Posts Tagged ‘ homophobia ’

“Sex by deception” and the shades of yes

A series of recent rulings (and the media circuses that have accompanied them) in the UK has raised questions about what is being termed “sex by deception” — that is, instances where people who are possibly trans are said to lie about their gender, in order to seduce another person.  In these cases, it’s often unclear whether the person in question is trans or if the gender representation is for other reasons, due to media ignoring questions of self-identification, using mixed pronouns and sensationally portraying people with phrases like “sex fraud woman who posed as a boy to seduce a girl.”  Even after a legal ruling is given, it’s still unclear in many of these instances who the defendant is, and how they identify — which at post-trial stage is an indictment of both media reporting and judicial clarity.

There have already been some previous thoughts expressed on the most recent ruling by Zoe O’Connell (who sifted through the legal text), Jane Fae, and others, and because of the near impossibility to determine what actually happened from a distance, I won’t even try to touch on any of the specifics of any of the specific cases.  I’ll be sticking to generalities only.

There are two key questions at the heart of the discussion.  The first is whether or not one’s gender identity is deception.  Obviously, I don’t believe that’s the case, and at this point in time, most people who have investigated trans phenomena have come to realize that it is deep and integral in at least some way, and far more substantive than what was previously commonly believed by the public at large.  And because this discussion has a question of validation at its root, it can be a very hot-button issue for trans people.

Gender vs. Sex

However, there is also a difference between one’s gender, which is an outward expression and socially constructed to a significant degree, and one’s physical sex.  In illustration, transsexed people typically transition between sexes to be true to themselves, while various other and often overlapping trans people live between genders or defy them in some way (that is to say, there are a couple sometimes differing but not mutually exclusive narratives that make up “trans*”).

When discussing whether deception takes place, there is sometimes a language breakdown that happens because one person is thinking about what a person’s gender identity is, while another is thinking about their genitalia.  For example, as someone who transitioned, I view the years before transition, when I was trying to pass as a man to meet others’ expectations, and trying to conform to my pre-transition body as the period of my life closest to being a “deception,” given that I had been consciously been putting on an act (24/7) during that period of my life.

But the other key question at the heart of things is the nature of consent.  And that is why my own thoughts on this are a bit more complex and nuanced.


Before I came out and started transition, there were very few safe spaces for trans people, where I could interact with people without fear and hiding.  One was the BDSM community, which has a strict and very discerning stance on what constitutes consent.

Note: it’s always nebulous to call something “the _____ perspective,” and individual opinions and nuances may vary, but this is a general consensus as I learned it: consent by kink standards should come from people who are of the age of majority (legal reasons), without coercion, influence, imbalance or obligation (mixed legal and ethical reasons), and with clear prior communication by both parties about what is being consented to (ethical reasons).  [It may seem odd to some readers, but it actually is possible to resolve social justice perspectives with the power exchange that happens in BDSM -- it is a major detour from this subject, however, so I'll simply be focusing on consent here, and hope that this discussion simply helps to illustrate this point]

It’s a level of consent that many heteronormative couples don’t strive for or even think about. That standard can call into question consent that is given because one feels that it’s their marital duty. It certainly calls into question sex while intoxicated, or where there is an obviously disparate question of power / authority to manipulate, or many other situations in which someone makes an exception to engage in a sex act that they otherwise wouldn’t normally consent to.  The starstruck “he’s not my type, but oh gosh, he’s the President” rationale could raise questions about ethical consent, in some kink circles.

So having sex and failing to disclose one’s sex certainly enters a grey area when this standard of consent is applied. Note that I didn’t say that consent is automatically invalidated.

Legal vs. Ethical

When I started talking about kink perspectives on consent, I brought up a blend of legal and ethical considerations.  It’s important to recognize that whether something is ethical can be an entirely different question from whether it is legal.

It is usually legal, for example, to deceive a partner about one’s marital status, age, past history (including legal convictions), sexual orientation, medical and mental health (including lying about having had a vasectomy, a deception that can result in pregnancy), religious affiliation, wealth / connections, and – heh – prowess.  Some of them are much more serious than others.  Many of them are not typically interpreted in general society to automatically invalidate consent on a legal level, although there may be contexts where legalities are questionable.  And although some cause harm, privacy is often seen as more important in a legal context, depending on how much harm is involved. None of those are very ethical on the surface, but they rarely become legal questions, unless there are extenuating circumstances — such as if the person consenting is under the age of majority, if the person becomes pregnant, and / or if the person initiates lies about being in their peer group.  That’s because law prefers to deal with absolutes, and many of these questions are context-dependent.

Failure to disclose HIV status is a bit more difficult, although it is still not an apt comparison to non-disclosure of trans status: there is no possibility of developing lifelong consequences just because a partner is trans. Either way, people with HIV can be (and most often are) responsible, and take ethical steps to avoid passing the virus on.  The U.K. — where the specific legal cases that started this debate have taken place — recognizes this in law, and doesn’t automatically determine HIV status to invalidate consent.

Gender panic, on the other hand, is seen as the sole exception.

[Edit: okay, possibly next-to-sole exception.  I nearly forgot that Britain has another unusual precedent in R. v Brown, in which the House of Lords ruled that people cannot legally consent to violence, except through legal activities (i.e. surgery).  There have since been rulings that lesser forms of pain -- such as branding -- can be consented to, but it's unclear if these rulings overturn R. v Brown.  Either way, the possible existence of a second exception where consent is automatically invalidated changes this context only slightly.]

Shades of Yes

In issues of both legal and ethical consent, there are varying degrees that have to be recognized.  Legal discussions most often parse consent by verbalization:

  • express,
  • deemed, or
  • implied consent.

And if one of those are met, then the question becomes whether that consent was revoked, or if there was a context-sensitive circumstance which would reasonably invalidate that consent.

Ethical discussions parse consent by the motivation of the person who consents:

  1. fully mutual (where both partners are fully empowered and participating for mutual pleasure – the obvious ideal),
  2. generous (in which one sees neither pleasure nor betterment in the experience, but is not in a position of disempowerment, and participates solely out of a desire to fulfill another),
  3. transactive (a situation in which someone might consent to sex in order to advance their finances or position, but is not significantly from a perspective of disempowerment — can include some sex work, depending if it’s engaged in more from a perspective of opportunity than of necessity),
  4. survival-motivated (a situation that is transactive, but comes from deeper marginalization, and will likely only maintain that disempowered status quo — sex work can also be included here, such as the most commonly thought-of survival sex work),
  5. impaired (drugs, alcohol, and it’s also arguably possible to include things like crappy self-image, when it’s inferred by the consenter rather than exploited by their partner),
  6. inadequately communicated (as in deception by omission or unintended deception),
  7. obligated (a person is a bit more under another’s power; fulfilling one’s “wifely duty” might fall in this category if there are profound negative elements being endured in the process),
  8. coerced / by willful deception, or
  9. forced.

Each of us will draw the dividing line between ethical and unethical consent differently, and sometimes with weird jumps (i.e. heteronormative couples might see obligation as a perfectly fine motivation, but transactive sex not).  I’ve ranked them based on how much autonomy the person consenting retains, and the degree of equal power between partners during the negotiation (which can be different from the power exchange afterward — this is drawing from the BDSM principle, after all).

As much as consent can be divided up and rated, of course, “no” is still “no.”  What this is designed to do is give some clearer ideas about when “yes” actually should be considered “no,” or at least be reassessed.

Legal Exceptionalism

Legally speaking, there is an instance in which I could see consent being legally invalidated, or at least where the question would become very murky: if the trans individual bared their genitals and expected their partner to interact with them, without it having been previously discussed.  In the incidents in the U.K. that sparked this discussion — including the most recent precedent-setting one — that did not happen.  The discovery of the person’s trans status did not happen until some time after the sex.

Given this, we’re allowed to be all over the map on where we think this question falls ethically, but we have to recognize that on a legal level, this is pure trans exceptionalism.  With the number of things that aren’t automatically considered deception and don’t instantly invalidate consent, it is pure gender exceptionalism — fuelled by a combination of homophobia, transphobia and possibly also misogyny — behind the decisions to convict.  British courts have been setting precedents that are very different than the conclusions I’d come to, certainly.

The U.K. precedent also sets up a legal question as to whether a trans person is always automatically defined by their genitalia (or even by their genital history), rather than their gender identity.  In a way, the precedent implies that in the eyes of the court, trans people are committing fraud, just by existing.

There’s also a greater concern.  There has often been an apparent vindictiveness evident in the media coverage surrounding some of the “sex by deception” cases — often driven by family members, but also incentivized by the profitability of sensationalism.  Given that transphobic animus can often stop at nothing (including lying) to hurt and demonize, does this precedent then put the burden of proof on the trans person to demonstrate that they had disclosed their trans status?  And if so, does this create an opportunity for transphobes to exploit the criminal justice system to punish people they find morally objectionable?

How does one prove that they disclosed to a partner that they’re trans, in a one-said / other-said scenario? Given that judgments in these cases often go to whoever is deemed more believable and about whom fewer aspersions have been cast, this opens up a whole lot of legal vulnerability.

At this point, it’s worth saying something about post-act regret.  The trans panic defense and the deception claim may even be related at times, and parcel to something I have seen happen: the after-the-fact change of mind, regret, guilt and homophobia that can set in after a consensual sexual encounter, which sometimes then get turned against their playmate in the form of violence and retribution.  The person suddenly blames a trans individual for “trying to make them gay,” and is overwhelmed with guilt for having enjoyed a sexual encounter.  I’ve experienced being on the receiving side of that, though luckily not as seriously as others have.  If the legal system provides a new form of retribution for post-act regret, then trans people have become subject to a new kind of violence.

In any case, the legal question has become seriously complicated in the U.K.

Ethical Questions

Regarding whether there is an ethical imperative to disclose, with the distinctions above to ground us, we have to ask a few questions.

What are the hardships of disclosure?  At what moment is a trans person supposed to disclose?

The reality is that disclosure is often far more negatively consequential to a trans person than a cis partner: trans people are often subject to hate and even brutality for being open about being trans or having a trans history.  There is never a good moment to disclose.  There may not even be a consistently ideal time to, since context changes everything.  Individual value judgments also factor into the question.

What if it is the cis person who initiates discussion, with hopes of leading toward sex? What if the discussion happens in a public area, with a reasonable expectation of harm if one discloses? What if the cis person is pushy or even coercive?

How much right to privacy should one have from an intimate partner, and are there circumstances when privacy might take precedence?

Who has to disclose?  If the sexually-active person in question is post-operative, is there still an obligation to disclose a trans history?

What if the person is pre-transition and they’re still struggling with it and in self-denial?  (One of the jarring questions couples face when one partner comes out as trans is why it wasn’t disclosed sooner:  often, this dredges up an extended timeline of when the person knew they were different, when they decided to try to live according to the dictates of their body and birth assignment, when they came to self-acceptance, when they realized they would someday need to transition, and when they finally came out.)

What if the sex in question doesn’t involve a partner’s penis or vagina? If the person in question is providing oral sex and their pants stay on, does it really matter what’s in their trousers?  Is there a value judgment to be made between a one-night stand and a reasonable expectation of a longer-term sexual relationship?

Does having genitalia contrary to what is believed (or assumed) substantively change the act of sex? Does it necessarily change a person’s sexual orientation? How does one define or quantify the harm?

Open-Ended As It Should Be?

There are dozens of questions that affect the question of ethical consent.  I’m not going to have any one single answer for that would apply in absolutely every situation… nor do I think that it’s possible to have any absolute one-size-fits-all rule.

But I do want people to understand the complexities, and how that question differs from the one of legal consent.

Violence is almost never an acceptable response. Neither is rationalizing it.

In August 2012, Floyd Lee Corkins entered the Family Research Council (FRC) headquarters and opened fire, injuring a security guard as he was tackled — fortunately, before he could cause any more damage.

Periodically, I see people who I otherwise respect trying to dismiss the incident as insignificant, or even making excuses for Corkins.

Violence is not an acceptable response to hate.  I’ll add the caveat “unless someone is in direct danger.” I believe in the right to self-defense and accept that there could be extreme situations that preclude using the word “never,” i.e. mass criminalization and mob violence.  But that was not the case here and is besides the point.  Floyd Lee Corkins deliberately chose to seek out the FRC with the intent of killing people.  I blame the idiot with the gun.  Whether a right-wing nut or a left-wing nut, violence is not an acceptable response to hate.

When we try to rationalize actions like Corkins’ — even when we’re not completely serious and just using hyperbole — we are (consciously or unconsciously) creating an environment in which violence is seen as an acceptable response.  It isn’t.

Further, rationalizations have a tendency to lead toward absurdity.  The most vivid example of this is the contention that if a woman is raped, she should be held at least partly responsible if she wore a particularly short skirt. Selecting clothes is not an act of consent, and yet increasingly, this rationalization is used to minimize or even absolve sexual violence.  Rationalization of aggression needs to be called out, no matter who is doing it.

“Well, if they’re going to be that way, they’re going to have to expect that people aren’t going to like it.”

And it is not that long ago that being lesbian or gay was rationalized as reason enough to expect to be targeted for violence.  It is still seen that way for trans people.

Instead, be the change you wish to see.

If we are to condemn victim-blaming and rationalizations of hate and violence, then we also need to practice the alternative we expect others to live up to… even if the victim in a particular case has been vile.  I do not believe that violence and fear are the response to violence and fear that we should espouse.  Inspire. Be the change you wish to see. And that means not making excuses for violence.

Challenge the ideology, not the individual.

Identifying hate

The Family Research Council has tried to take advantage of the Corkins episode by blaming the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and has categorized FRC as a hate group for the voluminous anti-gay and otherwise vitriolic / targeted rhetoric it has habitually used.

There is value in what the SPLC does, in that it draws attention to and demands answers for hateful comments.  Identifying hate challenges those identified to either back down from hateful positions or to reveal the full and extreme extent of them for all to see.  Both are revealing to the social dialogue on minority issues.  But identifying hate is not a license to target individuals or groups for violence.  And if we begin rationalizing its use that way, then we risk encouraging people with poorer judgement to act violently, whether we intended to or not.  And if we cannot be clear on this, then we risk losing the moral high ground.

No matter how vile the FRC has been in its rhetoric, violence is not an acceptable response.

On Persecution Complexes and Rage

The interplay of rage and persecution complexes works to shape trans, LGB — and in fact all — struggles against oppression.  It can become an eternal feedback loop that can stymie any attempt to move progressive causes forward, if it succeeds in establishing its circuitous pattern.

This translates to many struggles, so I’m going to speak generally and with varied examples — but I’m reminded of this most recently by the claims of persecution over a confrontation that happened at the New York dyke march, by Cathy Brennan, so will probably focus there most frequently.

(Oh dear god, I invoked the name. Now here come the bajillion bloody emails and the character assassination — it’s like goddamn Beetlejuice.)

Because I’ll be talking in generalities, I’ll be using terms like “oppressor / oppressed.” And because privilege is relative, and we all have some form of it or another relative to someone else, there are times when just about any group takes on the role of the oppressor — ourselves included.  So if I jump around a bit, you’ll need to bear with me.  The principle is what I’m focusing on, moreso than the many players.  Rather than participate in the game, I’d rather dismantle it.  Break the cycle, not perpetuate it. Continue reading

Hypocrisy on Free Speech and “Protecting Freedom.”

On June 6th (the same night that the trans human rights Bill C-279 advanced to committee) Conservative MP for Westlock – St. Paul, Brian Storseth’s Private Member’s Bill C-304, An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act (protecting freedom), passed Third Reading in the House of Commons, and advanced to the Senate for ratification.  Bill C-304 abolishes Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which pertains to electronic communication of hate speech.

Sun Media commentator Ezra Levant barely got through taking credit for the bill’s passage before taking advantage of a recent censure of comments he made on his television show to change focus and declare his intent to destroy the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) within the coming year, in the name of freedom of speech.

Both are the culmination of roughly ten years of media campaigning against speech-related laws and standards, and while the principle of freedom of speech is admirable, the application being upheld and idealized by speechies is already showing its proponents’ hypocrisy.

Bill C304 is one of several Private Members’ Bills that pundits have been watching, concerned that the procedure may be used by Conservatives to pass legislation that the party wants to maintain some plausible deniability about (another bill which has provoked concern is Blake Richards’ C-309, which proposes to ban masks at protests).  And given the questionable Reform Party -era ties to hate groups, plausible deniability was probably a politically prudent approach for the Conservatives to take.  Liberal and NDP Members of Parliament have previously spoken out against Storseth’s bill, but often expressed that they felt it was too contentious to pass.

Section 13 was one of the approaches used to defuse the inciting of racial hatred in Canada, and had been thought of as a way to keep neo-Nazis in check, although it’s historical use has been mixed and controversial.  Ernst Zundel was the focus of several different actions against hate speech that he published in print and on his website, before he was finally deported to Germany, where they had no qualms about convicting him of 14 counts of inciting racial hatred.  In December 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada also finally upheld a conviction against Jim Keegstra for a 1984 arrest after teaching Social Studies students that the Holocaust never happened.

But hate speech legislation began to lose popular support when it was used to target Macleans magazine and writer Mark Steyn for articles promoting what evolved into “Demographic Winter” lore (i.e. fears that Islamic Fundamentalists were outpopulating Western nations and would “win” by sheer numbers).  It was also used against former Western Standard publisher turned Spin News Network commentator and entertainer Ezra Levant for publishing cartoons that portrayed the prophet Mohammad as a terrorist.  Proceedings were later thrown out or dropped, but not without some personal cost to each, highlighting some concerns that call for some legitimate reform.

Personally, I’m not all that partial to speech legislation.  I do agree that there needs to be something there to address the extremes of Zundel and Whatcott, but also that there has to be restraint on its use and the way it’s prosecuted. But at the same time, for as much as there are accusations of “fascist” motives from both left and right-wing pundits in our increasingly polarized political climate, the abolition of speech law does disarm a tool that could have provided a means to bring something of that nature about.

Free Speech and the Responsibility That Comes With It

I wrote about the subject earlier, when discussing Bill Whatcott’s Supreme Court trial, a proceeding which concerns a Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission ruling:

Hateful speech is never free.  While an individual comment, or poster, or ad, or flier may be free speech, the weight of cumulative aggressions and microaggressions serve to demonize communities, alienate them, and discourage them from participating in society.  As it becomes more common, accumulated hatefulness makes it seem acceptable or (to some) even necessary to act on that, and by knowing this, entire communities are terrorized in a way by each new onslaught.

And yet there is a danger in criminalizing speech.  The same groups that hate is already designed to silence and intimidate into hiding could very easily become the same groups that society seeks to silence first, when given the tool of speech legislation.

Ideally, hateful speech should be answered, and called out.  Hateful speech must be answered.  It must be responded to.  Freedom of speech is not simply a question of saying or publishing anything and everything that one might wish to say.  It comes with a responsibility to answer to these things, and call them out as attitudes that need to change.  The problem is that it typically isn’t answered to by the majority, and if sufficient inequality or disparate antipathy exists, the minority may either feel too disenfranchised to respond, or the channels that they need to respond in aren’t interested in giving them the opportunity.

Spin News Network personalities get particularly poor marks for positioning themselves as apparent free speech champions by promoting Islamophobes like Geert Wilders and trying to provoke hate speech complaints of their own, while at the same time making a point to run Charles McVety’s transphobic / homophobic ads without criticism or contrary opinion, calling to ban Islamic speakers, and justifying the barring of entry to people like Bill Ayers.  If freedom of speech comes with a responsibility to counter those things that are hateful, then Sun Media has repeatedly shed that responsibility whenever it has been politically inconvenient to their editorial viewpoint, like skin of an embarrassing colour.

In addition to facilitating dialogue instead of squelching it, freedom of speech also comes with a responsibility to maintain some civility and decorum.  Canada’s speechies often fail on that count as well.  In the most recent example, Levant was condemned by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council for an uncivil tirade last December, and his response was to flip CBSC the bird.  Civility too, it seems, is no longer in fashion.

Broadcast Standards Under Fire

Levant took the opportunity to take up a campaign to destroy the CBSC:

“According to the Canadian Broadcast Stan- uh, Censors Council, that’s not actually what got me in trouble.  What got me in trouble was my point of view.  I wasn’t -quote- ‘balanced.’ Now, I have an opinion, that’s my job actually, to have an opinion.  I don’t pretend to be a ‘neutral’ reporter here, my job is to put out my opinion forcefully….”

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council was set up at the initiative of Canadian television networks, for the purpose of establishing limits that would help immunize the industry against the kinds of complaints that could potentially result in a drive toward real censorship.  It has allowed the actual government body in play — the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) — to refer complaints back to a body that champions the idea of media policing itself, rather than taking any binding action of its own.  Spin News Network has been upset with the CRTC ever since the latter twice refused to make special exceptions for the station so that it could have preferred carrier status, which would put it near the top of the dial and make it mandatory for cable networks to provide it prominently.  It’s not hard to guess who foxnewsnorth‘s Sun TV’s endgame target will be, but for now, the buffer of the CBSC is in the way.

To that end, Ezra Levant has promised a 5-point campaign to destroy the Council within the coming year, by:

1. Systematically violating the CBSC’s standards on a daily basis, and inviting other censured people on his program for the purpose of reoffending;
2. Picking out what Levant describes as inconsistencies and phrasing the CBSC’s function as being outside the law — of course, the CBSC wasn’t set up as a legal body (and consequently, its rulings are non-binding), but as a voluntary code of practices that televised media in Canada decided to set for itself and abide by;
3. Mobilizing right-wingers to comment and blog incessantly on the subject;
4. Getting a bill started in Parliament — this could be interesting, since the CBSC is not a government body nor a legal body, but a voluntary media board (though to be fair, for a station to get a better placement on the dial, there is a CRTC requirement to abide by the code); and
5. Mobilizing viewers to flood MPs, the PM and the Heritage Minister with emails and letters

So, far from accepting the responsibilities that go with freedom of speech, Sun News Network and at least one commentator are dedicated to actively working against anything that encourages these responsibilities, however symbolic and voluntary it might be.

The Overton Window and Harper’s Stake

To be fair, Spin News Network and Sun Media are private corporations, and not under any obligation to provide air time or column space to dissenting voices, although arguing this point says something interesting about fair and unbiased media in Canada.  For the Harper Conservatives, reaping the accolades from right-wing supporters over the passage of C-304 and acting as a government that is supposed to work on behalf of all Canadians, the same can’t be said.

The Harper Government has played both sides of the “free speech” equation by happily positioning themselves as free speech champions, while waging an economic stifling of speech through the defunding of environmental science, status of women groups, Aboriginal advocacy and human rights organizations and yet maintaining charitable status and even financial subsidies for partisan political supporters and think tanks that consistently produce convenient reports.  At times, the government’s imbalanced treatment has led to intimidation tactics and accusations of terrorism in order to marginalize political opponents.  The end result is a faux free speech environment in which state sanctioned speech is signal-boosted to the tune of millions of dollars, and dissent is economically marginalized to the point of having little to no avenue through which to counter spin.

Here’s why these responsibilities matter.  Before his death in 2003, Joseph Overton, vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (a think tank devoted to free market ideology), proposed a political concept that has since become known as “The Overton Window.”  At any given moment, the window of popular sentiment and political viability is in flux, and the key to achieving policy is to expand or shift the window to encompass it.  This is done by changing the conversation through several means — including repetition, erasure and ridicule of opposition, manipulation and spin — until an idea shifts from being previously unthinkable and then radical to becoming acceptable, seemingly sensible and then popular… until it is inevitably established as policy.

If this resonates with the dramatic polarization that has been taking place in the past few years on political topics like environmentalism, abortion and birth control, government budgeting and austerity, LGBT rights, police powers, public health care, bullying, and social programs like EI and welfare, then you’ve obviously noticed the explosion of concerted campaigns to shift that window.  And move, it clearly has.  I’m betting that most of us in our lifetime never would have thought we’d be fighting for the availability of the Pill, watching neo-conservatives fight for the right to deny medical care, or expecting CNN to run a semi-sympathetic profile of a “kinder, gentler” Ku Klux Klan.

This happens not from free speech, but from abdicating the responsibilities that come with it — or, in the case of defunding and silencing unfavorable speech, making concerted efforts to control the conversation.

The free speech advocates in media and government are less interested in promoting diversity of speech, and more interested in shifting the window of where and how that speech occurs.

(Crossposted to


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 876 other followers