud of it, and I do love the accolades, so I thought I'd post it here so that people outside of my editors (family and friends) and admittance office could see it.

“Why social work?” my father asked me.

I tried to address his skepticism by talking about all the career opportunities that exist for social workers, all the jobs I’ve wanted for which an M.S.W. is required. I told him that the idea has been in my mind since long before college, and that social justice is important to me.

I also tried to explain to him about my job now, how it doesn’t fulfill me or excite me. I want to show up to work and engage with the problems I see in the world around me; problems like sexism and classism, racism and homophobia. The job I want to be at is one working with those directly affected by these social ills, working with oppressed communities to fight their oppression. Instead I run a computer lab in an apartment complex.

The kids who use my lab are generally the ones whose families can’t afford to get computers for them. They aren’t bad kids, but like everyone else they’ve picked up homophobia and sexism and (internalized) racism from the people around them. I want to help them overcome these biases, but in order to do so, I have to hide social justice in pizza making and movie watching. I want to run cooperative workshops with them about domestic violence, safer sex, and fighting racism. Instead, I had to ask a kid to leave until we could talk about why he would call someone a “fag.”

I learned recently from my supervisor that one of the kids using the lab (“Peter”) isn’t a resident; he’s from the Section 8 housing nearby. Peter and the other kids like to skateboard on the property, even though it’s against the rules, and sometimes they cause damage with their skateboarding. When they were doing this a few weeks ago, someone in the office went out to tell them to stop, and Peter called her a “cunt,” a word much like “fag,” a word meant to hurt someone by using a fundamental part of their identity as the curse itself. In telling me the story later, my supervisor finished, saying, “If he comes back, let me know so that we can call the police and have him trespassed from the property.”

Peter is 14, Black, and lives in government-subsidized housing. My supervisor’s first reaction to him is to call the police. Never mind that he is a kid. Never mind that those who are labeled as criminals are more likely to start identifying themselves as such and behaving to match. Never mind that involvement with the police now is only more likely to start him down a path to more crimes and a life in and out of the legal system.

Last week my supervisor told me that every time Peter comes on the property and the police get called, he slips away before they get there: “It’s like he has a secret sense when they’re about to show up,” she says. She seems pleased when she tells me that one time the police caught him in the nearby grocery store’s parking lot.

I told my dad that I wonder where her priorities are. I wonder if she would respond this way if he was white. I wonder if she has always viewed the labeling of 14-year-olds as “criminal” as an unqualified good; if she truly doesn’t see the problematic aspects of our criminal justice system. I told my father that I’m worried that if I keep working there I’ll start seeing her reaction as reasonable, that I’ll stop seeing the humanity in others. I see becoming a social worker as an important step in finding a better response to Peter than “Let’s call the police.”

I know that obtaining an M.S.W. will make me better equipped intellectually and systemically to deal with these issues. There is power in knowledge, and there is power in power. As a computer lab coordinator, my voice is just one among many. Being a social worker gives an added gravitas, it confers a level of respect that is absent elsewhere. Becoming a social worker will give me more knowledge and lend me the authority to use it.

But that is an incomplete answer to “Why social work?” The complete answer includes the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers.

“Social workers seek to enhance the capacity of people to address their own needs.”

This statement speaks to me as a transgendered person.

There aren’t a lot of us. Or maybe they are. The research is spotty. Because for a very long time, trans populations were studied solely by male doctors, and they were only interested in trans women. Research into trans history shows that these doctors decided whether to let a trans woman into the program based on whether they thought she was attractive enough. When the people who held the keys to medical access decided whether someone deserved treatment by how attractive a woman she was, or by how well ze was able to function in a transphobic society pre-hormones or surgery, when some trans men were denied the right to transition unless they pretended to be straight, it kind of makes it hard to get a good read on our numbers.

Writing about my trans identity for people with a stake in my future is scary. What if I come across as too angry? Too strident? What if I sound scary? In Massachusetts, my employer and my landlord are legally allowed to fire me or refuse me tenancy based solely on my gender identity. Is it any surprise that I’m not out to my landlord or at work? Closeting myself takes a great emotional toll, but the thought of getting fired or not having a place to live is terrifying. Those are my choices: deny who I am or risk my job and my housing. My trans identity is invisible in the male clothes I wear—it isn’t abnormal in our society for female-bodied people to wear pants. But for so many in the trans community, this isn’t possible. If they wear the clothes that make them happy and healthy, they are immediately recognizable as the Other.

Like many other oppressed communities, the trans community experiences a disproportionate level of poverty and poor health. Finding employers who are willing to hire us and doctors who are willing and able to treat us is difficult. Recently I read (in an article by a well-meaning writer) that gender dysphoria is in the DSM IV as a protection to trans people. The writer apparently did not know that many in the trans community are opposed to the pathologizing of our lives and find that it doesn’t help us. If he had researched the situation, he would have learned that health insurance companies often use trans status as a reason to deny approval for medical treatments, and that trans people in the U.S. have to pay out of pocket for the exact same hormones and surgeries that are covered for others.

“Social workers seek to enhance the capacity of people to address their own needs.”

We don’t need the type of “protection” the DSM offers. We need people who understand the Social Work Code of Ethics and listen first. We need allies in power, and we need trans social workers.

A couple of months ago, my partner (who is also trans) had a very frustrating and downright scary situation with his roommates, who were trying to extort money from him. We called Legal Aid multiple times to find out what our rights were and what options we had. We were anxious; we didn’t know if my partner’s trans identity would be mentioned in a legal setting, and we didn’t know what would happen if it was. After all, trans people are still unequal under the law here. I didn’t even feel comfortable bringing this up with Legal Aid, because I worried that the person on the other end of the line wouldn’t understand.

But one time we called, it was very different. The person answering the phone asked for our names, and then asked whether our preferred names were the same as our legal ones. He asked me about our pronouns (male for me; male, female, or both for my partner). He asked whether my partner’s status was being used against him. The guy who answered the phone was trans too, and he was working on getting everyone in the office to be aware and ask these questions. His being trans, and out, informed his work.

I can’t even begin to describe how much easier I slept that night, knowing that Legal Aid was trans-friendly. Knowing that they hired trans people. Not just trans people, but out trans people. Knowing that people there were responsive to our community – that not only would they not refuse to help us, but that someone there was excited to make the system accessible for us. Talking to him was the first time I truly felt we had an ally.

Why social work?

Because trans people need help, but also we need to be able to help ourselves. Because for trans people to have the ability to help ourselves, we need to be able to not just be the ones calling for help, we need to be the ones who get called. Because I want to be that person on the other end of the phone, to make someone else’s life a little less scary.

I don’t know the future, no one does, but I do know that being trans has shaped me. I hope that being trans makes me more aware of the needs of other communities, or at the very least, the need of others to have self-determination. While I will never experience being a person of color, Deaf, or having grown up in poverty, being trans has helped me realize even more keenly what I already believed. It is vital that I listen long and hard to others, that I not assume that my experience of the world is the most valid just because it is mine. As a feminist, as an anti-racist, as a trans person, the future that I look for is one where the intersections of oppression are understood and dismantled, so that everyone – regardless of socio-economic standing, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, or able-bodied status – is treated with respect and understanding. So that no one is left behind in the struggle for justice.

This is a very good time for me to point out, these are the words written by Me, the proprietor of this here blog, and as such, are not available for redistribution without citation. As in, don't try to steal any of this, mkay?


  1. This is amazing and touching. Thank you.

  2. Here via Shakesville.

    I just wanted to say that this is incredibly moving and inspiring. I hope you go far in your career and make all the difference you strive for. The world needs more people like you.

  3. Here via Shakesville.

    I find it interesting that some cis-people in your life found the paragraph about doctors "militant." I am also cis (working on my blindspots for my cis-privilege), and I read it as very matter-of-fact.

    Very beautiful essay. Did you get into the grad school you wanted?? I sincerely hope so!! I second roisindubh211--social work (and the world in general)needs more people like you!

    1. Thanks. I did indeed get into the program and then (2 years later) I graduated. I now get to work in my chosen career. It's pretty amazing to think about all around.

      I also continue to make (certain) straight/cis/white/class privileged/able-bodied/non-kinky/monogamous folks uncomfortable by saying thing rather matter of factly. I have insisted that my own "employee profile" list that I am experienced in working with the QUILTBAG PAK community (the PAK stands for Polyamorous and Kinky), even though I also am listed as reading to children once a week. Because they are both true, and both are important facets of who I am as a clinician and person, and their dual presence is not actually a bad thing (though some would feel it was).


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