Wednesday, January 4, 2012

GenderPAC and Gender Rights

Excerpt from Riki Wilchins’ Queer Theory, Gender Theory:  An Instant Primer


I've tried to use this book to offer the theoretical tool set that helped me answer questions about what I was or wasn't, or why I didn't conform to gender stereotypes. This tool set also helped me to start organizing like-minded people to end the discrimination and violence caused by the gender stereotypes I saw all around me.

And it is all around: in the restricted way we raise our children, in bullying at school, in workplace terminations and public ridicule and gender-based assaults. As I write this, a teenager has been stabbed to death in Newark, N.J. Sakia Gunn looked like a handsome young African-American boy. According to her mother, she was dressed "like a boy" when a car pulled alongside her early this morning at 3 A.M. She was only 15.

None of the news reports mentioned rage toward Sakia's gender nonconformity as a possible motive for the assault. If we don't talk about hate crimes like these, we can't stop them from happening again.

This final chapter is where all the theory has been leading. For me, it's what this whole book has been about. Gender stereotypes cause real, profound, and pervasive social suffering and hardship. The suffering is no less real because we don't always see the issue. It's time we organized to stop it. It's time we put theory into action.


Women's rights, gay rights, and transgender rights had all taken big bites out of the apple of gender stereotyping. In 1995, the time was ripe for a national organization to focus directly and exclusively on achieving gender rights.

This was the idea behind my founding the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition or GenderPAC. What was true then remains true today: The people most interested in issues of primary identity of gender expression and identity-are those most often identified with them. I'm talking about transgender people.

Transpeople are still the only community who will readily identify the problems around gender. Almost everyone else is too ashamed to do so, or chooses to reinterpret issues with the gender system through sex or sexual orientation.

But for transpeople, having issues with gender is the basis for common identity. Transpeople have no choice but to attack gender norms, because their very existence is in itself a challenge to gender norms, no matter how well they might visually conform to them.

GenderPAC was formed to be a gender rights group, but its roots are in the transgender community. By early 1996, several directors began envisioning GenderPAC as the national transgender political organization, while I was committed to the vision of an organization pursuing the principle of gender rights for all.

This contradiction placed it squarely on a political fault line, and predictably the very first fight we had was over who owned GenderPAC and gender rights. There was a short, fierce struggle behind the scenes over a period of months. No work was done. All the energy anyone had went into this fight. Barely a year old, the organization was already on the verge of breaking apart under the pressure of competing visions and competing political agendas.

On one hand, other national organizations almost completely ignored GenderPAC-the acronym LGBT had not yet been widely accepted-and there was a deep need for a national transgender political group.

There still is.  Because the community is very small and geographically dispersed, often fractious, and composed of multiple subgroups.  It has been hard to build national political organizations from scratch.  At the same time, gay organizations have amassed money, infrastructure, and political legitimacy.

Thus, the transgender community has always been torn between building its own institutions to represent its own interests, and leveraging the muscle of the gay rights movement by demanding greater inclusion of transgender people.  As of this writing, most transgender activists appear to have come down firmly in favor of the latter.

On the other hand, it was difficult for transgender activists who were loudly trumpeting the virtues of inclusiveness to gay groups to demand an exclusive transgender-focused group for themselves. In the end several organizations left the board, and a number of new groups - gay, bisexual, and intersex - were invited to join. We went forward with at least a nominal commitment to ideal of inclusion and the principle of gender rights for all, but the problem was far from over.

In addition to our political troubles, we had money troubles. We had hardly grown; in fact, some years we had virtually no budget and had to depend on a handful of volunteers for nearly everything.  While I talked about gender rights, because we lacked the money and resources to create programs, in reality we could only respond to events, and of course all the events we were asked to respond to involved transsexuals.

Wherever I spoke, everyone seemed to understand that when I said "gender rights for all" what I meant in practice was "transsexual rights for us." In any case, people couldn’t seem to hear what I was saying over the sound of my body.

We were talking the inclusive talk but walking the transsexual walk. It was the best of both worlds: look radical, play to the base. I was aware of the contradiction, but I had so much to do and so few resources that I thought the situation would resolve itself.


Later came much sooner than expected, in the form of our first full-time employee, Managing Director Gina Reiss. I might have been good at public speaking, theory, and "the vision thing," but I had no formal organizational skills or professional experience as an activist.  Gina, on the other hand, was the real deal.

All she had ever wanted to do was activism, and she'd waited tables at night so she could learn her profession. Starting as a volunteer, she worked her way up to become action vice-president of NOW-NJ.

Next, she headed the New Jersey Lesbian and Gay Coalition as its first executive director, and went on to help found the Federation of Statewide LGBT Advocacy Organizations together with veteran leaders such as Urvashi Vaid, the former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

            Gina had a genius for organization and a penchant for working long hours. Animated, intense, and frighteningly assertive, she did not suffer fools gladly. With dark, slender good looks, she looked like a striking gay-boy just exiting his teens whom you might see shopping at Banana Republic.

She was looking for a way to connect her lesbian and feminist politics with the fact that she was frequently the target of all manner of gender harassment, from men in the street to women who pulled her bodily out of restrooms. She seemed to find some of that connection in our message, and in 1999 I asked her to come aboard. She reluctantly agreed to try the job for a couple of months, unsure that GenderPAC was about people like her.

Her first act was to organize our first real fund-raiser. She somehow managed to get Hilary Swank, who had just won an Oscar for Boys Don't Cry, and the film's director, Kimberly Peirce, and things took off from there.

Gina brought us two things. First, she put a formal organization under my rhetoric, installing a member and donor program, a formal accounting system, a fund-raising structure, a grant application calendar, an annual conference, and our first real board of individuals.  Second, she began consistently challenging me on why -- if we were really were a gender rights group -- everything we worked on  was based on transsexuals, with nothing on gays, lesbians, feminists, minorities, straight Americans, or youth. (She quoted my own books when arguing with me, a particularly unpleasant tactic.)

It was not that I was being duplicitous or obtuse. It was just that every story that came in the e-mail, every legal case involving gender had to do with transsexuals. The reason for this is both simple and profound and has to do with the problem of trying to shift paradigms:  There are no gender cases except transgender cases. There is no gender news that is not transgender news. There is no gender lawsuit that is not a transgender lawsuit. There is no gender-inclusive legislation that is not transgender-inclusive legislation.

People simply do not have a box in their heads labeled "gender rights." Everything that is not transgender falls into a different box: gay, feminist, or something else. For instance, when Sakia Gunn was stabbed to death in Newark, the newspapers and the groups that commented on the murder identified it as a "gay hate crime," even though she looked like a young African-American boy, and her mother noted that she and her friend were "dressed like boys." Gender disappears.

Similarly, when legislation was introduced in New York City to protect the right to gender identity and expression, The New York Times and local progressive groups hailed it as "transgender legislation." When people saw Boys Don't Cry, they saw a "transgender movie," but when they saw Billy Elliot, they didn't see a "gender movie" but simply a film about a boy who loves to dance. And when 38-year-old African-American bus driver Willie Houston was shot to death in Nashville by a man who became enraged to see him holding his fiancé’s purse, no one identified it as gender-based violence.

A top official at one of the country's largest gay organizations, an executive with millions of dollars and for whom at least a half-dozen butch lesbians work, recently told me that his group would like to talk more about gender violence and gays, "but we don't have those cases." No one knows about gender-related cases because no one sees gender-related cases. Attacks against gay people, because of their gender expression, go into a box labeled “gay hate crimes”.  Discrimination against women because of their gender expression goes into a box labeled "sex discrimination."

Even when The New York Times carried a front-page article on the epidemic of male-on-male gender harassment in the workplace, it didn't use the words "gender rights." The only things that go into the boxed labeled "gender" are those that involve transsexuals.

Since we couldn't look for gender-related news, we began a tedious process of reading gender into the news. We would analyze lawsuits, legislation, and hate crimes to look for gender stereotypes.

And did we find them! - gay men who were attacked because they were, or were perceived as, effeminate; a class-action suit by female employees who were kept in traditionally "feminine" jobs; boys who were beaten up for liking pencils and math more than girls and sports; girls who were ostracized for being mouthy, aggressive, and too athletic; grown women with massive medical problems because as little girls they had been treated with megadoses of estrogen so they wouldn't grow "too tall." Gender-related problems were all around. We just had to look through a different lens.

Moreover, as we began to draw attention to these cases, it became apparent that everyone was at least vaguely aware of them or cases like them I've never been in front of any group-gay or straight, young or old, men or women-where someone says, "Oh, I don't think this is a problem at all." Everyone gets that gender stereotypes are a serious social problem. They just don't understand combating them as a logical extension of the civil rights movement ... yet. It's like a revolution of the obvious.

But that's our job. By reexamining news, law, art, and politics, we at GenderPAC were able to greatly expand our work, our membership, our foundation, and corporate support. In the process, we precipitated the second great crisis that once again almost brought GenderPAC down.


As one of our directors pointed out, no matter what our mission statement said, GenderPAC had functioned as the de facto political head of the transgender community. Was it fair to widen our work when there were "limited resources" for nontransgender people?

Some directors had begun treating Gina and other board members as if they were allies who were there to assist the transgender-identified people who "really" had a problem with gender. The volume of this disagreement grew louder and louder. Our internal listserv went radioactive; one director asked to be taken off it and another simply resigned from the board.

When things finally came to a head, one group of directors declared that women ha NOW, gays had HRC, and transpeople should have GenderPAC. Another group-the staff and the internsheld to the wider vision of GenderPAC as a gender rights organization for all Americans.

In the end, either we were a gender rights group for all, or we were the political voice of the transgender community. Each was a good and necessary thing, but there was no way to bridge the gap and be both things at once.

Something had to give, and it did. Three transgender-identified directors quit in a highly emotional and public break. With them went two gay-identified directors who were disappointed to find they were not, after all, on the board of a transgender organization.

The national transgender magazine devoted most of its next issue to attacking me personally, and hate e-mail-much of it particularly personal-began showing up in our in-box on a daily basis. In a fit of unintended irony, a national gay organization that had recently added transgender to its mission, took to the editorial pages of the Washington Blade to attack GenderPAC for being insufficiently transgender in focus.

The country's largest transgender conference withdrew a grant they'd awarded us, declaring that the same inclusive vision that they'd applauded when awarding it was-now that we were actually fulfilling it - a betrayal of the transgender community.

Gay organizations, worried that they would antagonize their transgender constituents, began distancing themselves from GenderPAC. Other groups that had been working with us to fulfill their transgender quotient found themselves in the new and unfamiliar position of actually having to do some work on transgender issues.

Coalitions suddenly had to start looking for a new group to fill the T in their LGBT. Some activists simply sat on the sidelines, wondering what in the world GenderPAC could be if it wasn't the national transgender group. A national gay organization, one I'd picketed in a different incarnation because they weren't transgender-inclusive, responded to a suggestion of joint action by saying that they "first have to check with some people in the transgender community."

And in a delicious turnaround, trans gender leaders invited other groups to a Capitol Hill meeting on key legislation-something we had been working on for a decade-but excluded GenderPAC on the grounds that it was "not a gay or transgender group."

All the chickens had come home to roost. Old complaints by gay activists that scarce resources shouldn't be wasted on nongay concerns were replaced by new complaints by transgender activists that scarce resources shouldn't be wasted on nontransgender concerns.

Many of the activists who were loudest in attacking us for being too inclusive (too inclusive?) were the same ones who relentlessly attacked gay organizations f. r not being inclusive enough. This proves, I guess, that inclusion and diversity are good things, as long as it's someone else that has to do the including.

Identity politics has bequeathed us the unwieldy notion that exclusion is okay, but only if it’s done by a minority group or one whose oppression ranks higher on the totem pole of pain.  Thus a whites-only group is unacceptable, but a blacks-only one is not.  A gay-but-not-transgender group is offensive, but a transgender-only one makes perfect sense.


For myself, I believed a gender rights movement that left transpeople behind was a failure. But a movement that aspired to help transgender people without mounting a sustained attack on the way the gender system oppresses each of us-especially children-was a failure too.

Gender rights must become something more than this stepchild of gay rights and feminism that is identified solely by the right to transition from one sex the other. I know the sound of laughter at your back. I know the sound of your wife-girlfriend-lover closing the door behind her. I know the pain of not being able to see immediate family members or nephews, nieces, and cousins.

I know how much it hurts to hear your own parents say they're not sure they can bear to see you again. I know what it's like to be in a strange and hostile place and mourn someone you've never met, and I know what it's like to be kicked out of your job and your home.

I have heard about similar experiences from feminists; gays and lesbians; minority genderqueer youth; artistic, chubby, asthmatic little boys beaten up in locker rooms and tough, athletic, little straight girls who've been ridiculed and bullied. All have paid a price for transgressing and transcending gender norms.

The importance of gender oppression, whatever our identities, is that we understand how the gender system works. We've seen the moving parts behind the curtain. We have our hands around an ageless and yet transformative truth-one that is so obvious that no one sees it yet. But it is a secret that hides in plain sight, and if we don't do this work, if we don't mount this movement, who will?

Most of us don't get paid to fight our battles. We're citizen activists-the most beleaguered and sometimes the most lonely kind. We work to improve the world because at heart we're still naive, still romantics. If we're sarcastic or jaded, it's not because we've lost our love for full equality, but because we've been disappointed in that love.

Even in this age of political cynicism, we believe things can be better, that we each deserve the right to be fully and openly all that we are. We live in a time of balkanization, not a melting pot but a checkerboard. We're gay or straight, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal. We work for women's rights, gay rights, Latina/o rights, Jewish rights, transgender rights, youth rights whoever constitutes "us."

We don't work for anyone else's cause, because what would be the point? It's a black thing, a gay thing, a transgender thing, or a woman thing: You wouldn't understand. And we wouldn't be welcome anyway. Better stick to your own.

Our presidents say "my fellow Americans," but we know they don't mean it anymore. They really mean "my base and all the crossover votes I need to get reelected." Even our progressive organizations seldom speak to the best in us anymore; they seldom offer a vision that demands more of us than the enlightened self-interest of pursuing equality for ourselves. There is a power in naming one's self, being with one's own kind, of breaking into smaller and more homogenous groups. But I am still troubled about making identity the main foundation of our politics.

As we splinter into finer and finer groups, it may be that even if I am wrong, the centrifugal forces of identity politics may have flung us far enough out into our own orbits that it's time to start looking for common issues that bring us together. Gender is one of those issues. Gender rights are too fundamental to belong to anyone group and too important to leave anyone behind. Gender rights are human rights, and they are for all of us.

Butler poses tempting questions about the political possibilities that emerge when identity no longer constrains our politics. She points to promising new possibilities for organizing that bring us together in new and unfamiliar ways.  While she holds out the promise of something new, Butler has also tended to constrain her actual suggestions for political actions to parodic repetitions of leftist imperatives to subvert the existing order from within.

If this is not edifying stuff, it is in keeping with postmodern cynicism toward the possibility of "liberation" (there is no way outside of discourse) and its tendency to equate community and organized groups with tyranny. Butler seems to restrict the possibilities for political response to isolated individual acts of insubordination. But I don't believe that will be enough.

It is likely that gender equality will require new laws, attitudes, and civil rights. Changing courts, legislatures, media coverage, and public opinion will require not only individual subversions of the gender system but also the mobilization of people into organizations and movements.

Yet no one has any idea how to apply gender theory here, or how it works in "the real world." No one has had to answer the question: What kinds of organization and mobilization are possible once identity no longer constrains our politics?

In my work I've tried to take some ideas from gender theory generally and Butler specifically and then apply them to political activism. As I wrote in the introduction to this book postmodernism should not be just theory but also applied science. In that spirit, I'll offer some of those ideas below.

The first is simply that gender is a legitimate human rights issue, even though it may not yet be recognized as such. It requires not only civil rights-like laws, government policies, and judicial verdicts, but also something more like social rights-the right to be you without fear, or shame, or omission.

For me to realize that took lots of reading, theory, and study. I spent about three years talking and thinking about not much else. But you don't need all that theory to get there. You just need to realize that people shouldn't be pushed from birth into these two funny little boxes called boy and girl, or be punished when they don't fit neatly into either box.

How should we organize to achieve such rights? To begin with, I think we need to recognize that Butler is on to something when she says that identity politics may be permanently troubled. No matter where the boundaries of identity are drawn, a hierarchy is inevitably created in which some people who want in are kept out, some people who want out are pulled in, and some people have more legitimacy than others because they happen to personify the identity norms.

This is especially problematic for a gender rights movement because it is supposed to be about the right to more authentically express your gender. If we start pushing people back into a normative straight-jacket from the get-go, why bother?

Gender rights are for everyone, regardless of how they identify. It would no more morally right for GenderPAC to refuse to help someone because they weren't transgender than it would be to refuse to help them because they were. If we believe inclusion is a good thing for others, then it must be a good thing for us as well. Movements and organizations become stronger when they welcome people as members instead of as allies. Welcoming someone as merely an ally can betray a mindset that "this isn't really your problem, but you're welcome to help us."

At some point we need to get beyond questions of how people identify or whether they count as us and return to out advocacy for guiding principles that can apply to anyone who needs them.

Saying that gender stereotypes hurt everyone is not the same thing as saying that it hurts us the same way. We need to allow for individual difference. Moreover, we need to remember that people are always more complex than the movements that seek to represent them. We need to look further for the intersections in people's lives. It's not enough to say, "It's all gender, honey." Because it isn't all gender. It's gender and race, or gender and class, or gender and sexual orientation. People face multiple challenges, and although our issue may be simple, their lives and bodies seldom are.

Watch for those struggling at our own margins, and strive to bring them into the center of our own work. No matter how hard we try to be inclusive, the thrust of our work will invariably create centers as well as margins where some people will be sidelined.

We must be aware of who is not in the room, who is alone, and whose voice is not being heard. We need to be aware of the effects of our own discourse and remedy them wherever possible by bringing our margins back into the center.

Encourage what is different and unique. The thrust of our politics should not be to make everyone the same, but to help people be different-to make it safe and acceptable for them to be different.

Civil rights will not be enough; we need social rights as well. Gender-based oppression is not only or primarily accomplished through the power of the state: police, courts, and laws. It's also accomplished through peer pressure, shame, ridicule, and ostracism. To make it possible for people to transcend gender lines, we must not only change laws and policies, we need to change social attitudes and raise awareness of gender harassment.

Conforming to gender roles-becoming a recognizable boy or girl-may be the founding social act. (An infant that is still an "it" is not a real social actor yet.)

Gender rights is an unfamiliar issue, and almost everything about gender transgression is surrounded by shame and discomfort for many people. To bring them into our movement, we will need to work with everyone's level of comfort.

Finally, it's not easy to get people from different constituencies and communities to work together. Identities empower us, but they also separate us from one another. So work to bring people together.
The Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC) works to end discrimination and violence caused by gender stereotypes by changing public attitudes, educating elected officials, and expanding legal rights. To get an idea of just how broad and how urgent that vision is, consider that in just the last two years:
* Russian-American New York athlete Aaron Vays, age 12, was hospitalized by bullies who warned him "only girls and sissies" figure-skate. Two-thirds of respondents to an ongoing GenderPAC School Violence Survey reported being harassed or attacked because of their nonconformist gender expression or identity.

                        At Harrah's casino in Reno, Nevada, 44-year-old feminist Darlene Jespersen was allegedly fired after more than 20 years when she refused to wear makeup under a new dress code. Meanwhile, in New York City, 32-year-old lesbian Dawn Dawson was allegedly fired for looking "too butch." In New Orleans, truck driver Peter Oiler was terminated after two decades on the job when he admitted to his manager that he occasionally cross-dressed at home.
                        The New York Times has reported that male-on-male sexual harassment now accounts for nearly one-in-seven new claims filed at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, much of it related to gender stereotypes. According to the EEOC, many of these are male employees who find themselves targeted for harassment for being insufficiently aggressive or because superiors considered them too effeminate.

                        Six teens of color have been murdered in gender-based attacks, including African-Americans Ukea Davis (18, District of Columbia); Stephanie Thomas (19, District of Columbia); Nikki Nicholson (19, Michigan); Sakia Gunn (15, New Jersey); Latina student Gwen Araujo (17, California); and Native American Fred Martinez Jr. (17, Colorado).

From classrooms to boardrooms, from reservations to the city streets, transcending narrow gender norms can get you harassed, assaulted, or killed. Change won't come quickly; this struggle is just beginning. But now more than ever, GenderPAC is committed to making gender rights a reality. Our work programs focus on Community Violence Prevention, Workplace Fairness, and Gender and Youth. One step at a time, with help from activists in local communities around the country, these programs have produced real results. In just the last year:
* Our Workplace Fairness Program has helped educate corporations such as IBM, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Kodak, Proctor & Gamble, and Verizon on adopting or implementing new EEO policies that protect employees' rights to gender expression and identity.

                        * Our Community Violence Prevention program has held events in over two dozen local communities-featuring speakers such as Pauline Mitchell (the mother of Fred Martinez, Jr.) to educate people on gender-based hate crimes.
                        * On Capitol Hill, in a new partnership with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) , we've persuaded 76 Members of Congress including five Republicans and eight Senators-to sign a new diversity statement that adds sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the hiring policies covering federal legislative staff members.

                        * Our recent National Conference on Gender (featuring a keynote address by Judith Butler!) drew 1,500 activists from 36 states, 72 student groups, and 74 organizations for three days of events.

There is so much work that remains to be done if we're to have gender rights. But with each step, GenderPAC comes closer to the goals of safer communities, fairer workplaces, and schools where all children are valued and respected. Our newest effort is the unique GenderYOUTH Network. Developed by leading youth activists, GenderYOUTH is a national network that supports college leaders in mobilizing their own campus GenderROOTS chapters.

Chapter activists launch their own initiatives and campaigns to raise gender awareness a d combat gender-based bullying and violence on campus and in local high schools though peer-to-peer outreach, grassroots organization, and community education. College activists have responded with enthusiasm. At GenderYOUTH's formal roll-out at the National Conference on Gender in May 2003, college groups launched the first 14 chapters.

The next step GenderPAC is researching is a parental support network. If you're a parent who wants to raise a child who's not boxed into one gender stereotype or the other, there's very little support out there. Things such as educational materials, a Web site, and networks of like-minded, supportive parents could go a long way toward helping people parent more organically self-actualized and sane children.

What is so exciting about gender rights work at this historical moment is that doors that have been shut for decades are finally springing open. Ten years ago no state or municipality had laws protecting their citizens' right to gender expression and identity. Now more than 60 do, including cities such as Tucson, Arizona; Springfield, Illinois; Louisville, Kentucky.; El Paso, Texas; and Toledo, Ohio, and also the states of Minnesota, Rhode Island, and-just this March-New Mexico. Similar legislation is pending in Illinois and Texas.

A decade ago no major corporation protected employees' right to gender expression and identity in the workplace. Now 18 do, including blue-chip companies such as American Airlines (the first ever to do so), Apple, Nike, and Intel. Dozens more are planning to do likewise.

A few years ago, almost no company was interested in expanding their EEO policies to include gender rights. Few corporations understood the issue or were comfortable with it. To many, it seemed a little obscure or even weird. Few followed up with us after an initial contact. Today, companies are reaching out to us for language, background, support, and on-site staff training. Gender rights talk is not merely welcome; companies realize it's the new edge of "best practice" in the workplace. And if they want to remain leaders in diversity, they need to be among the first to develop this practice.

But with new rights have come new dangers. A dozen years ago, a hate-based crime might have involved a white 30-year-old postoperative transsexual who had gone on the wrong date with the wrong guy. Today, it's more likely to be a teenager of color, often from an economically challenged home, who is gay, of indeterminate gender, experimenting with gender roles, or transgender-but not necessarily transsexual. The victim's assailant is likely to be another youth.

When I was in secondary school, it would have been unthinkable to show up in a dress. The boys' football team would have reduced me to a small spot on the locker-room floor. Today, youth are doing more radical and complicated things with gender at younger ages than we ever could have anticipated.
In fact, not a month goes by without someone-youth or adult-who has been taunted, harassed, fired or assaulted reaching out for help.

GenderPAC is working hard to grow as quickly as we can to meet the challenge. Four year ago our budget hardly existed, and we were a small group of volunteers. Today, we have an office, staff, members, a growing donor program, and expanding corporate and foundation support. We're growing by about 30% a year.

This is what change looks like when it happens. This is what a new paradigm looks like when it starts to take off.

This is a movement whose time has come. Join us. If you've read this far in the book, it's an issue that speaks to you too. Don't let gender rights stay "just theory." Get involved. Because gender rights are human rights, and the time for them is now.

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