Archive for the ‘ LGBT ’ Category

Paths of Pain, and the Ownership of Language.

Marc Maron recently ran a follow-up interview with fellow comedian Todd Glass, who had come out as gay on Marc’s podcast, WTF.  Marc’s podcast has often been strikingly introspective, and a moment came up that epitomized this. Glass started talking about language, the way that words can be weaponized, and the way he’s experienced this since coming out as gay:

(at 20:12) GLASS: But for me, I want to keep evolving.  I don’t want to be the type of person who drops one word out of my act and then the other word and then goes ‘oh my god, when’s it gonna stop? I’m done evolving!’  Don’t f***ing brag about that…  ‘Cause… you know, the reason those words — I realize it with the word ‘gay’ — the reason people think it’s not bad is they don’t see the path of pain where it leads back to…

That sticks out in my mind as important, as it speaks almost directly to the controversy that happened when Marc interviewed RuPaul Charles in the previous podcast, as part of RuPaul’s ongoing string of controversies over language:

(at 1:16:41) RUPAUL: No no no, it’s not the transsexual community who’s saying that. These are fringe people who are looking for storylines to strengthen their identity as victims. That is what we’re dealing with.  It’s not the trans community, because most people who are trans have been through hell and high water and they know — they’ve looked behind the curtain at Oz and went, ‘Oh, this is all a f***ing joke.  But, some people haven’t, and they’ve used their victimhood to create a situation…  If your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say, what they do, you are in for a f***ing hard-ass road.  Because the ego would have you think…  that is a trap that the ego will have you… it gets you every time…  My 32-year career speaks for itself.  I dance to a different drummer.  I believe that everybody, you can be whatever the hell you wanna be. I ain’t stopping you.  But don’t you dare tell me what I can do or say. It’s just words.  Yeah, words [mocking] ‘you… your words hurt me…’ You know what? Bitch, you need to get stronger.  You really do, because you know what, if you’re upset by something I said, you have bigger problems than you think.  I’m telling you this….

The sad thing about that is, earlier in the interview, RuPaul had some interesting but challenging things to say about building social movements around identity and about deconstructing “the matrix” of social illusions that people have.  While I don’t really agree with him on all points, it does provoke some thought and provide some insight about where he’s coming from.  “Identity” is a vague enough concept that it deserves to be questioned and picked apart from time to time, and that’s what RuPaul does.

Of course, language is also the means that people use to become self-aware, communicate that self to the world, and build common cause… so your mileage on that will vary.

The Spirit of It

Now, I don’t like playing word police.  I’ve done it a few times, and I recognize the importance of words and the evolution of language.  The effect that has on both forming social movements and shoring up one’s sense of self-respect (if not pride) is admittedly significant.  But the bigger issue is often the spirit with which something is said or intended.  So my overall thoughts on language are mixed.

Sometimes we only have the language we’re given.  We’ve only relatively recently coined “cisgender” and “cissexual” (words to mean “not transgender” and “not transsexual,” sort of like “heterosexual” is to “homosexual”) because using “normal” drips with judgment and condemnation, and “genetic” is not scientifically accurate or verifiable.

We still fight over terms like transgender, transsexual, trans* (with or without the asterisk), etc.  Depending on where you are, sometimes you need to be keeping a bloody scorecard.  In one group, people prefer “transgender” because it doesn’t imply that being trans is about sex; another group will prefer “transsexual” because it’s always been the term they knew, or because it is about changing the physical sex, for them; yet another group will totally reject “transsexual” because it was coined by the medical community and they want to reject the mental health stigma or the clinical abuses that people have faced in the years prior.

The words changed over time, too… it wasn’t that long ago that people embraced “tranny,” and sometimes even accepted the word “transvestite,” however inappropriate that might have been — either because they didn’t realize the implications of the word, or because it was the only label available in a drop-down menu, in one of those rare spaces we were welcome, at the time.  Although there’s a relatively consistent aversion to “tranny” and “shemale” now (aside from a few people who still use them to describe themselves), it hasn’t always been that way, and the labels each come with a plethora of nuances, and occasional people who embrace the terms for themselves.

I tend to prefer trans (or trans*), because it’s open-ended.  It’s supposed to be an adjective, not a straitjacket.  Personally, I’d hate to ever find myself parsing a descriptor so narrowly and precisely that it starts to define me, rather than the other way around.  But I really don’t blame people for getting a little peeved about there being a minefield of language.

And if you’re thinking that this kind of fight over language is just particular to trans* people, then keep in mind that decades later, LGBT people still have divisions over whether they want to retake or banish the word “queer.”  Divides exist in other communities, as well, such as the split over the terms “First Nations,” “Native,” “Indigenous,” “Aboriginal,” “Native American,” etc.:

“But lately, I question if we are empowered or disempowered by this term and this assigned title –and if it permeates and weakens our identity.

“Not the term in itself, but by all matters, machinery, and meaning (explicitly and implicitly) implied by the assignment of the title onto us by Canada, the acceptance of it on our part, and all that comes with such uncritical acceptance and internalization…”

…is a passage that almost looks as though it were plucked right out of an article on trans* -related language, doesn’t it?

Words are important to us.  They’re inevitably used to define us, so it’s natural for us to want to be the ones who determine what those words say.  Except that we can’t.  Abolishing a word isn’t going to erase the pain that went with it, nor will it change the attitudes of the people who wield the word as a weapon.

Because there can indeed be a path of pain associated with “tranny.”  When it was the language used whenever a person is attacked, disrespected, disowned, denied services, threatened, refused entry, humiliated, or more, it becomes a foci of microaggression: where any one incident can seem surmountable or even trivial, but when multiplied by thousands, it becomes monumental.  Perhaps RuPaul had the luck or privilege to escape a lot of that (he is, after all, able to take off the wig, makeup and sequins when it gets to be too much), or perhaps he found the rare strength to power through it all without it eroding his spirit — but trans* people at large aren’t always able to do the same.  Words have power.

What we can do in the discussion about language is assert our right to be respected, and to be dignified as the people we say we are. We are only ever entitled to speak for ourselves.  We never were empowered to label everyone who’s trans*.

RuPaul, of course, is speaking for himself, and that’s cool.  The whole word debate arises because he is speaking for himself, but trans* people — and just about everyone else, for that matter — assume that he’s labeling trans* people.  If there were a way to achieve clarity on this, it wouldn’t matter what terminology he embraces and throws around.

But where RuPaul Charles derails is not from pointing out the inevitable failure of communal self-identification (because we are not some homogenous collective Borg hive — I get that), but by invalidating those who are targeted by said language, and validating the ways the words are used to target them.  “Grow up, get a spine” is not helpful, and minimizes another’s pain.  While we’re busy trying to turn that “victimhood” into empowerment, RuPaul is there to act like there wouldn’t be any pain at all, if we only had more spine.  That’s not helpful, and it’s quite inelegant, at that.

The language debate became an argument over the willingness to respect.  Does one surrender the use of the word out of a willingness to listen to what someone has to say about who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean… or do they instead extend a big middle finger to them and declare that they know better, and that (whether anyone likes it or not) they’re appointing yourself the arbiter of another person’s reality?

Not One-Sided

But that respect goes both ways.

Something that always bothered me about this discussion was that often it became an angry shouting match about who trans* people are not.  Most often, this has to do with people distancing themselves from drag queens.  Now, I’ll admit, it’s difficult to change the impression that the public has, when society routinely conflates trans* with drag.  Virtually every newspaper story you see on trans* issues is illustrated with a photo of drag queens in a Pride parade (okay to be fair, some are finally starting to know the difference).

Drag isn’t the same thing as trans*, although some trans* people find that a safe space to explore and / or come out, so there can be some overlap.  Trans* is different — not better, but different.  Clarity would be nice.  But what happens is that instead of calling for clarity, people slip into the same bigoted stereotypes and assumptions about others that they don’t want applied to themselves.  Denigrating someone else in order to elevate oneself is very low.

The new argument is that “drag is trans* blackface.”  But drag was never meant to lampoon trans* people — it lampoons gender itself, both masculinity and femininity simultaneously.  It’s quite likely that it’s becoming an art that’s past its time, because of the effect it has on intersecting groups and issues (i.e. that regardless of the original intent, in current context, trans* people are lampooned by circumstance), and the buttons that it now pushes.  But I’m not going to start that discussion here, nor will I malign the integrity and motives of the people who engage in drag… some of whom set out to challenge gender as much as anyone who is genderqueer, but simply took a different avenue and during a different time.  It’s a conversation that’s looming, but not one that trans* people can have arbitrarily and unilaterally — at least not if you believe in decolonizing activism.

There’s another group of people that are often taken issue with, in the discussion about the word “tranny.”

While composing this article, I ended up getting into a heated exchange in probably the worst venue to have an intelligent conversation — Facebook.  One follower had been pushing me to write on the subject, and decided to elaborate on why they felt words like “tranny” are offensive: she associated the word with the porn industry and prostitution, and didn’t like the implication of being associated with such people… “sleazy,” “freakish” and “deluded” (because apparently, doing sex work means that one must not be really trans*) people.

People like me.

I don’t do sex work now, mind you. I did at two points in my life, though — once when I first left home at 18, and again later when I transitioned and was more or less dropped off the payroll by my employer.  I was outted on this point a couple years ago and haven’t written about it much here — but I’ve been having to discuss it a lot more recently because of legislative issues in Canada. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it, either.

I didn’t use words like “tranny” or “shemale” then, mind you, unless it was part of a date’s fantasy (at which point one inevitably has to put up with it).  And currently, things are fading far enough into the rear-view mirror that it would make as much sense to call me a tranny as it would to call me a soup can.  So I have no vested interest in defending the words themselves.

But the words used are no longer relevant, because the question of intent goes both ways, too.  Because what I was really being told was that my conversant’s pain was from having to be associated with what they felt was a lesser form of person.

Your path of pain does not give you entitlement to create more pain by bulldozing through me.

And from this point forward, I am no longer interested in this argument about language — or at least not until we have a good, solid discussion about intent.  Because while I recognize that there is genuinely a path of pain that some people have regarding the word “tranny,” sometimes it’s really about disdain.

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

Could Canada’s Anti-Sex Work Bill C-36 Also Stifle LGBT Speech?

Slightly over a week ago, Canada introduced legislation to replace the anti-prostitution laws that had been struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Conservative government has been trying to race Bill C-36 through both the House and the Senate simultaneously, at breakneck speed.  But the text of the bill has raised questions about its constitutionality.  Sex workers, mainstream media and even many Nordic model proponents and abolitionists agree that it places sex workers in even greater danger than the previous laws did.

But is there also a poison pill within the legislation that could be used to stifle LGBT and sex-positive speech?

Firstly, here is what the dubiously-named “Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act” does:

  • It re-criminalizes communicating for the purpose of commercial sex.  While there is said to be an exemption for the sex worker themselves, that exemption only applies if the communication is not in a public place and/or not “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present” (a minor doesn’t actually have to be present), and not in the presence of another sex worker under the age of 18 (one controversy has arisen because underage sex workers can be charged if they work together for safety).  The law had been struck down previously because it put sex workers in unsafe situations by limiting their ability to screen clients, and negotiate what they were willing and unwilling to do.
  • It re-criminalizes the “common bawdy-house,” defined as a place “for the practice of acts of indecency, a place that is kept or occupied or resorted to by one or more persons.” This criminalizes massage parlours and strip clubs, if commercial sex occurs on their premises, and also prevents sex workers from having their own (or collective) space away from home to meet with clients.  The bawdy-house law had been previously struck down because it prevented sex workers from working collectively indoors.
  • It re-criminalizes “living off the avails…” (as “receiving a material benefit that derives” from the sale of sex). It does provide an exemption (subject to interpretation) for some roommates, spouses and children who live with sex workers, provided that nothing can be construed as an exploitative situation and no drugs are provided to the sex worker.  This also criminalizes escort agencies, and it is unclear how liable referrers, drivers, bodyguards, associates and other business partners could be.  This had also been previously struck down because it prevented sex workers from working together or making business arrangements that improve their safety and circumstances.
  • It now officially criminalizes the purchase of sex.  This is new (previously, it had been legal but associated activities were illegal), and it’s because of this that people are claiming the law is based on the Nordic model of prostitution laws, which aim to end demand while supposedly not targeting sex workers themselves — but Canada’s law goes very clearly beyond that point in several ways.  While many are claiming that this law will inevitably be struck down as unconstitutional, the Harper government’s gambit strategy is to criminalize sex work, so that it is no longer legally relevant whether the laws make it unsafe.
  • Something else that is entirely new is that the law criminalizes advertising “sexual services.”  Newspapers and websites are legally liable if commercial sex advertisements are found within their publications, and consequences can include fines or imprisonment — again with an exemption for the sex workers themselves, provided it is not in a public place and/or “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present….” Weirdly, it appears that the Internet may be defined as a place where persons under the age of 18 can be reasonably expected to be present, for the purposes of this bill.

“Sexual services” is not defined, and I have asked elsewhere if this term could eventually be stretched in such a way that it ultimately bans porn.  The bill contains extensive search and seizure powers that at the very least provides all the legal teeth that such a ban would need.  Others have also asked if the vague nature of this term could be used to target sexual health services, sex-positive counseling, sex toys and more.

If the phrase “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present” is reminiscent of Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” law, that may be by design — Canada’s criminalization of sex work owes more to Russia’s anti-prostitution laws than to the Nordic model.

(If anyone is interested in background of these specifics, I have posts at Rabble.ca about what the bill explicitly does, and how the bill makes a seriously flawed and damaging conflation between sex work and human trafficking.)

The Poison Pill

The new criminalization of “sexual service” advertising, however, is especially concerning.  Given the way that print and online publications are to be held liable for commercial sex advertising, there are serious implications for Canadians’ freedom of speech.  Beyond the obvious loss of advertising revenues that an LGBT publication might endure, there could also be wider-spread censorship if that legal liability also extends to Internet Service Providers (ISPs), for any such advertisements that could be found on their networks.

The question is not as absurd as it sounds.  It was only last July that Conservative MP Joy Smith loudly cheered Britain’s new law which required ISPs to institute a content filtering system requiring Britons to opt in if they want to be able to access anything deemed to be obscene or pornographic.  At the time, she had promised to flag this for the party to make a top priority, she said she was absolutely certain that the Prime Minister would be interested in taking action, and then nothing else has ever been said publicly about it.  Meanwhile, Joy Smith has been the Harper Conservatives’ most vocal proponent of Bill C-36, and given many comments by her Conservative Party colleagues, it would seem that she also had a hand in drafting the bill and / or lobbying for it among Members of Parliament.  And the only groups that have been very happy with Bill C-36 have been a number of religious groups, who seem to be the only consultants that were listened to.

Filters have caused minor controversies in Canada before, such as when Tim Hortons had to apologize for blocking DailyXtra from WiFi users.  However, they’ve not improved very much, over time, and have never been applied in a global fashion.

If ISPs are legally liable for (or could be threatened with legal liability for) advertisements of sexual services found on their networks under the terms of C-36, then out of necessity and self-preservation, ISPs would need to institute a content filtering system, nationwide.  Unlike Britain’s, there may not be an opt-in alternative.  This would be doubly reinforced if pornography were deemed a “sexual service” (i.e. by acting as an intermediary) at some point.

Where this becomes especially a concern for free speech is that content filters are incredibly arbitrary, and any filter system designed to effectively intercept commercial sex advertising would inevitably be overly broad.

The result of the filters implemented in Britain has been a deliberately quiet reduction in access to a great many things:

“The filters block a wide variety of content, from hardcore porn to extremist political sites… those “porn blockers” have already proven to be ineffective, blocking plenty of harmless sites and failing to tell the difference between sex education forums and porn. In one case, a domestic abuse helpline was blocked as inappropriate material, while many actual porn sites are still accessible through the filters.”

Back in January, The Guardian‘s Laurie Penny asserted that blocking more than porn was both the intent and the inevitable consequence of the government’s content filtering initiative.  Casualties of the filter system had included “helplines like Childline and the NSPCC, domestic violence and suicide prevention services.”  The New Statesman reported in December that one ISP advertised that its filters would block gay and lesbian content:

“BT have since reworded this description to remove the ‘gay and lesbian’ reference, but given that their filtering is provided by an unnamed “third party supplier” it seems highly unlikely that the filter itself has changed overnight – merely the description.”

What is and isn’t allowed still can’t be determined except through trial and error.  The Cameron government had to draw up a whitelist to force-allow sites that have been noticed to have inadvertently run afoul of the censor.  But the scope of the filters has grown since its initial introduction to also include discussions deemed politically radical — an addition stated to be because of the possibility of the propagation of terrorism.

While a C-36 inspired filter system would operate differently because of what it’s intended to block — advertisements of sexual services, rather than pornography — that doesn’t mean that the filters would be any less clumsy.  While search terms like “escort” would be natural flags for a filter system, ISPs that are worried about legal repercussions would necessarily include a wider array of tags, to try to prevent anyone from getting around the filters.   Given the subjective nature of the term “sexual services,” something that’s open to wide interpretation, this could result in the “just in case” mentality, where businesses and individuals apply the rule in an overly broad way, to avoid any possible complaints or legal liabilities. And then there’s the problem of filtering images, which don’t of themselves have keywords other than the descriptions assigned to them.

Given the avid support that MP Joy Smith has shown to both C-36 and content filtering — as well as the Bill’s obvious pandering to far right groups that have called for a Canadian equivalent to a Russian-style “homosexual propaganda” law — it’s a reasonable question to ask.

Canadians concerned about this possibility can contact their MP (who can be determined through a search on the parl.gc.ca main page), and civilly but clearly ask for assurance that the ban on sexual service advertising in C-36 could not be used in this manner.  They’re also encouraged to find out more about what the bill does, and voice their opposition or their concerns about how this affects sex workers.  They should CC their message to Minister of Justice Peter MacKay, and if their Member of Parliament is a Conservative, they might also want to copy an interested member of the opposition, such as Françoise Boivin (NDP), Sean Casey (Lib.) or Elizabeth May (Greens).  This must be done quickly, however.

Bill C-36 will be voted on at Second Reading on Monday June 16th, after Question Period at 3:00pm.  From there, it could proceed to Third (and final) Reading, or to a committee stage for amendments (although it appears the Conservatives prefer to pass it as soon as possible).

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

The Difficulties in Remembering Rosa

RosaRibutIn the early morning hours of November 24th, the body of a possibly trans person was found in Edmonton, Alberta.

I say “possibly trans” because it’s unclear how this person identified, and to my knowledge, no one in the trans community has met them or would be able to shed light on who they were.  And unfortunately, for this reason, I need to open with the following preamble:

The victim has been identified by the Edmonton Police Service as Jon Syah Ribut.  However, she also used the names Rose, Rosa and Dido. In the Edmonton Journal, Paula Simons noted that  “… it’s not clear whether Ribut saw himself as transgender — or as a gay man who sometimes liked to cross-dress — or as something else altogether….” Although Simons (a journalist who is is trans-aware and trans-positive) uses male names and pronouns, it’s clear that she’s conflicted about it and knows that more information is needed.  I will be using a female name and pronouns instead, but want to stress that both Simons and I are making a guess, and either of us could just as easily be wrong.

Rosa Ribut died of blunt force trauma, and 20-year-old Marcel Cristian Niculae has been charged in her death.  There is no further information being given yet as to what happened or what the motive might have been.

Ribut, 35, was an Indonesian citizen who came to Canada in 2012 under the Temporary Foreign Worker program.  She had been working at a 7-Eleven in that capacity (presenting as male), but had also taken up working evenings as a female-presenting escort.

Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program allows employers to bring in foreign workers and employ them for below minimum wage, with fewer regulations governing employer obligations to staff.  Temporary foreign workers are not eligible for public health care coverage or other social programs, and lose their residency if they quit their jobs, the net result of which is a more vulnerable and dependent workforce.  While there is no indication that the TFW program was used to bring her to Canada for sex work, a temporary worker employed at a 7-Eleven convenience store wouldn’t have had it very easy making ends meet on that income alone.

Ribut was from Indonesia, where “warias” (often characterized as males born with female souls — it’s not known if Ribut identified in this way) had once been traditionally respected.  However, trans people in Indonesia have been increasingly ostracized and have also faced challenges to their legal status over the years.  More recently, trans women have been targeted by vice raids that conflate trans people with sex workers, regardless of whether they are or not. In some parts of the country, the Muslim group Islam Defenders Front (FPI) have waged a cultural campaign against trans people, intimidating advocates and forcing the closure of trans and LGBT functions, while the National Police have been reluctant to intervene.

While it’s possible that Rosa Ribut was targeted for violence because of her gender, certainly the marginalization that sex workers experience made her vulnerable to the attack, and her escorting work is thought to be a contributing factor to the events of her murder.  December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, and the murder of Rosa Ribut is a tragic reminder of the brutality that sex workers sometimes face.  Trans people have a similar memorial in November of every year, but it should also be recognized how people of intersecting minority characteristics (trans status, sex work, race and / or the poverty-classed) can experience a disproportionately high amount of hatred, violence and risk.

Little about Rosa is known, other than details culled from her Facebook page (now offline).  According to the Edmonton Journal:

“His friends called him Rosa or Rose or Dido. For them, he posted pictures of himself enjoying the Edmonton winter — frolicking in the snow at the legislature grounds, shopping on trendy 104th Street. People tend to curate their Facebook pages to put the happiest gloss on our lives. But certainly, nothing in Ribut’s Facebook timeline suggests he was in Edmonton under duress. He joked online that he was a snow princess, who’d come here to find his snow prince…”

More details will likely follow in the coming months.

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