Author Archive

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.

But even underneath all of that, the heteronormative sexuality that the faith taught was messed up, toxic, and suffocating.  Premarital and extramarital sex were proscribed, of course, but it was unclear quite how one was to cope until marriage.  In a Catholic school, I learned that masturbation was an egregious sin.  Here, I’ll give my mother credit for indicating to me otherwise — not verbally, but in the form of a book by James Dobson, which recognized that masturbation was a normal, healthy part of life, and therefore a deviation from the fundamentalist script… but just barely.  It was a bit of a double-edged sword, though: Dobson’s book had a clear double-standard which said that masturbation was okay for boys, but a kind of purity of thought was still pushed for girls.  And when you grow up with male secondary characteristics but a sense of being female, socialization is something you sort of absorb whole-hog, as a larger package — that is to say, I adopted a belief that if I were to accepted myself as female, then that would require accepting purity culture (and the rantings against “impure thoughts”) along with it.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for boys under Dobson’s ironically revolutionary affirmation, either.  If masturbation was okay, most of the fantasies and inducements that accompanied it were still not.  Pornography was proscribed.  Attraction to someone of the same sex was proscribed. And it wasn’t really clear where the line was between attraction and lust:

“But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” – Matthew 5:28

So any sort of sexual fantasy was out of the question, and even just getting turned on became seen as “temptation.”  Unless masturbation just happened accidentally (“nocturnal emissions” was the term for the acceptable form), which wasn’t my experience, it was apparent that some form of it might be okay (maybe touch-only, with an emptied head)… just not any form I was aware of.  But church doctrine’s conflict with sexuality went even deeper than that.

My church often taught the Pauline teaching in Romans 6-8, about dying to self in order to be resurrected in Christ — in fact, those chapters were the head pastor’s go-to resource, forming the foundation for most of his other sermons.  My radical-beyond-Pentecostal holy roller church and the Catholic church and school I grew up in both had very Augustinian interpretations of this scripture: pleasure was evil, and sexual pleasure for its own sake (rather than strictly for procreation) was the epitome of vileness.  Therefore, dying to self required forsaking all sexual pleasure in order to seek a purer life (while still recognizing that all have sinned and come short of the glory of god).  So Dobson aside, purity culture was an every-gender sort of thing.

Each boner — and for a testosterone-fueled organism in puberty, there were a lot of them — required a repentance.  And this, of course, made me evil, a failure, a hopeless sinner, unforgivable, wicked beyond any form of possible respectability.  The end result is a constant battle between everyday human sexuality and self-chastisement, self-loathing and begging god for forgiveness… a sort of psychological shock therapy.

And that was just when I (who had been taught to believe that my sex organs were irrefutable proof that I was a boy) was attracted to girls.  The other attractions and sense of self seemed like insurmountable impossibilities way beyond that.  It was a total, paralyzing mindfuck which attempted to rewrite my whole reality.

Gaslighting.

(Crossposted to Medium. Photo from Adobe Stock; modified)

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.

Although the efforts of Randall Garrison, Jody Wilson-Raybould, and Grant Mitchell deserve much recognition, it would be very wrong to forget the person who started it all.

Mr. Bill Siksay (Burnaby—Douglas, NDP):  

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank all of the MPs who participated in the debate on Bill C-389 here in the House, in committee and in the community. I want to express my appreciation to those who are supporting the bill. Please note too that members of the transgender and transsexual communities appreciate this support.

 

I would like to speak personally for a moment. As a gay man, I know that securing my place as a full and equal citizen has been a long journey and an often hard-fought struggle. As a gay man, I know that my liberation came about thanks to the hard work, risk-taking and sacrifice of many queer brothers and sisters, and many strong allies. As a gay man, I know that the battle for my equality in our society was often led, often championed, by members of the transgender and transsexual community. I know that it was the drag queens who helped us fight back, and perhaps taught us to fight back, against the oppression, discrimination, prejudice and violence that we faced.

 

At Stonewall, but also long before and long after Stonewall, it was members of the trans community who helped lead and motivate our fight, and who stood in solidarity with us time and time again. That is one reason why I am proud to stand in solidarity with the transgender and transsexual community, as we finally seek their full equality and seek to establish their full human rights in law in Canada.

 

I have been greatly honoured to have been taken into the confidence of the trans community to be an ally and to work in solidarity with the community. It has been an honour to hear their stories and learn of their struggles. I have learned to be a better ally, a better friend, a better citizen as a result.

 

I have met beautiful, strong, loving and articulate people who face challenges I can hardly imagine and I am sure I do not fully appreciate. I count as friends people who live proud lives and express their full humanity against many odds. My understanding of what it means to be fully human has been challenged and expanded greatly by what I have been taught.

 

I have seen and sometimes shared the frustration, the anger, the tears and the deep sadness of people who are not yet equal, who too often face violence, sometimes to the point of death, and who mourn the loss of friends and family for whom the pain was more than they could bear. I have been strengthened by their resolve to claim their true identity and their place in our society, to live full lives and to be fully human.

 

This week the House will make a decision on the explicit inclusion of transgender and transsexual Canadians in our human rights law. That vote on Wednesday night will likely be very close. We may see the bill pass, which will be a cause for celebration and an opportunity to continue our work as it moves to the Senate; but the bill may also be defeated, it is that close. If that happens, let us remember that things have changed since we began this particular project six years ago. Let us remember that this is not the only forum in the struggle for the full equality of trans people. Let us not forget the victories and progress we have made in other places. Let us bask in the support of the new friends and allies we have found here in this place and across the country, and let us get ready to resume our work with new strategies and new plans.

 

I am confident that the change we seek will come. Justice will be done, and perhaps very soon the open and proud voice of transgender and transsexual Canadians will be heard loudly and clearly in this place. I hope that very soon an open member of the trans community will be elected and be able to directly, and from personal experience, voice the concerns of the community here in the House of Commons. There are celebrations to come.

For what it’s worth, if you watch at the 11:55 mark, you’ll see the original Third Reading voice vote (not the actual vote, but the vocal yeas or nays that can function as a vote if there is a clear winner and not enough division to tabulate a count), and the Speaker of the House Andrew Scheer (who is now the Conservative Party leader) ignores an audibly loud expression of support for the bill to say, “In my opinion, the nays have it.” Fortunately, there was enough division to ensure that there was a tallied vote.

Some other speeches made in Parliament over the years (chronologically):

Hedy Fry (C-389; June 8, 2010):

Megan Leslie (C-389; February 7, 2011):

Randall Garrison (C-279; April 5, 2012):

Dany Morin (C-279; April 5, 2012; en Français):

Craig Scott (C-279; June 4, 2012):

Joyce Murray (C-279; June 5, 2012):

Jody Wilson-Raybould (C-16; Oct. 16, 2016):

I know that I have missed many powerful moments.

In the end, it can be tempting to be angry that this has taken 12 years to accomplish the encoding of basic human rights protections.  But there is something to remember: for each of those 12 years, Canadians were talking about trans* people.  And (mostly) learning. This has been an important silver lining.

The fearmongering that takes place tends to travel in an arc: it catches on like wildfire, then people start learning the truth behind the myths, and eventually the myths lose their power and become marginal, laughable things at best.  It happened with bathroom panic, it happened may times during the gay & lesbian rights struggle, it happened for other civil rights movements, and we will continue to see it happen here.  The same will be true of the “free speech” fetishistic panic about pronouns… as long as we continue to challenge that panic with reality.

And in doing that, we can move forward.

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)

Free speech, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect

jordanpeterson2

In Canada, we tend to value freedom of speech very highly, and it’s often said that the best way to counter objectionable speech is with more speech.

That’s the first thought that crosses my mind in the case of U of T professor Jordan Peterson, who declares in a series of YouTube videos that he will not honour trans* peoples’ chosen pronouns, and opposes trans* human rights protections, all in the name of combating “political correctness.”

Of course, that would be an ideal world. In the real world, it’s still not that unusual for discussion of trans* issues to devolve into a “balanced” debate between pro- and anti-trans* academics over whether they exist at all, without any annoying context like actual trans* people being present to discuss their lived experience of, well, existing.  In the real world, there are real problems about who gets to speak, and how widely they can be heard… and the marginalized are often not given much voice to matters that affect — and are specifically about — them. In fact, the established and prolific voices in today’s media are more often quick to reject attempts to “inflict” change, or energetically create a lopsided portrait.

Speech is not a truly universal and equitable thing in the first place. Rather, it is something that is dependent upon access to favourable platforms, and is usually pre-emptively muddied by characteristic value judgments made about the speaker’s class, gender, race, etc.

Nevertheless, we strive for it as best we can. And in doing so, we arrive at the next irony: the very act of protesting ignorance with speech becomes itself heralded as evidence of censorship — as if the only way one’s speech can be truly free is for everyone else to remain silent.

The outcry and protest of ignorance [edit: example removed, was based on bad information – M] is speech, too — that of the protestors.  But in a disparate society, privileged speech is defended, while protest of it is often minimized, marginalized and dismissed as rowdiness, whinging, totalitarianism (!), censorship, and noise.  It becomes: “a little free speech for me, and a little shut-up-and-take-it for you.”

But let me back up for a moment.

Jordan Peterson is a University of Toronto (UofT) psychology professor who began his rants — especially about, but not limited to, trans* people and a “radical leftist ideology” — in late September, saying from the beginning that he felt he could face consequences, and even feared government or university reprisal because of existing human rights and hate speech laws.  He told Postmedia:

“I think (Bill C-16) risks criminalizing discussion about aspects of human sexual behaviour and identity that we need to discuss,” said Peterson, explaining that there are layers to C-16 — the biology of sex, gender identity and gender expression, for example — that could cause problems down the road.

One of his top stated concerns has been with the inclusion of trans* people in existing hate crimes legislation. The thing that people forget about this when it pertains to speech, though, is that the law has already been tested and shown to apply only exceedingly sparingly. If Bill Whatcott’s homemade but mass-distributed “anal warts” flyers equating LGBTQ people with pedophiles, and lyrical invitations to “kill the homosexual” skirt the edges of hate speech — some permissible and some not — then Peterson probably has nothing to worry about. Speech can indeed be hateful, and yet still not be legally actionable as hate speech.

But given that he seems only (or at least primarily) worried about human rights and hate crimes legislation when it pertains to LGBTQ people, one has to wonder if the concerns are cover for fears about the growing acceptance of trans* people in society.  He stated from the beginning that he will not use non-binary pronouns for other people, even if they request that.  He also said in his first video that he is “scared by the people behind the doctrines,” and attributes them to a radical Marxist ideology (reminiscent of the “cultural Marxism” panic making the rounds among social conservatives). He even compares the latter to Naziism, because of what he considers “murderous” and “Marxist” policies around the world.

Peterson frames his views in an academic and perhaps libertarian perspective, rather than a religious perspective, but he has been enjoying the support of religious conservatives.  This is probably because his views are quite compatible with the right-wing narrative that accepting and acknowledging trans* people as they need to live is (as enunciated regularly at LSN) a “disservice” and “false compassion because it’s not true.”

Peterson’s remedy to all of this dreaded political correctness — and what he calls upon listeners to help him with — is to propagate a “No PC” sticker campaign across the campus, and beyond.

The response to his videos has been mixed, with fierce supporters and opponents.  It has reportedly spawned threats, and affected some students’ class attendance.  In recent days, personal information about trans* students was circulated in far right subreddits, and protesters were nearly overwhelmed by an angry mob that allegedly included neo-Nazis.  This puts the University of Toronto in a quandary, as calls for reprisal — including possibly firing Peterson — have arisen.

From my perspective, reprisals like firing are not really a preferable end goal. We do value freedom of speech in Canada, after all — especially in academic settings — so there is that kernel of validity, even if Peterson’s speech is disrespectful or hateful. He’s entitled to his opinion, and also to be a jerk about it, on his own time.  Restrictions on freedom of speech are too often used to oppress minorities rather than people of privilege, anyway — much like the “homosexual propaganda” ban in Russia, which conservatives are still trying to figure out how to lobby for in North America.  It’s that extra step that Peterson wants to take it with students and colleagues which makes the question particularly difficult.

When I say this, though, it’s also partly because I’m an avid reader of social conservative media, and understand the undercurrent of persecution narrative activism. It’s why I can recognize what likely motivates someone who — without anyone ever asking him to respect trans* people in the first place — took it upon himself to loudly and energetically pursue free speech martyrdom anyway.

And personally, I see no value in giving it to him. Peterson’s actions — whether deliberately or by coincidence — are destined to place him in a growing collection of social conservatives who self-immolate for a few moments of anti-LGBTQ fame. It’s become trendy to seek a place on the Kim Davis speaking circuit, alongside Fundie cake bakers, and the twice-suspended Alabama Chief Justice who tried to singlehandedly overturn marriage equality in the United States.  Free speech martyrdom is also Ezra Levant’s entire schtick (which he’s still trying to parlay into a media network), so it also has just as valid and active a presence in Canada outside of overtly religious circles.  Whining that someone’s “special right” to dignity and equality is trampling your perfectly ordinary right to discriminate seems to make you a far right folk hero, these days. One of the end objectives of this, of course, is to insert a special religious exemption in human rights laws, so that people can practice their faith by refusing to sell to, hire, or otherwise co-exist with heathens (I might have got the precise wording wrong on this, because I don’t remember the particular scripture where Jesus commanded his followers to willfully disrespect and refuse to do business with sinners — I keep getting hung up on the “love one another” and “give unto Caesar” parts, for some reason).

Anyway, free speech martyrdom will allow Peterson to play hero… or at least until some other dupe comes along. After all, the whole value of the Kim Davises and Melissa Kleins to conservative activists only lasts as long as they’re useful to the two legal groups (Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel) trying to etch anti-LGBTQ discrimination into American law, plus the allied think tanks, religious organizations and media outlets that are parasitically fundraising off both their successes and their failures. The Kleins, for example, recently closed their bakery, ruined because they thought that refusing to do business with a lesbian couple was a noble idea — and now they’re almost forgotten, except by the vaguely-phrased legend of the cake bakers. In that circuit, the fate of someone like Jordan Peterson is irrelevant.  The point of beatifying the speech martyrs is to entice more dupes into creating more situations that help build a narrative which frames LGBTQ peoples’ rights to live, work and do business as automatically and inherently persecuting to people of faith… something that Peterson’s firing would fit into just as beautifully as any technical victory he might (though it’s a longshot) find some way to score.

Either way, giving Peterson the glory he seems to seek really only feeds an ongoing anti-LGBTQ political tactic — even if deceptive — and gives it power.

Yet, there does have to be some form of limit. There’s no denying the destructive effect of cumulative aggressions and microaggressions. It’s one thing to be told by someone that they think you’re deluded and that they refuse to respect you. It’s quite another to be told that in billionuplicate, at every turn, by several people you don’t know (and even worse: some you do), without you ever having done anything to warrant the hostility. If you pay attention to news related to trans* people, you know that stories of suicides due to bullying and harassment arrive on a weekly basis… and that’s only the reported instances.

Because as valid as the need to protect free speech is, it is also very often weaponized, and used to gaslight entire communities that just want to be able to participate in society and be accorded the same dignity and respect as anyone else. It’s used to minimize them, tell them they ask too much, and shame them into going away — back into their closets would be just fine, for example. Remember what I said about free speech in the real world being often a one-sided or lopsided thing.

But where to draw the line on hateful speech is almost impossible to determine. It’s easy to limit speech in cases of libel and direct harassment or incitement. Cumulative hatefulness, though, is difficult to realistically pin on an individual, especially given that an individual doesn’t always intend the hostile fallout generated by their supporters or the like-minded. I don’t know that it can be done legislatively, except in extreme and / or intended instances.

What has to happen is a mass awakening, and a mass rejection of ignorance — and unfortunately, the pace of that kind of change is glacial. Of course, mass backlash will still be framed as persecution and censorship, but it will be better recognized widely as a reasoned response to bigotry.  And that takes time and awareness… and continual revisitation.

And if there is no clear legislative solution, then there’s not a lot of guidance outside the court system, either. So I understand the position this puts the University of Toronto (and potentially the Ontario Human Rights Commission, if it came to that) in… particularly with the issue of pronouns.

The thing to keep in mind about pronouns is that deliberately misgendering someone is itself an act of hostility — an act of asserting that you know better than someone else who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean. It’s putting your inconvenience of having to adapt ahead of the reality of their entire lives. It’s not just about invalidating one’s choice of pronoun — it’s about claiming the right to authoritatively invalidate everything that they know about themself(/ves)*.

[* And if you paused for less than five seconds to look at that, understood it — however awkward that pronoun might have looked — shrugged and moved on, then congratulations: you’re far better able to cope with gender neutral and / or singular “they” pronouns than a UofT prof!]

Allowing Peterson to speak his opinions about “gender ideology” is one thing. Having him publicly vow to deliberately antagonize and disrespect students and other faculty members is quite another.  And as the increasing tensions and threats over the course of his campaign have shown, sustained, hateful free speech can have serious consequences.

So what is to be done?  The best scenario would be if Peterson would recognize where he has stepped beyond speech into deliberate antagonism and borderline incitement, maybe apologize, or at least leave things be, but that’s obviously not going to happen.  Probably, the only result that both he and trans* advocates and supporters will be satisfied with is some form of free speech martyrdom, in the form of firing or some lesser kind of censure.

And this will inevitably once more feed the conservative persecution complex, and the dreams of a Trump-like saviour to free them — in the words of the inimitable Samantha Bee — “from that prison, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect.”

(Crossposted to rabble.ca)

Canada’s forthcoming “drop your pants” trans* blood donation policy

In addition to reducing the required wait time between having sex and donating blood to one year for gay men, Canadian Blood Services is poised to release its first-ever guidance on how CBS personnel should respond to potential trans* donors: if it’s in you to give, then drop your pants.  While the policy has not yet been released officially, it was leaked to Buzzfeed, and is being corroborated by the health organization’s representatives on Twitter.

Oh, you don’t have to literally drop your pants. Canadian Blood Services doesn’t actually want to see your junk — they just want to know what’s there. Because that’s not invasive at all.

That is, I assume that no one is checking your junk. But it depends on whether voluntary information is sought by CBS, or some other proof. Identification doesn’t help verify genital status, because most provinces allow ID changes prior to surgery.  Requiring surgery proved to be discriminatory, prohibitive and created significant hardships for lengthy stretches of trans* peoples’ lives, if not indefinitely. [There is an interesting historical fact about that: surgery-based ID policies followed a precedent set by Sweden, where lawmakers in the early 1970s deliberately chose that benchmark, because it would ensure that sterilization occurred.]

The reasoning to the new CBS policy is that if your partner is male and you’re a pre- or non-operative trans* woman, post-operative trans* man, or a not-medically-inclined-at-all gender diverse person who has a penis, then CBS considers you to be a man who has sex with men (MSM). Besides seeming very reminiscent of ultra-conservative judgments about what constitutes a “real” woman or man, it also makes presumptions about one’s partners — i.e. insisting that a straight male who dates a trans* women is actually gay — and other judgments that are potentially shaming in nature.

It does raise some questions, though. For example, why would it take a year following genital surgery to become safe enough for trans* women with male partners to donate blood (by contrast, genital surgery would be immediately disqualifying for trans* men with male partners)? And if a potential trans* donor has slept with trans* partners, does the surgical status of everyone need to be disclosed?

The change follows a similar policy enacted for gay men in the U.S. last year, although that policy honoured trans* peoples’ own self-identification and considered their self-disclosed sexual history, rather than demanding intimate medical information.

Incredibly enough, this is actually an improvement over the previous situation with Canadian Blood Services, in which the ability to donate blood was mostly dependent on the subjective decision of clinic staff, and often saw trans* people of either and / or neither gender automatically classified as “MSM” — and sometimes, the sex of their partner(s) or whether they’d been sexually active at all were considered altogether irrelevant details.

Probably nothing better illustrates just how arbitrary and regressive abstinence-before-donating policies and adherence to narrow-sighted MSM classification are.  The change is also very poorly-timed, following the shocking massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which saw the community hardest hit by the violence — predominantly Latinx LGBT people — unable to donate blood to help their loved ones and siblings-in-spirit (despite some misinformation circulating at the time).

Now, to be entirely fair to the Canadian health agency, this mode of thought didn’t originate with Canadian Blood Services.

For example, “Men who have Sex with Men (MSM)” terminology originated with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other early public health organizations. It was ironically intended to be more inclusive than only focusing on gay men, but had the (theoretically unintended) result of invalidating trans* peoples’ gender identification. For the longest time, though, international health NGOs resisted acknowledging the existence of trans* people, and stubbornly insisted the classification was adequate… which only reinforced the impression that the invalidation was deliberate.

In fact, “MSM” language, thinking and subsequent HIV activism and education (aside from whatever mitigation occurred at the grassroots level) has a history of alienating trans* people, and confounding safe sex initiatives, outreach and data-gathering among trans* populations — a tragic situation for a community in which infection rates remain significantly high.  Even LGB(t) organizations perpetuated the problem, although this gradually improved around the start of this decade. [I first wrote about this (albeit with imperfect terminology, too) back in 2010, after being excoriated by an LGB(t) organization representative collecting data, who launched into a tirade saying that by declining to push a horribly-phrased survey on trans* people, I’d be “‘guilty of the murder of’ every transsexual woman who perished from HIV who might have benefited from the study.”  Yes, things have not always been amiable.]

Canadian Blood Services came into being specifically because of the scandal raised in the 1980s and 1990s resulting from screening failures of NGOs like the Red Cross during the AIDS crisis.  Its policies are directed by Health Canada.

Being fair to CBS also requires one to acknowledge a few further facts:

  1. There is a short window of time (roughly a couple of weeks in most cases, but sometimes up to a few months) in which HIV still evades detection, and
  2. Penile-anal intercourse (PAI) remains a high-risk mode of transmission.

Of these, penile-anal intercourse — the premise on which the “MSM” policy is premised — notably also occurs with some frequency among heterosexual partners, while not all gay men engage in it.  On the other hand, targeting specific communities instead of activities has created an inherent bias, and allows homophobic and transphobic organizations and figureheads to perpetuate stigma.

The number of sexual partners one has had in the previous year is also a crucial factor, which “MSM” screening on its own fails to account for.

Before forming government, the Liberal Party had petitioned to end the blood donor deferral policy altogether. When the one-year deferral policy for men was released, Health Minister Jane Philpott was quoted as saying:

“The desire is to be able to have those deferrals based on behaviour as opposed to sexual orientation.” 

This statement, of course, is the right direction.

The new practice, on the other hand, is destined to be an embarrassing anachronism.

As incremental as it may be, the policy that has been issued for (non-trans*) gay men fails, exactly because it continues to fixate on who is donating, rather than what their specific sexual history and risk factors are.  And when the attempt is made to extend that same policy to trans* people, its shaky logic disintegrates altogether.

(Crossposted to rabble.ca)