Fired Without Cause: An Interview with Rebecca Kastl
[PHOENIX, AZ] - When I first read Rebecca Kastl's story in the Phoenix New Times (A Privates Matter), I was outraged that an institution of higher learning would send the message to its students that discrimination is OK. But once you dig deeper into the story, you realize that it's not just the community college at fault here. Our entire society is implicated in a system of rigid gender dichotomies that punishes people who color outside of the lines.
Rebecca Kastl was formerly a professor at Estrella Mountain Community College. She lost her job in December of 2001; Rebecca is transgendered and the college fired her because she refused to submit to a genital check. What's worse is that the ACLU, the EEOC and the State Attorney General's office have all stated that Ms. Kastl doesn't have a case. But if this isn't a clear-cut case of job discrimination, then I don't know what is.
"What I am speaking about is the manner and significance we assign to sex and gender roles in society, and all the desperation that is exercised to hang onto those roles at all costs. This type of rigid adherence to seemingly distinct gender roles is not constrained to the conservative religious right crowd, although they would appear to be the ones with the most desperate hold on the concepts (not to mention they are frequently the most hypocritical in their opposition). It permeates across all aspects of society, including into the gay community, feminism, chauvinism, and anyone else that hasn't had to face questions about their gender in an unblinking and head-on manner." (Rebecca Kastl, "It's All In Our Heads," The TG Harmony Newletter. June 2002. P.4)
Here is the conversation that I've had with Ms. Kastl regarding her case:
G-Spot: Leslie Feinberg talks about the troubles of language and says that sie is pronoun challenged. When referring to yourself in the third person, which pronouns do you prefer?
Rebecca Kastl: I use and prefer female pronouns. I've never been mistaken for being male -- at least not since my transition. Hearing myself referred to by male pronouns bothers me quite a bit as it almost seems to be an affront to me. I understand that those who know me the closest and the longest will occasionally slip with their pronoun usage, and that's fine. It's when someone does it intentionally that it almost seems as a directed insult. Fortunately, it rarely ever happens.
GS: Give us a brief background of your case. What led up to your termination? Was there any indication from EMCC before you received the letter on October 5, 2001 that school officials would force you to submit to such discriminatory requirements?
RK: I was contacted by Betty Vickerey (the CIS department chair) on Oct. 5th. She said something to the effect of "I just found out about something that I think is kind of funny; at least I think it's funny, you may not." Then she went on to inform me of the new policy change by the district. I immediately voiced my displeasure and let her know that I did not think this was being funny in the least. I immediately contacted the dean (Dr. Bryan Tippett) to discuss the issue with him. We discussed the whole issue at length.
Apparently, the impetus for the decision was that a parent with a minor child attending the campus voiced objections to a transgendered faculty member using the women's restroom. Ironically, they were referring to another transgendered faculty member, not myself. Lastly, according to unconfirmed rumors, the objections were religiously based.
It wasn't until the 5th of Dec. that I was fired. Up until that time, I continued to teach, continued to refuse to consent to a genital check, and continued to use the women's restroom. Actually, the predecessor to my termination was receiving a paycheck for $0.00. The next day is when I received my termination notice via e-mail (the one posted on my site). Up to the point where they informed me of the policy decision, I had never had a problem with anyone on campus. In fact, I was making great strides in education and understanding by simply being a "normal" person.
GS: Why did the ACLU decline to take your case? This seems like something that would be right up their alley.
RK: Essentially, the ACLU told me that they were not interested in taking the case because it didn't "affect a great number of people" and involved "complex legal and factual issues." It was suggested to me to contact the Gay and Lesbian division of the ACLU as they are usually much more sympathetic to these types of cases. I will be doing that shortly.
GS: Why did the state Attorney General's office decline to look into the case?
RK: The State AG's office doesn't feel that I have a claim. According to their analysis, I am not protected by the Constitution of the U.S. or the State of AZ. I say this because I specifically raised issues of "due process" which would preempt any classification interpretations for Title VII. Their response was that I was "out of their jurisdiction."
GS: Why did the EEOC refuse to hear your case? How long do you have to appeal the decision?
RK: The EEOC did not provide a reason.
I have until mid-August to file a case. I am hesitant to move forward without adequate legal representation, although not entirely averse. My main concern is that since I work out of state (because I can't find employment in the Phoenix area) that I will put my job in jeopardy by trying to pursue a case with court dates that may conflict with my job.
GS: Have you considered filing a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act? If you have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, would that technically qualify as a disability? Do you see any drawbacks to trying the case on the grounds of disability vs. gender?
RK: No. There are a number of transsexuals who have done this, and some have even been successful. I refuse to do this on idealistic principles. I will not claim that I have a "disability" when I in fact don't. I am perfectly capable of working and carrying myself in the world the same as anyone else. Personally, I also feel that this is somewhat of an insult to people who have a legitimate disability.
GS: Have you been able to find an attorney to take the case to federal court?
RK: I have spoken with several attorneys. So far, none have been willing to take my case.
GS: What can we as students, faculty, peers, feminists and/or queer activists do to help you in your fight against EMCC?
RK: Good question. In general, I think the biggest step that any of us can make is to educate and help people understand the reality of what is being dealt with here.
The county has already demonstrated a stubbornness that defies common sense and decency. Short of pressuring state politicians and letting them know that there are people in their constituencies who are concerned about these issues (issues pertaining to LGBT people), I'm not sure what else can be accomplished for this case. The issue with legislators is to let them know that there are members of their constituency who support sexual orientation/gender identity issues. I spoke with John Huppenthal (one of my state reps), and seem genuinely interested, although he finished the meeting by politely telling me he couldn't "just go around trashing societal norms."
I think that the more varied voices that the legislature hears regarding these issues, the better progress will be made. And I think it makes more of a difference if people who don't have a vested interest are the ones lobbying -- someone who is supportive of gender identity issues, yet doesn't know anyone that is transgendered, would likely make more of an impact than me going in and doing the same thing.
GS: Do you mean help people understand the constructed nature of gender roles or something else? What are your suggestions?
RK: I think it's a twofold issue. One is certainly based upon the standard binary gender roles that everyone is expected to conform to. The other is transsexuality itself. Certainly, the substance of these issues run far deeper than I can possibly try to get at in one interview, but I'll try. If we look back to the mid-50s when "men were men and women were women" (as it has been said), we can see the stark dichotomy of gender roles. Men worked in an office, found cars and sport to be interesting, and had little to do with child rearing. Women, on the other hand, were the homemaker, doting on their husband, raising the kids, and not concerning themselves with any of those "male things" like a career.
Today, much of those gender stereotypes are still held by society, albeit in a far more subtle manner. In some facets of society, adherence to gender stereotypes is not subtle at all. I've read more than one, in literature put forth by the Religious Right folks, about how men need to be men, and women need to be women. One even went so far as to say "Without a male role model who will teach a young boy how to work on cars or play sports?" As though a woman couldn't do that?
The other aspect of this would become apparent when someone changes their sex. This is quite a bit more difficult to qualify, yet easier to understand. Men have a penis fixation, and a male-to-female transsexual makes real all their fears about what's going to happen to "little willy." Basically put, it's castration anxiety. Most males can't even begin to fathom why someone would want to get rid of their penis, but to people like myself, it becomes a daily insult and is a physical deformity that needs to be gotten rid of. I think that more than a few women are just as confused about the whole thing, but come at it from a different angle. Typically, these types of women are the soccer moms who stay at home (or maybe hold a part time job), and focus their lives on being a good wife. To them, they see men as the bread winners, and women as the caretakers. They ask "why would a man want to give up all the privileges associated with male power?" The reality is that they've fallen into the trap of believing those same stereotypes.
Either way, for both men and women, I think almost all of their discomfort emanates from the physicality of sex -- the penis and vagina -- as though those are the only components of sex that mean anything. People like to feel comfortable that they know what they need to know in life. They don't like to have to reassess something that has always been so concrete to them. The whole concept of understanding the mechanics of transsexuality causes us to have to rethink *everything* that we've ever taken for granted about sex. Filling out a form? What choices do you have for sex? Male and female. That's it. No intersexed. No hermaphrodite. No transsexual. No alternatives.
"The natural function of Nature is through diversity. Carl Jung best expressed this by stating that the 'statistical mean' is simply that, and can only be arrived at through proper deviation in opposite directions. Additionally, he also stated that the 'statistical mean' does not represent any particular, empirical instance. He clearly illustrated this by the example of deriving a 'statistical mean' from a pair of bi-polar opposites. The 'statistical mean' represents neither subject adequately, and is not beneficial to either subject at all. A 'statistical mean' is nothing more than a singular representation of quantifiable data and says nothing about the subjects which comprise the sample set . . . Kate Bornstein, in her book Gender Outlaw, discusses how she has frequently asked the question, 'What constitutes being male or female?' In response to this questions, she has never received a definitive answer to the question -- for every answer, there is an instance that nullifies it." (Rebecca Kastl, "The Concept of Gender.")
GS: You have mentioned that you are wary of feminists and even queer activists because many times they may not be accepting of the transgender community. Why do you feel this is true? Do you feel that feminists ought to be working more closely with the queer community to achieve true gender equality that allows people to express their gender any way they choose? Would you ever self-identify as a feminist?
RK: Lots of questions all wrapped up in one:
* I personally am wary of feminists and queer activists for a variety of reasons. One of the most notable oppositions is due to the enactment of "womyn only" spaces, or "womyn born womyn" spaces (as has been seen with the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival). This, IMHO, almost equates to the same "blinders on" bigot approach used by the social conservatives who want to define everything in very black and white terms -- "You are not allowed to deviate!" Scary stuff.
But I do think that feminists have a point. There are those in the transgendered community who, when transitioning, take the feminine affectations to an almost comical extreme. They suddenly become very flamboyant, exaggerated gestures, frilly clothes, etc. -- the worst examples of the female gender anachronism. I myself am quite frequently embarrassed by it. Why can't I, as a transsexual woman, still run around in jeans and T-shirts when I want to be comfortable?
" As a transsexual, once we have transitioned, there is no reprieve -- we cannot escape ourselves now as transitioned transmen and transwomen any easier than we could escape ourselves when we were living the life of a wrongly gendered person. When we go out each day, we are who we are. A step backwards for a rest or reprieve is a step backwards in the name of progress. Because of that, we need to find comfort in the identity that we present to the world each day." (Rebecca Kastl, "To Pass Or Not To Pass..")
Some queer activists, and many in the LGBT community (again generally) have a very skewed understanding of exactly what it means to be transgendered, or more specifically, transsexual. I've heard the theory that male-to-female transsexuals are nothing more than gay men in denial who change sex to make their lives more socially appealing. As absurd as it sounds, there is quite a contingent that honestly believe this. On the other hand, there is a lot of misunderstanding because the queer community hasn't really embraced the transgendered community beyond garish drag queens (e.g., Ru Paul) and bad camp. Again, I think it comes down to education. There's a whole "gay passing as straight" concept within pockets of the gay community that I think really works against any real progress. But that is entirely another issue that I won't deal with here (at least not yet).
* I absolutely feel that the feminist community should be working more closely with the queer/genderqueer community. Gender stereotypes -- in this day and age -- are an anachronism that needs to die. I've written entire editorials on this topic, and I will likely do another one soon, just because you've asked me this question.
* Yes, I would and do identify as a feminist. Prior to my transition, I never really understood the *real* pervasiveness of the "glass ceiling" and the way that women are treated as inferior. I always made it a point to treat people equally, but I was quite an asshole at the time, so I basically just treated everyone mean. Once I finally came out, got the monkey off my back (so to speak), and accepted myself, I was a 180 degree changed person. Now I can see that, while I may or may not have made distinctions, men in general do. I've told more than one friend that I'm astounded to learn that the "male stereotype" isn't just an exaggerated joke, but is in fact true.
Now how does this relate to me being a feminist? Because I've always believed -- with an idealistic honesty that borders on Don Quixoti-ism -- that anyone can be anything. I think it is deplorable that women are taught to be secretaries and mothers, and aspire to what frequently equates to slavery -- as I've witnessed with my older sisters. In my opinion, the essence of a feminist is that women should be able to be whatever it is they wish to be without having to sacrifice anything in their perceived femininity. Maybe I'm missing some of the point here, but I think that pretty much gets at the heart of it.
Surprisingly, being a "feminist" I still find reading Nietzsche to be a fascinating experience even after reading the same book a 2nd or 3rd time. Nietzsche has been widely viewed as a misogynist. For the most part, he didn't have a lot of good things to say about women, but when placed into the context of his entire philosophy, it makes perfect sense, and isn't misogynistic at all. Basically, Nietzche saw women willingly accepting an inferior societal role, and in doing so, manipulating their way through life by being pretty, attaching themselves to men to give their lives meaning, etc. He saw the female stereotype (of the 1880s) as a negation of the spirit and the self. But today, people see unflattering remarks by him about women and think that he was just a chauvinist -- which isn't true.
GS: Do you feel that the climate within the feminist/queer community(ies) is/are changing? What else needs to be done to help change people's attitudes?
RK: Yes, I do think the climate is changing, albeit slowly. People are reluctant to change their opinions, and sometimes even those who profess to have an open mind are a bit resistant. What's more, I think that the concept of gender is a little more fundamental to who we are -- like Jung's symbol theory -- it's integral to our psyche.
GS: Do you think that perhaps the reason that the feminist and queer communities are so hesitant to accept transgender people is because gender play destroys the sense of stability that the gender dichotomy has in people's lives? Just the concept of gender play itself unsettles people because it reveals the constructed nature of gender itself and demonstrates that all gender performance is really some form of drag (to quote Judith Butler). Do you think this lack of foundation is what causes people to stubbornly hold onto these anachronistic ideas of what a man or a womyn is?
RK: I think so. For now, all I'll say is that the concept that that foundation isn't as concrete as they once believed, and that causes them to try ever more desperately to hold on to those ideas.
GS: Or, is it an attempt to "sanitize" the movements because we don't like to deal with anything too radical or too messy? Kind of like how Alice Paul and early radical first wave feminists were disavowed by the more liberal groups because their hunger strikes were too radical. Likewise, MLK condemned Malcolm X for being too radical and setting back the black cause because he was calling for a revolution rather than simple legal reforms. They made the more mainstream groups look bad and were therefore detrimental to the movements as a whole (their words, not mine).
RK: Even though I find myself occasionally falling into the radical activist, I try to stay away from it. Example: I make more progress in helping people understand transsexuality by simply being who I am and conducting my apparently "normal" life, than I do by being "in your face" and shoving things down people's throats (although there are certainly times when I wish I could do that). My biggest pet peeve is stupidity, and bigotry is the most vile form of stupidity.
"You'd think that any society considering itself to be 'intelligent' or 'enlightened' would have to agree that the more we learn, the more we may be required to adjust our understanding of the world, and the more we would have to relinquish our efforts to effect a controlling grasp of the way the world works -- or at least to relinquish our efforts to make the world work in the way we say it should." (Rebecca Kastl, "It's All In Our Heads." Previously cited.)