“Unthinkable”

American religious conservatives have a problem.

Riding high on their partnerships with the Trump administration and the perception of being political kingmakers, they need to be sure that they will be able to sustain their momentum for years to come. And with the newly-stacked U.S. Supreme Court making the overturn of Roe v Wade a seeming inevitability (as well as putting the overturn of marriage equality within sight), they are now looking for what to do in a “post-Roe” world to retain their energy, power, and dizzying levels of funding. And in the discussions they have about that dilemma, their solution, often, is to work toward a world in which they have made abortion “unthinkable.”

“I’m not suggesting that the proposed laws are unimportant—on the contrary, pass more of them! I only wish to remind us that our goal is to make abortion unthinkable as well as illegal. And that means our work has only just begun…” –  John Stonestreet and Roberto Rivera, Breakpoint

When I speak about American conservatives, of course, I don’t mean to suggest that there is some central plan or hive mind. It doesn’t work that way. Even getting U.S. Evangelicals and Catholic fundamentalists onto the same page can be a challenge sometimes, and the religious nationalist industrial complex is made up of an infinite number of organizations all vying for dollars in the same fundraising pool. But there does seem to be a fairly cohesive and organic process in which talking points filter out and take shape – and “unthinkable” appears to be one such trend in linguistic spin.

The origin of this particular incarnation of the talking point (it has been mused about many times before, but not with this degree of viral spread and consistency) appears to have been January’s Evangelicals for Life conference, in which the senior vice president of Alliance Defending Freedom’s (ADF) U.S. legal division Kristen Waggoner encouraged attendees, using the phrase. Waggoner’s encouragement came about a week after Robin Marty’s Handbook for a Post-Roe America was published, and progressive news outlets were discussing how to respond to the possibility of a patchwork or even nationwide ban on abortion. The possibility that the left might evolve to cope with a changing legal landscape – as far as EFL attendees were concerned – needed to be thought out and prepared for.

So when Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament Sam Oosterhoff tells an anti-abortion rally in Toronto that he pledges to make abortion “unthinkable in our lifetime,” it’s helpful to look at religious conservative media for clues as to what he might mean by that, and where his influences are coming from.

“New Hampshire Right to Life’s position is clear, she said. ‘We would want to put restrictions on abortions and make it unthinkable and illegal…’”Concord Monitor

I could go at some length about how promoters of the sensationalistic and Planned Parenthood -defaming movie Unplanned seized on the phrase during their publicity tour, or how it’s turning up on Fox News, or how it came up during anti-abortion rhetoric pertaining to legislation in New York and Georgia as well as a legal ruling in Louisiana, or how it spread widely enough that even a perceived-left website like Vox gave it oxygen – but that only establishes that there is definitely a narrative. I’d much rather look at what religious conservatives are getting at, when they use the phrase.

“Every answer to why abortion is viewed as still ‘needed’ stems from a deeper-seeded issue which we could be fighting against… we need to combat the issues which give abortion supporters reasons to think it is the better ‘option.’ Abortion needs to stop being an excuse for not addressing the larger issues at hand…” – Paul Collier

If anti-abortion groups wanted to turn their attention toward addressing poverty, it would probably be a welcome development. Sadly, you won’t find a whisper of that, and doing so would probably frighten the megadonors with whom they collaborate to form the Republican / Conservative political base. But getting religious conservatives to speak candidly about specific objectives isn’t always easy. Afraid that too much transparency might allow opponents to organize effectively against them, they often restrict their public musings to dog whistle terms (of which “unthinkable” is arguably one), and stay effectively mum about which political candidates they’ve managed to get nominated as candidates in an election. But in venues seen as relatively safe and exclusive, or from pundits who are seen as less prominent, sometimes you’ll find some elaboration.

One such pundit is The Federalist’s Georgi Boorman, who actually proposed a 6-point plan. Chief among these is to “Improve Reproductive Education” – but you won’t find her making any mention of contraception (elsewhere, Boorman reveals herself to be not a fan of The Pill), condoms or family planning. There’s no direct mention of sex education in schools, either, even though it would clearly be the necessary vehicle for what she has in mind. The “reproductive education” that she speaks of is predominantly “to educate women on the dangers of” abortion (by which she means the usual far right claims about health dangers of the practice), a fetishization of the stages of fetal development, and more fearmongering about the current medical process (i.e. she cites “the horrid conditions of abortionist Kermit Gosnell’s facility” as a typical example… it’s far from it).

The remainder of Georgi Boorman’s suggestions include more criminalization (elsewhere, she openly supports the death sentence for women who abort) and the vague “celebrate life” mantra, as well as increasing support for adoption (“especially cross-racial,” she adds, stealthily riffing on anti-abortion groups’ efforts to portray the procedure as a kind of racist genocide perpetrated by leftists) and – of course – ramping up funding for anti-abortion fake pregnancy centres.

On these points, her proposals are within the purview of those of Abby Johnson, whose own proposals are steeped in proselytizing and expanding anti-abortion pregnancy counseling centers into additional areas that beatify motherhood, but do not provide any hints of information about contraception or family planning (other than, perhaps, the “rhythm method”). But Boorman also adds a notable comment about “support[ing] fatherhood”:

“… what if fathers were asked to step up as parents and providers, instead of being written off as unqualified sperm donors? What if our culture demanded it? … Millions of fathers have been robbed of this opportunity since Roe, and our welfare system has enabled this by disincentivizing marriage and fatherhood obligations. … Instead of affirming mothers’ unilateral decisions by default, we should encourage fathers’ involvement (including marriage)…”

When religious conservatives frame opposition to gay and trans human rights as “protecting marriage,” LGBTQ+ organizations and spokespeople often quip about the hypocrisy in their seeming lack of worry about divorce and cohabitation. But the fact of the matter is that anti- groups have never stopped tilting at those particular windmills, either. An outright ban on divorce is only touted by the most extreme among them, but “disincentivizing” and creating an institutional system that heavily favours marriage come up often, and the idea of restricting divorce or making it difficult retains some level of popularity.

Other religious conservatives are more ambitious. Around the same time that Kristen Waggoner was proposing that abortion be made unthinkable, the Heritage Foundation hosted Sue Ellen Browder, who claims that “the sexual revolution hijacked the women’s movement” to make abortion and contraception priorities. This, too, is not a new argument, but it is gaining new popularity with organizations seeking to keep the money rolling in after an overturn of Roe. And with anti-trans, anti-sex work and anti-porn feminists partnering with religious conservatives like never before, there appears to be a sense that they have an opportunity to co-opt womens’ rights, which can then be used as a shield against accusations of homophobia, Islamophobia and puritanism, while at the same time purging it of reproductive rights advocacy and sex positivity, maintaining a subordinated role for women in administrative areas, and asserting the doctrine of complementarianism (a teaching used both to mandate motherhood as a woman’s integral life goal, and to invalidate LGBTQ+ peoples’ rights to live their lives as they need to).

“The battle against feminism is better fought by women because the public has been convinced that men are not qualified to speak about issues that affect the fairer sex…”John Horvat II

On this point, James V. Schall suggests that religious conservatives need to target the entirety of the sexual revolution: “The path, when spelled out, is a direct line from divorce, contraception, and abortion to single-sex ‘marriage,’ in-vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and designer babies and now to a refusal to continue to increase and multiply with transgenderism, population decline, and, ultimately euthanasia… If we were to eliminate abortion, we must freely stop committing the sins that initiate disordered conceptions… Without this conversion, we will continue on the same path on which we now are traveling…”The Federalist’s Cullen Herout (which, admit it, must be a pseudonym) agrees at least on the point about contraception, saying “… if the goal really is to make abortion unthinkable, that cannot and will not happen without a large-scale shift in our cultural attitude toward human sexuality and contraception…”

So the next time your local political representative muses about making abortion “unthinkable,” it’s only reasonable to press them to elaborate. Because there clearly is more to that statement – and while religious conservatives obviously don’t think in total homogeneity, there’s enough like-mindedness to view this sort of dog whistle with alarm.

The Alberta Advantage was Dependence

In the end, the “Alberta Advantage” was dependence.
And in retrospect, undoing that dependence on the oil industry — a mixture of real and perceived — needed to be the number one priority of the Notley NDP government. When Albertans (even to their own surprise) overthrew the 40-year Progressive Conservative dynasty in 2015, they were hungry for change, and they knew that change was both inevitable and urgent, given the realities of global climate change — something they had been increasingly experiencing (most notably when the third “one-in-a-hundred-year flood” in ten years ate High River and parts of downtown Calgary).
Instead, industry managed to keep the focus on oil development and pipelines, and sucked all of the rest of the political and economic air out of the room.
Of course, Alberta’s energy sector is well-versed in fostering and using the dependence on its jobs and products — whether manipulating gas prices, making punitive and excessive layoffs whenever an administration or policy it doesn’t like is in place, or dangling illusionary carrots, like job creation estimates that factor in a hundredfold of jobs that they imagine might be generated by their project (and which nobody ever follows up on to debunk). In reality, building a pipeline creates merely a small number of regionally-shifting jobs aimed at transporting the longer-term refining jobs out-of-country, but nobody really ever remarks on that, because of how overwhelmed with industry propaganda Albertans are, and their eagerness for what little crumbs industry is willing to toss their way.
Now, the rest of Canada might not be overly sympathetic to Alberta’s plight, right now, because the province has had a pretty good run, riding waves of oil prices over the past few decades to sustained prosperity, while labour markets elsewhere have dwindled, automated, and relocated to other countries. Consequently, Alberta may feel the coming change more acutely than the rest of Canada — but feel it everyone will.
Change is hard. It’s disruptive. And with the level of budgetary dependence on energy royalties and the perceived dependence (thanks to the hard work of neoliberal institutions like the Fraser, CAPP and corporate media) of everyone’s jobs on oil development, Alberta has had four years of reckoning that haven’t really done anything to assuage any of the associated fears that come with that change.
To be fair, that transition was never something that was going to be able to take place in a scant four years.
Additionally, the Notley NDP have tried to break some of that sense of dependence through diversification. It’s something that hasn’t been well-publicized, but it also needed to be more aggressively pursued. And diversification is only one step — job retraining and the economic support and optimism needed to get through it are more critical. Albertans looked to Rachel Notley to lead them into and through a transition, and somewhere along the way, industry convinced the government and the public alike that the transition was yet another pipeline.
Consequently, we find ourselves at a crossroads in which Albertans seem receptive to old, failed conservative policies of austerity and corporate giveaways, regardless of the ethical concerns with a guy who may have broken electoral laws in order to become party leader, and regardless of whether he has surrounded himself with lake-of-fire social conservatives and semi-open white nationalists. It’s why we’ve seen people who’ve never protested before come out to agitate for pipelines, and naively allowed themselves to get hijacked by and aligned with racist wingnuts who’d previously floundered on the fringe for decades. Despite the stereotype of the Albertan redneck, Albertans have always tended toward worrying about the money, and not caring about the social positions that have aligned themselves with it (which is, in a way, even worse).
But here’s the clincher: a pipeline isn’t going to slow or stop the one-in-a-hundred-year floods, or the summer seasons that might soon be renamed “Smoke,” or the fracking-triggered earthquakes. And electing a traditional oil crony is more likely to undo the first steps that Alberta has taken than to make those hard choices. Because the longer Alberta tries to forestall its transition, the more abrupt, disruptive, and devastating that eventual change is going to be.
(crossposted to rabble.ca)

Support Trans Youth, Say Pediatricians

On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a policy statement declaring that “The Academy stands against stigmatization and marginalization of [transgender and gender-diverse (TGD)] youths and emphasizes the need for their acceptance as members of our families, communities, and workforce. A new policy statement, Ensuring Comprehensive Care and Support for Transgender and Gender-Diverse Children and Adolescentsuses strengths-based concepts to outline the role of pediatricians in addressing the needs, challenges and resilience of TGD youths and their families.”

The AAP is the largest professional organization of pediatricians in North America, representing over 64,000 members in both primary care and related specialties.The AAP’s recommendations are:

“1. that youth who identify as TGD have access to comprehensive, gender-affirming, and developmentally appropriate health care that is provided in a safe and inclusive clinical space;

“2. that family-based therapy and support be available to recognize and respond to the emotional and mental health needs of parents, caregivers, and siblings of youth who identify as TGD;

“3. that electronic health records, billing systems, patient-centered notification systems, and clinical research be designed to respect the asserted gender identity of each patient while maintaining confidentiality and avoiding duplicate charts;

“4. that insurance plans offer coverage for health care that is specific to the needs of youth who identify as TGD, including coverage for medical, psychological, and, when indicated, surgical gender-affirming interventions;

“5. that provider education, including medical school, residency, and continuing education, integrate core competencies on the emotional and physical health needs and best practices for the care of youth who identify as TGD and their families;

“6. that pediatricians have a role in advocating for, educating, and developing liaison relationships with school districts and other community organizations to promote acceptance and inclusion of all children without fear of harassment, exclusion, or bullying because of gender expression;

“7. that pediatricians have a role in advocating for policies and laws that protect youth who identify as TGD from discrimination and violence;

“8. that the health care workforce protects diversity by offering equal employment opportunities and workplace protections, regardless of gender identity or expression; and

“9. that the medical field and federal government prioritize research that is dedicated to improving the quality of evidence-based care for youth who identify as TGD…”

This important statement comes at a time when fearmongering about the acceptance and accommodation of trans youth has reached a fever pitch in the Western world. In the US, fears raised about trans kids in public washrooms continue to constitute an unwarranted panic used to justify attacks on the public school system and teachers unions as much as the kids themselves. In the UK, tabloids have targeted a children’s charity with false claims and called medical access into question, while predominantly anti-trans websites have attempted to portray an increase in trans youth coming out of the closet as a “social contagion.” In Canada, acceptance of trans kids is typically rephrased as “transgender [or even “liberal”] ideology” (it makes it easier to generate alarm when the kids are erased entirely), and used as one of the main objections to age-appropriate sex education (the phrase “gender ideology” has been used by the Vatican for longer, and is also sometimes a dog whistle encompassing any combination of feminism, reproductive freedoms, sex education, and / or LGBTQAI2 rights). Much of this fearmongering has been made possible by flawed or distorted data, such as the often-cited statistic that 84% (or 90, because rounding up sounds better) of trans kids desist (that is, grow out of it, in much the same way people used to view being gay as “just a phase”) — a claim made possible by looking at studies that failed to distinguish kids who actually had a strong and persistent identification with the gender that does not match their birth assignment, from kids who simply experimented with gender (or were even just arbitrarily thought of as gender non-conforming by their parents or doctors).

The AAP statement also comes at a time when Canadian media are starting to jump on a study purporting to show a social contagion-style phenomenon that proponents call Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD). If anything clearly demonstrates why the AAP’s statement this week was necessary, it is the panic over ROGD.

Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria is not recognized by any medical body, but is rather a theory generated by a group of trans-exclusionary feminists and parents who refuse to accept their kids’ admissions of experiencing gender dysphoria, and instead blame trans awareness and activism for making being trans seem trendy. It is essentially a retooling of the “gays recruit” myth, but it has proven so effective in UK tabloids that British Conservative politician and Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt is launching an investigation into why the number of kids accessing the medical system has risen from 97 to 2,519 over the past eight years.

[Of course, the answer to that should be obvious. Eight years ago, trans-affirming treatment existed only at major metropolitan centres, few doctors would help trans kids, and finding those who did was hit-and-miss. Eight years ago, human rights protections were tenuous for adults, let alone youth who had much less legal autonomy, and schools were unprepared for accommodating them. Eight years ago, awareness, support options and the assurance of being accepted were much less, but the certainty of opposition was overwhelmingly intimidating. Eight years ago, parents could even have custody of their children taken away if they affirmed and supported them. As the stigma decreased and acceptance increased, people simply started coming out earlier in life. Which means that only now is society beginning to realize the real prevalence of trans* people.]

“Parents have described clusters of gender dysphoria outbreaks…”– the Littman study

But ROGD was given a veneer of legitimacy by a recent “study” that media outlets everywhere eagerly jumped on. I put study in quotation marks, because its methodology was a total mess. It was published in a journal that speeds papers to publication, and then lets you “peer review” them. The study itself acknowledged that its methodology was to take a voluntary survey of visitors to three websites (4thwavenow, Transgender Trend and youthtranscriticalprofessionals, which I will not link to directly), a cursory glance at which would be more than enough to ascertain exist only to discredit trans youth anecdotally and demonize their supporters. The survey didn’t talk to trans kids at all, but rather asked parents if their child’s coming out was sudden (i.e. it can seem to be “rapid onset” when one doesn’t live with it and is unaware of it for years), without prior signs (any trans person can tell you that before coming out, they sometimes go to great lengths to hide it), and were received with any sort of peer or educational support (from which they are assumed to have contracted transgenderism, I guess). The methodology was so flawed that PLOS ONE decided to conduct a “post-publication re-review,” and the researcher’s university withdrew its support almost as quickly as it was published:

“As a research institution, we feel we must ensure that work that is featured on the University website conforms to the highest academic standards. Given the concerns raised about research design and methods, the most responsible course of action was to stop publicizing the work published in this particular instance.  We would have done this regardless of the topic of the article…”

In the end, the only thing that was “rapid onset” was the process from fearmongering to theory (the few months in which the aforementioned three websites grew) and from published “study” to media event (which can be measured in days). National Post and The Globe and Mail should be embarrassed.

In fact, attempts to pass off transphobia and homophobia as science are not new: a discredited 2012 study attempting to prove that parenting by same-sex couples harmed their kids touched off a new wave of anti-LGBTQAI2 junk research, and an astroturf organization calling itself the American College of Pediatricians (identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) has repeatedly tried to pose as an authoritative pediatrics organization in order to fight LGBTQIA2 equality and reproductive rights. But the speed with which ROGD was heralded shows that there is a real appetite for misinformation about trans youth.

So this week’s policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics is vital. After years of ongoing research and evidence, the AAP has put its support behind the Gender-Affirmative Care Model (GACM):

“The GACM is best facilitated through the integration of medical, mental health, and social services, including specific resources and supports for parents and families.24 Providers work together to destigmatize gender variance, promote the child’s self-worth, facilitate access to care, educate families, and advocate for safer community spaces where children are free to develop and explore their gender.5 A specialized gender-affirmative therapist, when available, may be an asset in helping children and their families build skills for dealing with gender-based stigma, address symptoms of anxiety or depression, and reinforce the child’s overall resiliency.34,35 There is a limited but growing body of evidence that suggests that using an integrated affirmative model results in young people having fewer mental health concerns whether they ultimately identify as transgender.24,36,37

I have written before about medical accommodations for trans youth, and what is involved:

“It’s important to recognize that the process for trans youth that I’m speaking of is not “sex change” and surgery.  This is often the conclusion that people jump to, but the reality is that newer treatments merely delay puberty until it is certain whether further changes like hormone therapy must be undertaken… typically after age 14…

“Youth transition does not start simply because a child wants to crossdress on occasion or because they like dolls or trucks.  It happens when there is a strong and persistent identification that clearly indicates that there is something deeper than the usual experimentation phase which most kids go through…”

Dr. Norman Spack, who pioneered affirmative treatments, has a TED Talk on how they are scaled to be age-appropriate, and why he came to develop his course of care.  (It should be acknowledged that the policy statement does not specifically embrace Dr. Spack’s treatment, but does stand behind gender-affirmative care, of which his medical process is an example.)

The AAP statement also condemns reparative (or conversion) therapy:

“In contrast, “conversion” or “reparative” treatment models are used to prevent children and adolescents from identifying as transgender or to dissuade them from exhibiting gender-diverse expressions. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has concluded that any therapeutic intervention with the goal of changing a youth’s gender expression or identity is inappropriate.33 Reparative approaches have been proven to be not only unsuccessful38 but also deleterious and are considered outside the mainstream of traditional medical practice.29,3942 The AAP described reparative approaches as “unfair and deceptive.”43 At the time of this writing,* conversion therapy was banned by executive regulation in New York and by legislative statutes in 9 other states as well as the District of Columbia.44

Ontario banned reparative therapy for youth in 2015, noting that kids are often coerced or forced into the treatment by unaccepting parents and churches. This year, reparative therapy for all ages has been coming into question, with legislation being proposed in Nova Scotia, considered in Alberta, passed in the City of Vancouver, and being lobbied for nationwide.

The AAP’s statement mirrors guidelines issued earlier this year by The Canadian Paediatric Society, and are informed by a growing body of evidence that accepting, affirming and supporting trans children and youth leads to better long-term outcomes:

“Many kids who are transgender have chosen a name that is different than the one that they were given at birth,” said author Stephen T. Russell, professor and chair of human development and family science. “We showed that the more contexts or settings where they were able to use their preferred name, the stronger their mental health was…. I’ve been doing research on LGBT youth for almost 20 years now, and even I was surprised by how clear that link was…”

Whether or not the rhetoric subsides, the science is clear.

(Crossposted to Rabble.ca)

Free Speech, When The “Debate” is You (and You’re Not Invited)

There’s a duplicitous game of sleight-of-hand that is taking place in discussions about freedom of speech in academia and the public square.

Here’s how it works: at first, a person fishes for controversy by saying several things that they know will offend people.  If this garners enough attention, then the process recurs organically — say, whenever a politician wants to reference the controversy as a coded dog whistle to their base, or when a teaching assistant replays a recording in class because she thinks the discussion is interesting and challenging.

And the moment the people targeted by that discussion get angry and protest, they’re described not as being upset about the content of what is being said, but rather their protest is reframed as opposing freedom of speech itself.  Whether you see that as accidental or deliberate probably depends on how cynical you are about the whole issue. Continue reading Free Speech, When The “Debate” is You (and You’re Not Invited)

Gospel By Gaslight

If gaslighting is “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity,” then religious fundamentalism (of several sorts, although my experience is specifically with Christian fundamentalism, and other forms may vary) is a particularly insidious form of mass gaslighting.

Although I no longer hold to any particular faith, I continue to believe that the problem is fundamentalism, rather than any particular flavour of religion in its moderate form.  I do recognize that faith can have a positive effect in peoples’ lives, and has the potential to teach a certain amount of goodness and morality that people can otherwise be too self-absorbed or indifferent to learn of their own accord.  But fundamentalism, often a hardline, literalist interpretation of scripture(s) in a way that is intended to override a person’s own thoughts, experiences and inner sense of reality, easily fits the bill of spiritual gaslighting.  Fundamentalism, in its authoritarian insistence on flatly denying anything contrary to its specific interpretation of faith, its reliance on often contradictory (or at least vague and unclear) scripture, and in its refusal to adapt when quantifiably true information becomes known, can then only possibly destabilize a person’s sense of self and delegitimize their whole sense of what is true.

My own experience gave me endless examples of this, each of which had to be dismantled in a process that took years and left me bitter and angry when all was said and done.  I had been raised Catholic at first, but then from the age of 7 until I was 17, I, my mother and sister began attending a Protestant church that was so radical it was kicked out of the Pentecostal Assembly.  That church was seen as one of the more modern of its day, but that didn’t make it progressive as a result: the sell was loving, but there was no shortage of absolutes and militant edicts to be confronted with, requiring entire changes of life, and threats of rejection or divine consequences for failure.

The example that stands out most memorably stems from having been a child / teen who struggled (because that was what I was taught to do) with attraction to both sexes, and a gender identity that I was unable to articulate (because we didn’t have the language for it in the 1970s and 1980s) as being out of sync with my birth sex.  All of these things were a part of my core person, things that I couldn’t switch off like a light, things that I prayed for years for Jesus to take away, things that I threw myself into 24/7 efforts like bible study and evangelism in hopes that they’d help me overcome.  All of these things were in direct conflict with what my religion told me was true and morally acceptable.  My faith told me that Christ could “heal” me if I just believed (I did, ardently; he didn’t).  My faith told me that Christ could cast my demons out, which was a particularly horrible kind of mind game, suggesting that intrinsic parts of my being were actually manifestations of Satan incarnate.

Continue reading Gospel By Gaslight

Trans* Human Rights Bill C-16: A Look Back

Although I’ll be remarking on the passing of Bill C-16 elsewhere, I wanted to post Bill Siksay’s closing speech from February 7, 2011, back when the bill was in its third incarnation (of five), Bill C-389.  To me, it’s a profound moment to look back on, and realize just how far we’ve come.

It took 12 years to pass this bill.  For the first six, it was completely ignored, as was the trans* rights movement. Shortly after this speech, the bill did pass at Third Reading, and the effort finally was taken seriously… but was then very hard fought.  This speech was the moment (if there was any single one) that things changed.

I hope that Mr. Siksay’s efforts are remembered now.  Trans* people have usually been told to wait their turn, that legislation is incremental, that we should work for gay rights, and then the LGBTQ movement would come back for us.  This was a rare exception in which someone actually did come back. Continue reading Trans* Human Rights Bill C-16: A Look Back

What the “Walk on the Wild Side” controversy says about trans* awareness and a changing social movement

A little over a week ago, a University of Guelph student union drew international ire for condemning Lou Reed’s 1972 song “Walk on the Wild Side” as transphobic.  This occurred after the Central Student Association apologized on social media for playing the song at a campus event.  Although this might seem like a minor thing to get upset about (especially in the outrage-saturated age of Donald Trump), and most of the reaction has focused on the historic roots and intent of the song, the controversy is actually a noteworthy reflection of the changes that take place as a social movement — in this case, trans* activism — matures.

This brings to the surface a lot of mixed feelings for me, as a former activist who chose to be visible and vocal at a time before trans* people were taken seriously, let alone had much in the way of public acceptance.  “Walk on the Wild Side” was an inclusive part of the subculture; one of the rebellious anthems we rallied around and took pride in.

It shows how profoundly things can change as a marginalized class of people becomes better understood and more enfranchised: even those things that had once been welcome and validating can become sour and invalidating.  It also says much about how social movements evolve, and how each generation inevitably repudiates the last, as they seek to distinguish themselves.

It’s a process I came face-to-face with several years ago, while trying to form a trans-specific support organization in Alberta.  One of the town hall participants took me aside and tried to impress upon me that in order for the trans* movement to advance, the “dinosaurs” (which included me, apparently) needed to “make way for the new age.”  As hurtful as the discussion was, they did have some points that resonated in the years that followed, and ultimately contributed to my decision from withdrawing from trans* activism and (mostly) from writing about trans* issues.  Some of the concerns they raised were painfully pragmatic (i.e. needing to have leaders who didn’t bring with them the baggage of bitterness and ill will of having fought the lesbian and gay establishment for inclusion in LGBTQ activism), some insulting (i.e. suggesting that one had to be younger, academic and/or trans-male in order to be an acceptable “face” of trans* activism), but other arguments were the byproduct of recognizing the changing language we use to communicate trans-ness… and the tide of acceptance that was coming with it.

After all, the activism I was accustomed to was a kind of triage, of coping with and trying to educate traditionally hostile medical, governmental and social institutions, while directing people in need to safe, welcoming inroads and pushing those institutions behind the scene to provide better options and opportunities.  I’ve often likened the experience to dashing ourselves against the rocks in the hopes of blunting them enough for the next people to come along.  But the activism that was quickly becoming needed was more direct — lobbying, legal challenges, public actions — and although I started making some of those changes in what I was doing, there was a danger that by trying to be an intrinsic part of that activism, I might inadvertently hold it back by defaulting to the triage-style efforts I’d been accustomed to.  In the end, I realized there was some important truth to this.

My point, of course, is that along with awareness about trans* people, the movement toward trans* human rights is undergoing a generational metamorphosis.

Part of that metamorphosis is in the language used to communicate “trans-ness,” if you will.
This is seen in the many diverse and sometimes seemingly-chaotic genders that are being investigated and embraced as peoples’ terms of self-identification.  Although many of the newly-embraced genders are relatively beyond my own experience (I’m personally comfortable in a gender binary, while still recognizing the problematic social constructions with that), there are almost always very deep and specific reasons those gender terms have been embraced.  I’ve learned to respect and support (while not trying to speak for, except when there is no one present to do so) gender diversity that is outside my limited range of experience.

I raise this as a point of language because before a movement can fully coalesce, the language it uses to communicate itself needs to be rethought.  Until trans* people had a language to communicate their own experiences, they had to cope — often with a lot of frustration and awkwardness — with the language that was imposed upon them.  In my lifetime, trans* women and trans-feminine persons were conflated with gay men (particularly effeminate ones); trans* men and trans-masculine persons were conflated with lesbians (particularly “butch” dykes); trans* people were defined and categorized by medical practitioners who constructed stigmatizing models of mental illness to explain them; pornography and second-wave feminists alike defined trans* women as “she-males” (usually with the implication that ‘she’s really male’); social conservatives wielded terms like “crossdresser” and “transvestite” to reduce peoples’ entire experience to a clothing fetish… and even those terms were imperfect and evolved unexpectedly.  For example, in the 1990s, a lot of trans* women actually did refer to themselves as “crossdressers” and used that as a label to rally under — it was the limitation of the language people had available to them at the time.

It wasn’t until trans* people were able to assert their right to define themselves and determine for themselves what their words meant that the old stigmas could be shed and better-fitting terms and their definitions could be settled upon.  Some of that is still taking place, and it may seem strange at times — but it is a necessary process (I, for one, welcome and embrace it — as long as no one tries to redefine my own self and experiences, in the process).  Even now, there are still disagreements about using words like “transgender” as umbrella terms (which I why I personally prefer “trans*” — it provides a much more open-ended acknowledgement of the diverse range of experiences being discussed).

But some of the earlier problematic use of language still remains in the things that were written about us — both by cis* (non-trans*) people, and by we trans* “dinosaurs.”

I won’t go into too much depth about the particulars of the song “Walk on the Wild Side,” since a lot of that is public record.  Reed wrote the song as an intended tribute to some of the trans* folks he knew as a part of Andy Warhol’s clique at The Factory, particularly Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling.  It’s also probably historically relevant that Reed had a lengthy and enigmatic relationship with a trans* woman (who has unfortunately faded into obscurity), which had a profound effect on him.This doesn’t change the fact, of course, that the song has some lyrics that now tread into potentially misgendering and transphobic tropes (“… Plucked her eyebrows on the way / shaved her legs and then he was a she….”) The content hasn’t changed — but the context given those lyrics certainly has.  And even if there is a consensus right now it that the University of Guelph Central Student Association is on the wrong side of the issue referring to the song as transphobic, the evolution of trans* activism and the lesson of histories of other social movements tell me that the student union’s statement is more in line with where that activism is headed.

This is true of a great many things that used to be a part of what used to be the trans* subculture.  Some of the things that we consider offensive now were embraceable or rallying anthems even ten or fifteen years ago, if only by the virtue that trans* people were so stigmatized and made to hide that anything that acknowledged our existence in even a mildly sympathetic way felt like progress.

Today, the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar is likely to bring up heated discussions about the differences between drag queens and trans* women — if not angry division about whether drag is a kind of trans* “blackface.” In 1995, it was a celebration of a culture that was often one of the few safe-havens and opportunities to come out of the closet that trans* women had (although how welcoming the drag community was varied by region), even if it meant being willing to be a bit of a self-caricature.

In 1987, Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” was sometimes taken as an affirmation, despite its misgendering — and in a twisted way, this may even have been in part due to the uncomfortably sexualized form of acceptance implied in the repeated refrain to “do me.”

In 1992, it was hard to know how to feel about the treatment of the character of Dil in The Crying Game, given Jody’s obvious love for her and the well-developed and nuanced relationship that she forms with Fergus… yet that is starkly contrasted with the jarring pivot of the movie, which has the latter vomiting upon the discovery of her trans* status.  Today, the movie is seen as the progenitor of the “vomit shot,” a recurring trope in an enormous amount of offensive material that portrays sex with trans* women as sickening.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch had a cult following that still largely adheres to the play and film, despite the fact that both [spoiler alert if it’s needed] end with the protagonist’s detransition — though to be fair, Hedwig has a second trans* character who doesn’t, so the decision is fairly painted as an individual one, rather than a morality tale that should apply to everybody.

Probably most notoriously, The Rocky Horror Picture Show periodically inflames division for centering around a character who was recently described as a “cannibalistic-murderer-mad-scientist obsessed with constructing the perfect Adonis to submit to Frank’s erotic pleasures,” while the original film (and theatre participation that went with it) is also paradoxically fondly remembered as peoples’ first opportunity to present themselves in public as their identified gender, and for its affirming themes like “Don’t Dream It, Be It.” Of all historic trans-related media, RHPS probably has the most chequered baggage, and isn’t helped any by being written by someone who somehow found a way to be both gender diverse and transphobic simultaneously.  In 2017, RHPS might be slightly rehabilitated by its campy intent and a remake starring Laverne Cox (which sadly makes it one of the few films about trans* people that the media industry saw fit to cast an actual trans* woman in), but I suspect that the future will not be as kind.

We’re even seeing this in the Twin Peaks reboot:

“When Denise first appeared on the ABC series in 1990, she was a trailblazer. Then (and today), trans people were practically nonexistent on network television. So to see a trans character like Denise who was smart, capable, and more than one-dimensional was a breakthrough moment for representation.

“… Jenny Boylan, a trans activist and cochair of the GLAAD board of directors, posted on social media that the scene “made me squirm.”

“25 years later the David Duchovny trans character in #twinpeaks ep 4 lands really differently, made me squirm. I’m not your dancing dwarf,” Boylan posted on Twitter…”

From perhaps 2006 to 2010 (my approximation, anyway), there has been a shift in language, and this has brought about a parallel shift in thinking. With the aftertaste of 2005’s Transamerica and the newfound ability of trans* people to tell their own narratives and define their meaning, it became no longer enough that a work of film, music or art simply be sympathetic for it to become anthemic or a point of communal pride. Since then, the language — and the context and depth of understanding that goes along with it — has been changing.
Inevitably, that means that some of the things we remember fondly do go the way of the “dinosaur,” fortunate or unfortunate as that may be.
(This post also appears at rabble.ca)

Exploring political and human rights issues, how to unite the left, and more. Mercedes Allen and guests.