Passing Out

Transphobia, The Turing Test, and Cards Against Humanity

Posted Jun 24, 2014

A beer-and-pretzels card game called “Cards Against Humanity” recently caused a bit of a ruckus. The goal of the game is a bit like the old parlour game Consequences. You’ve all played it. Someone writes something on a piece of paper, folds it, passes it to the next person. Sometimes it’s done with drawings. When the paper is unfolded something, hopefully amusing, results. The surrealists used to use it as a creativity spur.

How those long winter evenings just flew past

Cards Against Humanity uses a similar technique but with the sort of thing that college students find hilarious. The game has black and white cards.

Black cards are printed with things like, “In a world ravaged by_______.Our only solace is_______________.” or “What will always get you laid?”

The white cards have options on them like, “This year’s mass shooting,” “Holding down a child and farting on him,” “8oz of Mexican black-tar heroin,” or “Poor people.”

You play white cards on black cards and various rules are enacted to decide which combinations are the funniest.

Did I mention that the game is somewhat un-PC? Well, I guess I don’t have to now. It’s racist, sexist, ageist, disablist, homophobic, and childish. It's full of holocaust references. Whether it’s funny is a matter of taste. My friend Barry X Kuhle thinks it’s hilarious. Don’t say you haven’t been warned. You can get a copy here.

Burning the card
These days--eveyone expects the Spanish Inquisition

One of the white cards contained the following options: “Passable transvestites.” Some took offense at this—leading one of the games originators, Max Temkin, to withdraw the card and publicly apologize. Someone burnt the card—because apparently burning things we don’t like is what we do on Tumblr these days.

You think I want to discuss the resultant flame wars, Twitter fights, and privilege contests that adorn the internet and provide any watching aliens with a wonderful insight into human nature, don’t you? Well, I don’t. I don’t even want to discuss the fact that the furor has failed to distinguish transvestites from transsexuals—which is quite important.

Burning the War Against Boys
When they burn one of my books--I'll know I've arrived

Actually, I want to discuss this concept of “passable.”

It might surprise people to realize that passing is a stated goal of many trans folk—and for good reasons. If you feel yourself to have been born in the wrong body and wish people treated you differently, then you will go to an awful lot of effort to make this happen. Even setting aside the possible violent reaction of many to the trans community—people do not do this on a whim. Identity comes easily to many of us reinforced by others—not so if you feel trapped in the wrong body.

Take for example the following site “passing glances,” I recommend all my students who want to study human behavior in a natural setting to take a look at it."You want to be an ethologist? Look at this and learn.” Seriously—scroll down and take a look at the trouble being taken here. These things are not necessarily accurate—but boy, are they detailed.

And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!

Studying human behavior in the wild—human ethology—is incredibly difficult. One of the heroes of my discipline—Eibl-Eibesfeldt spent long and obsessive hours documenting human sexual interactions. One of his key findings: Males approaching females without first being given the go-ahead (by one of the hundreds of female signals that Eibl-Eibesfeldt meticulously documented) are pretty much doomed. 

Oh, and incidentally—these female signals were robustly cross-cultural—so stick that in your social constructionist pipe and smoke it.


Captain? What is this you call a kiss?

Source: Eibl-Eibesfeldt

What's more--this is not news. Not only have women been sending "meh! try harder" signals (e.g coyness) across cultures they have also been doing so across time. Hence the recent "Art is 500 years of women ignoring men" post.

But, back to Melinda. Look at the ethology that she is going into here. To pass you need to walk differently, talk differently, sit differently. How the hands are held, eye-contact, and words used are all meticulously documented. Melinda suggests the version of the Turing test that Turing himself referred to in his original paper—that of convincing people online (in Turing's paper—the next room) that you are the opposite sex. And she suggests a variety of ways to make this convincing. Ways that you wouldn't even consciously consider. Adjectives to use. Sentence length. How to look at your nails.

Now—you might not like these things. You might think that they are social constructs (whatever that means). But it can hardly be denied that these differences are there. If there were no real measurable differences between men and women then there would be nothing for people keen on passing to study.

This is one of the reasons, presumably, why those whose ideology is rooted in there being no real  differences between men and women can be so unconscionably vicious to trans folk. You know who you are.

Oh, and lest we think that this is all about men passing as women...

Norah Vincent
Norah Vincent. Another star ethologist

Norah Vincent spent a year living as a man. I have blogged about this before. Her insights into this are also something that every scholar of human nature should be aware of. Perhaps if all of us did this at some point in our lives we would spare one another the tedious "you have it easier", "no--you have it easier" wars on the internet. But where would the fun in that be?

How rooted in biology these differences are is another matter entirely. However—we have certainly not got our species to the point where we generally want to be mistaken for one another and the sheer number of ways that males and females differ behaviorally suggests that ethologists will not be short of study material for some time to come.

Breton, André (7 October 1948). "Breton Remembers"

 Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1970). Ethology: The biology of behavior. 

Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1973). Love and hate: On the natural history of basic behaviour patterns. AldineTransaction. 

Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (2007). Human ethology. Transaction Publishers. 

Turing, A. M. (1950). Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind, 433-460.

Vincent, N. (2006). Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back. New York: Penguin.

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