From Transgenderism to Transhumanism: An Interview With Zinnia Jones

From Transgenderism to Transhumanism: An Interview With Zinnia Jones June 14, 2012

This is the sixth interview of my 24 hour blogathon! Find links to all the completed interviews, updated throughout the day by using this page.

The interview is with the very popular atheist vlogger Zinnia Jones, who recently brought her blog over to the Freethought Blogs network. Her videos can be seen on ZJEmptv

Daniel Fincke: Let’s start with YouTube. I saw a while back that you have become such a big sensation on YouTube that you were invited to some sort of gathering they had. What was that about? And what do you think YouTube stardoom translates to in real life opportunities? Has anyone jumped to TV as a commentator or anything? Does it lead to professional opportunities other than in video work?

Zinnia Jones: Back in 2010, YouTube sent a message to its partners in the Chicago area (partners are users who have agreed to run ads on their videos in exchange for a share of the revenue) inviting us to a meeting at the local Google office to learn about how to optimize and promote our videos. It was fun to get to talk to some of the people behind the scenes at YouTube, and I met some other partners with interesting channels. In terms of opportunities in other media stemming from YouTube fame, I’m pretty sure you’d have to be much more well-known than I am to have a shot at that – I’m talking somewhere in the range of hundreds of thousands of subscribers and millions of views on a consistent basis. The most recent example that comes to mind is that Chris Crocker has a documentary about himself coming out on HBO soon. This kind of thing is possible, but rare. I suspect it’s more of a matter of knowing the right people, and being more visible would certainly help with that.

Daniel Fincke: Have you been as popular in the trans community as in the atheist community or has your predominant emphasis on atheist issues determined your audience?

Zinnia Jones: Though some people in the trans community seem to recognize me, I haven’t been very active in that particular community, especially considering that I didn’t openly identify as trans until somewhat recently. I’m probably a bit more well-known in the wider LGBT community online, and I’ve received some publicity from major LGBT blogs on occasion. But my religion-focused videos have gotten lots of attention, especially early on in my vlogging career, from sources such as Pharyngula and Reddit’s atheism community. It’s hard to say which area has contributed more to my viewership, but having a forceful voice on atheism seems like something that particularly draws people’s attention online.

Daniel Fincke: I see. When did you decide to start openly identifying as trans and how did that thought process go?

Zinnia Jones: People who had been watching my videos over the years could probably see it coming from far off; a time-lapse of my videos, especially during my first two years vlogging, is pretty revealing. After speaking with one of my close friends at length, I came to realize that living and identifying as a woman simply suited me better than living as a man, which I found unappealing.

The way I usually explain it is that this way of existing in the world simply works better and is more comfortable for me. I held off on identifying as trans for some time, because I wasn’t sure if what I was feeling was necessarily anything like what other trans women feel, but I came to learn that many trans people feel differently about their gender, and there’s really no realistic way to compare precisely what you’re feeling to what someone else is feeling. Since “transgender” refers to people who live and identify as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, it was easy to see that this encompasses me.

One thing that put me off declaring myself as trans, and still kind of does, is the way that people tend to see this aspect of myself as overshadowing almost anything else about me, but that’s just the risk of being in a minority. While I’m still cautious about speaking on behalf of all trans women, I’ve become less reluctant to speak on behalf of myself and my own experiences as a trans woman.

Daniel Fincke: Do you think it overshadows everything about you to people or that it is an excessive first impression emphasis? Do you think after the initial curiosity abets people go on as usual or do you see signs of them looking at everything you do through the lens of “what about her being trans made her do that”? Or only thinking of you when a trans related issue comes up, etc.?

Zinnia Jones: I do know plenty of people, especially in the atheist and skeptical communities, who are wholly accepting and won’t even blink about the fact that I’m trans. On the other hand, I’ve had the displeasure of reading thousands and thousands of YouTube comments which seem to elevate ignorance to a competition. While I’m inclined to think most of these people were a lost cause from the outset, it’s disturbing to see how many people will ignore anything you say in favor of focusing on your gender.

It seems that for many people, someone being and living as a gender other than the one they were assigned is a largely foreign and incomprehensible idea, one which they have almost no experience with outside of the oversimplified, objectifying, transphobic portrayals of trans women in the mainstream media and pornographic films, where we’re alternately fetishized or portrayed as disgusting and shocking. This creates a significant barrier to overcome, and a lot of people just can’t get past it.

In many cases, it doesn’t seem like something that can be solved purely by education – the way that they view trans people has been almost irreversibly poisoned from the very beginning, and they’re pretty much incapable of seeing us as everyday people like anyone else. They certainly don’t show much of an interest in learning about our lives, or anything that would humanize us. I’m not privy to the thoughts people have the good taste to keep to themselves, but whenever you’re part of a minority group that diverges from the accepted “default” viewpoint in society – that of white, straight, cisgender men – it’s always a worry that people will see you as little more than a label, rather than an individual voice.

Daniel Fincke: I was talking with a gay friend in his sixties the other day about some of the struggles Natalie Reed has articulated and the “Die Cis Scum” meme and he expressed that he understood the feeling of despair she describes in explaining its origin. He identified it as what it felt like to be gay in the ’70s. There has been a drastic change in public polling on the morality of homosexuality in the last 20 years. I attribute it to the increasing numbers of people who have come out. I know in my own mind education plus knowing people and listening to their experiences, even if it is mediated through the internet or TV, has made my mind evolve I think fairly quickly on both gay and trans issues.

Do you think that there are extra hurdles the trans community faces that the gay community did not? Or do you think that as bleak as it seems now, in twenty or thirty years we might be amazed at the sudden steam behind the full dignity of trans people being acknowledged?

Zinnia Jones: Knowing someone who’s gay definitely has an effect on people’s views about homosexuality. Recent polls have shown that many Americans think 25% of the population is gay or lesbian, which is remarkably inaccurate, but shows how familiar many people are with gay people. Trans people, in comparison, are relatively uncommon, so there aren’t quite as many opportunities for people to meet us in their everyday lives. And while in the past decade the media has increasingly come to accept gay people in television and film in many of the same roles as straight people without batting an eye, coverage of trans people is still mostly about the transitioning process itself, rather than simply accepting them in the same varied roles as cis people.

Being trans certainly is different from being gay or bisexual, because while sexual orientation is about what you’re attracted to, gender identity is about your sense of who you are. Nearly everyone is familiar with what it’s like to be attracted to the opposite sex, the same sex, or both. With a little bit of effort and empathy, straight people can understand that gay people have feelings of attraction toward the same sex just as they have feelings of attraction toward the opposite sex. This at least makes homosexuality and bisexuality relatable on some level even if it is not a trait they share. But feeling a fundamental discomfort with one’s assigned gender is something that most people just don’t seem to experience. They conceive of themselves as men or women, and are comfortable in that identity, presentation and role. If anything, the idea of living as the opposite sex, in an opposite sex body, makes them quite uncomfortable.

Many people have described this as not noticing that you’re wearing shoes, until the shoes fit poorly. This does provide an opportunity for a point of comparison – that we’re just as uncomfortable living as our assigned sex as they would be living in an opposite-sex body – but it’s also a “woman trapped in a man’s body” oversimplification designed for the purposes of easy communication, and doesn’t really convey all of the nuances of having a different gender than the one you were assigned. It does seem like people are much more protective of the male and female gender roles that are widely accepted in society, and have little tolerance for those who try to escape the category they’ve been placed in. There’s still a widespread belief that physical sex and gender identity are the same, and that anyone who was designated a man at birth will always be a man no matter what. Understanding trans people requires reexamining the fundamentals of who we are and what makes us men or women. This seems to be more difficult for most people than just understanding that someone is attracted to the same sex.

Daniel Fincke: Indeed, it requires education in philosophical categories. So then what do we do as a practical matter? What kinds of marching orders should cis allies be taking about how we talk about trans issues to the people in our lives? Because it sounds like something that needs to be proactively done. The issues infrequently come up on their own.

Zinnia Jones: Yes, most people don’t seem to have an understanding of what men and women are outside of “people who were born with a penis” or “people who were born with a vagina”. The idea that people can be transgender demands that we take a hard look at ourselves – all of us – and give some thought to how our society defines and raises men and women differently. Before we can truly understand how someone can have a different gender than their assigned sex, we have to understand gender itself, how the concept is built, how it’s used, and how it affects everyone. This goes beyond just accepting others, and verges into examining oneself.

Practically speaking, it would help for more people to understand that gender dysphoria is a recognized medical condition, and that transitioning is the medically accepted standard of treatment which has been most successful for trans people, rather than psychotherapy aimed at convincing them that they must be the gender they were assigned as. Trans people are real, their identities are legitimate, and accepting them is a matter of simple humanity and refraining from causing harm to them.

Many people still see trans people as having some kind of sexual fetish, or as trying to deceive people so that they can molest women in public restrooms, and other nonsense like that. It’s worth reminding them that practically no one would go through therapy for gender identity disorder if they just wanted to assault someone in a restroom – people who are prepared to do so probably don’t have much regard for the sign on the door anyway. Likewise, being transgender is only about sex inasmuch as cisgender people’s physical sex is relevant to their sex lives and desires. If a cisgender woman, for instance, enjoys having the body of a woman in the context of sex, then there should be nothing wrong with a trans woman enjoying her body in the context of sex as well.

Other people seem oddly unnerved about the idea of children being “exposed” to trans people or “confused” by them, which does parallel the fear of gay people being around children and giving them the idea that they too could be gay. But people should understand that being trans is not contagious, and that trans people mean you no harm. While it may not be an easy answer for people who are this afraid, the mere understanding that some people are trans or gay is not a bad thing. If, as a result, someone does realize that they too might be trans or gay, then they were trans or gay in the first place anyway. Having that information only serves to clarify who they are, and potentially prevents a lifetime of personal confusion and struggle.

I think the best thing that allies can do when they see prejudice in their lives is to call it out, do their best to correct it, and let people know they consider it unacceptable. All in all, when I see people who so vehemently deny that trans people could or should live as their gender identity, I always feel like asking them just one question: What do you get out of this? How does it benefit you to deny who someone is and tell them their own self is invalid? How is that your call to make?

Daniel Fincke: Now, this concern about not judging other people by some universal standard that does not take into account the contingencies and particularities of particular people’s lives leads me to my next question for you. It’s a broader philosophical ethics one.

You have an interest in transhumanism that you have blogged about. I am interested in how this at all related to your thoughts on transgenderism. I am sympathetic to transhumanists because I am a moral perfectionist who thinks in terms of the highest good being our fulfillment of human excellences. A lot of people though, when they think of moral perfectionism or transhumanism have a strongly negative association with things as extreme as genocidal eugenics. And one of their main concerns is protecting traditionally unjustly marginalized groups who were called “imperfect” “unnatural”, etc. from another Holocaust.

So how might you be inclined to go about conceiving of and promoting a conception of human excellence, perfection, and even transformation as an abstract ideal that conceptually has built in defenses against the abuse and destruction of traditionally marginalized groups? And, on the positive side, how might you see transgendered people and your experiences as uniquely valuable in the project of advancing of human potential?

Zinnia Jones: While the catastrophes and horrors of the 20th century would rightly leave a strong impression on anyone, transhumanism as almost all transhumanists see it is not about “killing the weak” or anything of the sort. Killing, hurting and harming people would actually be directly contrary to our goals! We want to make things better for people, not worse. And we want to make things better for *all* people, not just a limited privileged subset. We don’t want to keep underclasses of people, we want everyone to have access to the same possibilities of endless personal fulfillment – simply because, if this is possible, there is no justifiable reason to deny it to anyone who wants it.

If one person is given the chance to become the best self they want to be, then every person should have that chance. Any kind of transhumanism that results in mistreating people, making them suffer, or inflicting harm upon them is a *failed* transhumanism as far as I’m concerned. As I see it, a key element of transhumanism is that it is voluntary and non-coercive. Just as how someone should be allowed to enhance themselves as they see fit, no one should be forced to do so, either. It’s obvious that this leads into the standard questions of where one person’s freedom ends and another’s freedom begins, but fundamentally, transhumanism supports allowing people to become what they wish to become, without any upper limit, so long as it does not harm others.

I think transgender people are actually a great early example of transhumanism, as being transgender involves rejecting the usual assumptions and limitations of what a person must be, and taking control of – actively redefining – our self, our bodies and their functioning. It’s also an early litmus test which has revealed how uncomfortable many people become when these assumptions about human existence are questioned. This is just about changing your sex and defining your gender on your own terms, and the rejection of the assumption of inflexible, permanent categories of gender already makes many people recoil. Imagine how they’ll react when people seek to become something more than human!

Given that transgender people are, willingly or not, at the vanguard here, the idea of being transgender may help prepare people to become more comfortable with self-determination and self-definition for the sake of your own personal fulfillment, without arbitrary moral bounds on the kind of existence we “must” limit ourselves to.

Daniel Fincke: What do you think about the interaction between atheism and transgenderism? Is it more important to you that transgendered people own their identities and find dignity however possible or that they not endorse the religions that prop up the systems of their disenfranchisement?

Zinnia Jones: I’m prepared to accept that many LGBT-affirming religions, such as the Metropolitan Community Church and Unitarian Universalism, are mostly harmless in a political sense and to the people who follow them – aside from any occasions where they might promote the credulousness and faith that’s common among religions. If any trans people have found a religion that works for them, and it’s not harming anyone, I probably wouldn’t begrudge them that.

Atheism alone as a position doesn’t necessitate that one must accept transgender identities, and being transgender doesn’t inherently entail taking a position of atheism, but atheism does mean that any religiously-based objections to trans people are no longer compelling, and I can definitely see how the process of questioning deeply-rooted social and cultural assumptions could easily lead to questioning other fundamental “truths” such as the existence of deities. As most mainstream religions reject trans people, this only serves to accelerate that process. If you’ve concluded that your identity is valid, contrary to what your family, community or society may have told you, then your religion could be wrong about this as well. This can certainly be corrosive to faith.

Daniel Fincke: Did you ever have faith in a religion?

Zinnia Jones: I had faith only to the extent that I was mildly afraid of a possible hell. My family attended a Catholic church for much of my childhood, and I attended Sunday school and had my first communion. During that time, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t believe almost any of what we were taught. My attitude toward it was similar to reading class in school: it was just a series of stories that we had to learn about. I don’t think I ever really understood the point of going to church.

When I gave prayer a try, I had no sense that I was talking “to” any supernatural beings, so I assumed everyone else knew this as well and it was just something they did anyway. In my pre-teens, my parents decided to start attending a Lutheran (WELS) church instead, for no reason other than that this was where their friends went. It was a smaller church with more of a closely-knit community, but I still saw it as mere ritual, stories, and a social group. I was enrolled in catechism class, where the pastor got my attention by claiming that radiometric dating is a scientific conspiracy and dinosaur bones were manually placed in the earth by God as a test of our faith. As this was contrary to the real science I was learning about at my real school during the week, I didn’t put much stock in his opinions about things.

This was when I really began to realize that these people actually were serious about their beliefs, and were not simply going through the motions like I was. It was surprising and unnerving to see people truly denying reality, and I always looked for excuses to get out of catechism class after that. This proved unnecessary, as my mother had a falling-out with the rest of the church after the pastor told her she shouldn’t divorce her husband (my step-father at the time). I can attest that this divorce was very much needed. After that, we didn’t move to any other church or religious group, and I was only nominally a Christian.

For some time in my teens, I identified as agnostic but not atheist, solely out of the fear that hell might be real and I might be subjected to it if I were to deny outright the existence of a god. I broke myself out of this by noticing that I had no fear of any other possible hells that I might experience by denying the many other gods that I never had even a nominal belief in. From there, I felt confident in identifying openly as an atheist – and later as an especially vocal atheist after I increasingly noticed the harms resulting from religion.

Your Thoughts?

See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

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