A well-known writer and videoblogger with a focus on LGBTQ rights and secularism, Zinnia Jones was on CNN last month to discuss Chelsea Manning’s need for––and right to––transition care while in prison. She joined Secular Woman as a member this month and took time to talk with Julia Burke about Manning’s case and what it’s taught us about mainstream misconceptions about the trans* community, as well as misconceptions about the rights of inmates. She also discussed her path to atheism, the most common misunderstandings she encounters regarding trans* people, and what she’d like to see for the secular movement.
SW: The media coverage of Chelsea Manning’s case has brought to light so much transphobia and general ignorance in our culture. What has it been like, speaking to the media on behalf of the trans* community as this story unfolds, and what can those who want to be allies do to help?
ZJ: Well there has been so much incomprehension that it’s really made clear to me that so many people in mainstream culture have no idea of what it means to be trans*, what it’s like to be trans*, really what any of these things even are––any treatments, the importance of access to care, anything like that. So in many ways I’ve been explaining this from scratch to people who are largely clueless, and it’s almost insulting sometimes because it makes me feel like I have to explain our basic humanity, and that we require treatment like anyone else, we’re entitled to care in prison like anyone else, we’re entitled to our own genders like anyone else.
So it’s been difficult at times, trying to convey this in a way that’s understandable and in a way that brings people up to speed on this, on what should be basic issues of humanity and how being trans* is being understood, when they’re so far behind on all this and completely outside of it.
It’s important to be informed on this. It’s important to know the basics on this: things like the established standards of care for transitioning, things like position statements by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and other medical authorities on how transitioning is the only treatment, it’s a necessary treatment, and it’s an effective treatment. It would also be important to get up to speed on the case law surrounding this. In civilian courts it’s repeatedly been established that access to hormone therapy, for instance, is something trans* people in prison cannot be deprived of without it constituting cruel and unusual punishment. There have been rulings on this pertaining to surgeries as well. So knowing the precedent on that would be helpful, and really just basic things about access to care in prisons for trans* people––and really, for everyone.
When I talk to people about this they seem to be under the impression that no one in prison should be entitled to any medical care at all. And it’s like, what exactly do you think happens in prisons? Is this some kind of post-Apocalyptic, dystopian free for all? The government becomes responsible for caring for people it incarcerates. That includes medical care. Transitioning is necessary care according to medical authorities, ergo, transitioning is part of the care the government must provide. It’s very important for people to understand that transition care is crucial and necessary and not some sort of luxury that can be omitted. That’s the angle that people really need to internalize here. This should be provided––yes, at taxpayer expense, like everything else in prisons. If [this taxpayer expense issue] is a concern for you, you might want to start worrying about how many people this country incarcerates in general, for goodness sake.
The way that they play this up in the media, too, seems so uninformed. Being a trans woman sitting in the studio, having someone on CNN tell me this treatment costs a hundred dollars a month when the government pays for it––it costs $13 a month when I pay for it, without any discounts or deal. The ignorance as though it’s authoritative, when speaking to someone who actually knows about this, is what makes it really important to actually listen to trans* people first rather than people promoting their own misconceptions and then having trans* people come on to correct them after the fact.
SW: How would you characterize understanding of these issues in the secular movement, specifically?
ZJ: While some people are uninformed about it, there’s really not so much overt hostility. Once you tell them what it’s all about they understand and they’re willing to listen. People in general in the secular community show a willingness to learn, especially when presented with the facts on this. And that is something to our advantage: the science is incredibly clear, the facts are incredibly clear. And the secular community is largely familiar with facing that mindset of actually showing someone facts, and either they accept them or they dig in and reject them.
SW: How would you describe the way women are welcomed––or not––in the atheist/secular community, both online and in real life?
ZJ: Personally this isn’t something I’ve had much experience with, as opposed to other big-name women in the movement who have had much more experience, largely because they’re the ones who have been targets of such vicious and repeated attacks. I almost get the feeling I’m omitted from that not only because I haven’t been as outspoken about harassment but also because to all the people getting on their case I may seem to be new at being a woman.
SW: Can you tell us the story of how you became an atheist?
ZJ: That was a pretty early-on thing for me. I was brought to the Catholic church when I was 5 or 6 just as a family thing, because my mother felt that now that she had kids it’s time for religion, I guess. It was at least what she had been taught; it was ‘hereditary religion.’ I started going to CCD class, getting on track for communion, and everything I learned there was not really anything I was able to take seriously. A lot of it was just Bible stories and, while we opened and closed with prayer, I tended to see it as just a role-playing thing or like story time at school. I never really internalized it as something I was actually supposed to believe. I tried praying once or twice on the off chance that there was anything to it, and afterwards when nothing happened I was like, ‘I guess I was right, there’s nothing going on here.’
We switched to a WELS Lutheran church because that’s where my mom’s friends were going now. So we started going there and that was when I first got exposed to some really serious intensive religion. To take communion there children first had to go through a two-year-long confirmation class. Once a week I spent a couple hours there, every Wednesday night, and there were five or six of us in the class headed towards confirmation, and we learned a lot of interesting things there, studying whatever the pastor felt was relevant in the Bible. This was a Young Earth Creationist church, a homophobic church, an anti-science church, and very anti-Catholic. I learned that the Pope is the representative of the antichrist on Earth. I learned how radiometric dating is some sort of lie and how dinosaur bones aren’t actually real––they were placed in the ground as a test of our faith. Meanwhile, I was in high school biology learning about basic things like the history of Earth and how basic life sciences work, and it was very difficult to see how I could learn about actual science all week long and then be expected to turn that off and ignore it as if it meant nothing and pretend for a couple hours that we live in a world that’s 10,000 years old and the antichrist walks the earth. That was when religion really raised the stakes in terms of the extreme claims it was making and I was not at all able to accept that. They pit themselves against established science and, in my mind, they lost.
We ended up leaving that church because the pastor had told my mom that she should not divorce her abusive husband because the vows of marriage required that she stay with him; she wasn’t up for that and I can’t blame her. After that, I didn’t exactly state my non-belief explicitly; I might have nominally said I was a Christian because I didn’t know about any alternative, but I switched over to agnostic just because of that nagging fear: what if you’re wrong? Do you really want to risk that? And I was there for a little while, but eventually I fought my way out of it by just asking myself, am I afraid of Islam? Do I believe in that, just in case? I just realized there was no reason to treat Christianity as special either. Around 17 or 18 I became more comfortable just considering myself an atheist, and shortly around the 2008 election, when Prop 8 passed largely due to Mormon campaigning and Mormon funding, it struck me as the height of absurdity that this faith was now the basis for worshippers to spend millions of dollars to make sure that gay people in California could not get married anymore. It was outrageous to me, and that’s when I started my YouTube channel and I spent the next couple years just addressing the various things I encountered.
SW: Can you address your top three or four misconceptions that you encounter about trans* people?
ZJ: A lot of people seem to think that treatment in terms of transitioning is just an elective thing or a cosmetic thing. Some people tend to think of it in the same sense as breast augmentation or something. Major medical bodies state that this is not merely cosmetic thing. But people have come to associate anything that surgically alters your body as being associated with vanity. It’s really not in this case here; it’s just correcting something that’s unwanted and should not have happened biologically so your body simply works better. This is a very necessary thing.
Also, nobody seems to actually know what hormones do. I’m not even sure what people think they do. But it’s important to make clear that it’s effectively an antidepressant, antianxiety drug. Aside from arresting unwanted changes physically, it really is essential to mental health for those who need it.
Overall, people have very little sense of exactly how important this is in terms of having a fulfilling life. Gender is a pretty fundamental thing, and it’s something you need to be comfortable with in order to just make life worth living and pursue anything in life and have a sense of purpose. A lot of trans women share this experience of mine where until we started transitioning most things in life seemed pretty pointless. I just did videos for years to keep myself occupied and have something to do, and stave off depression for another day.
When you do get treated, things start to change. You start to see things differently within a week of getting started. I felt better than I ever have in my life. Over the past year, just in contrast to everything that came before, I got my first full-time real job; I got to speak at a secular rally; I’ve been able to appear on CNN; I’m engaged now; I’m writing a book. These are basic matters of just realizing your full potential and making life something we can actually be enthusiastic and productive about and something that has a point and a purpose to it. To act like that’s something unimportant is just not correct and contrary to the experience of many trans* people. It’s very important to listen to trans* people when they explain what their lives are like and when they explain why their treatment is necessary.
SW: What issues would you especially like to see the atheist/secular community more involved in?
ZJ: I think focusing on LGBT rights is a pressing issue right now, given that it’s the site of so much basic science opposition. So much of homophobia is religious in nature. So much of transphobia is anti-science. It’s rooted in this conservative belief system which by all rights we should stand opposed to. Focusing on LGBT issues in particular seems like something the secular movement should really be cut out for. It’s a really basic thing where there’s plenty of science; there are really no excuses for intolerance from an empirical perspective, but prejudice continues to flourish in that vacuum of information, and that’s something atheists should be a part of changing.