Archive for the ‘ Social Justice ’ Category

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

Shout: “Help, I’m being silenced!”

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.

And often in their anger and rush to respond, that target group will unwittingly play along and demand things that create the appearance of doing exactly that, rather than directly challenging the offensive comments (though to be fair, it’s incredibly insulting to expect people to participate in a debate when said debate is about whether they exist and should be treated with dignity).

Media, meanwhile, doesn’t have much incentive to challenge that narrative, since controversy sells — and the simpler and more iconic that controversy can be made, the more effective it becomes at drawing in readers.

That’s why even when it’s acknowledged that the protesters are also exercising freedom of speech, it can be made to sound like a perplexing situation in which “counter-protesters use free speech to protest free speech.”  It makes the protesters sound idiotic, reframes their protest and demands as unreasonable, and their actual objections are erased entirely.  It also helps validate manipulative messaging that transforms a group of people who are concerned about their human rights and their acceptance in society into some vague and deceptive “agenda” that is maliciously transforming our nation in ways that no one actually ever has to clarify or substantiate — because by this time, the people doing the framing already control the debate completely.

This also makes it possible to recast the substance of what is being debated into something that is so delicate and fragile that it shouldn’t ever be subjected to any scrutiny or challenge whatsoever, lest free speech itself be irreparably harmed.  It redefines free speech as speech-without-consequence, becoming “a little free speech for me, and a little shut-up-and-take-it for you.” The intended result is to bring about a “discussion” which is apparently about you, but ideally doesn’t involve you.

This is how freedom of speech — a principle which Canadians rightly value highly — can be weaponized. It’s an effective quandary to dupe people into, seems to work every time, and Canadian social conservatives love and have perfected it.  In fact, it’s become a lucrative source of income for some of the better-known personalities who use it (albeit with some hypocrisy).

Such is the nature of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson’s battle to deliberately disregard trans* peoples’ requested pronouns — he was so adamantly determined about it, in fact, that he urged the Senate to oppose a law to extend basic human rights protections to trans* people, for fear that he might be obligated to call someone “ze.”  While there are similar debates being engaged in regarding Islamophobia, immigration and abortion (and LGBTQ human rights are simultaneously being reconceptualized as religious persecution), trans-bashing continues to be a favourite and effective political strategy.  Apparently we’re today’s lucrative low-hanging fruits.

And so, the “Debate™” manages to fluctuate from the question of whether trans* people deserve to be dignified as the people they claim to be, to whether political correctness creates a toxic environment on campuses — the moment one is challenged on the former, one hides behind the latter and plays the victim.

Of course, you experience the debate a little differently when the “Debate™” is you.

Peterson’s debate arose from his objections to respecting trans* peoples’ choice of pronouns. In the process, he casts dubious aspersions on the whole question of trans* identity (and, if you listen long enough, chalks it all up to a Marxist / feminist conspiracy to destroy academia and society).  If you’re willing to plumb it to any depth, it quickly becomes a discussion about whether trans* people should have their identities respected… and by extension, whether they have any right to dignity.  You can’t have a debate like that without getting a lot of angry speech in response, especially if the people at issue don’t typically have a voice in that debate (or at least not one that is given any weight or credibility).  Even if Peterson himself isn’t intending to make trans* people the issue, it’s certainly where his proponents quickly go.

So, that’s the context that needs to be kept in mind.  Out of a sense of decency, we don’t debate other groups’ right to dignity, or argue about whether someone from a different characteristic class should be dignified as “Mr.” or “Ms.” (which is itself a relatively recent development in language). I’m sure if the debate was about whether clinical psychologists are true academics or just “mentally ill” (playing on the same negative and stigmatizing attitudes prevalent in society about mental health issues that anti-trans* speakers typically exploit), Peterson would find it very insulting very quickly — especially if he kept having to contend with those arguments constantly.  So to have that debate without remembering the responsibility to approach it with empathy, care and to elevate the voices of people being talked about… that is always going to be trouble.

As an example, let’s look at one snippet from the extended discussion about the Peterson controversy, courtesy of Rebel Media’s Ezra Levant:

“I have no patience for the predators.  For the sex offenders who just want to sneak into a women’s jail rather than a men’s jail. Makes sense: if you’re a sex offender, sometimes you get killed in a men’s jail — but you get into a women’s jail, well, now you get to be the rapist.  I’m against the predators in the Girl Guides.  Don’t foist yourself into a girl’s cabin at camp. I’m against the cheaters who want to compete in women’s sports leagues instead of men’s sports leagues. I’m hardline on that stuff. 

“But for the truly troubled men out there — and it’s almost all men — I have concern and worry and sorrow, and I don’t want them to kill themselves.  I want them to get help. Don’t cut things off your body. Being straight, being gay, whatever, do not cut yourself up.

“The American Psychiatric Association is using the dead bodies of these suicides as political weapons. So is the New York Times. And frankly, politicians like Justin Trudeau and Hillary Clinton, and the politicians at Wilfrid Laurier University are too.  If you care about transgender people – especially youth — stop normalizing their troubles. Stop accelerating it. Stop coaching it. Stop pushing them down the road to what the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says is a death sentence. Just stop it. And no, it is not transphobic to say so. It’s the opposite, actually…”

If Levant isn’t equating trans* women (who he essentializes as men) with sexual predators, then he at least certainly doesn’t see a need to make any effort to differentiate the two.  He still equates being trans* with mental illness (which in addition to invoking stigma also deliberately suggests that trans* peoples’ experiences are not “real”), and displays no understanding whatsoever about what gender dysphoria is (nor any apparent interest in finding out).

In his accompanying article, Levant goes on to warn about “insane attacks on society… done in the name of trans rights,” claims that Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU, which reprimanded teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd for playing a recording of Peterson, and then subsequently apologized) has a “massively-funded Transgender Office,” and suggests that there weren’t any trans* people attending WLU (emphasis his) “until it became cool — free stuff, special rights, lots of attention.” Oh, those lazy socialists: exceedingly wealthy and powerful, yet totally unambitious until there’s free stuff going around. And I’m not even going to dignify his “not transphobic” nonsense.

But he goes further to allege that acceptance, accommodation and medical transition are responsible for an extremely high rate of suicide among trans* people.  Levant appears to refer (but does not link) to a 2014 report that the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention co-authored (Ann P. Haas and Philip L. Rodgers) with UCLA’s Williams Institute (Jody L. Herman), entitled Suicide Attempts among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults: Findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, documenting the effect of stigma and transphobia on escalating suicide ideation.  If this is indeed the report that Levant is referring to, then he is certainly mischaracterizing their findings.

So in other words, Ezra Levant is so willfully blind to the stigmatizing effect that attitudes like his have on trans* people (or as he dismissively minimizes whenever it comes to human rights issues, “hurt feelings“) that he has to twist the high incidence of suicide back into his “illness” paradigm by asserting that all of their troubles would be solved if they would simply stop being trans* — which is an easy expectation to have when you start from a premise that the existence of trans* people has no basis in reality whatsoever.

It should be no surprise to anyone that trans* people find the “Debate™” to be triggering and toxic.

Of course, Ezra Levant might be a bad example.  Social conservatives aren’t usually as candid (or as classless) as Levant, and instead hide these views in coded language about sinister, ideologically-driven social agendas, a nebulous transgender “craze,” totalitarianism (as if trans* people had that much power!), political correctness, “cultural Marxists,” and persecution by “compelled speech” (which — on a legal level, at least — is factually incorrect, regardless of what overzealous professors at WLU reportedly told Lindsay Shepherd).

From his argument before the Senate against trans* human rights protections, Peterson himself makes it clear that he sees gender identity as as something that cannot be substantiated scientifically, and therefore as something that should not be dignified by giving it any credence:

“It’s incorrect in that identity is not and will never be something that people define subjectively because your identity is something you actually have to act out in the world as a set of procedural tools, which most people learn – and I’m being technical about this – between the ages of two and four. It’s a fundamental human reality. It’s well recognized by the relevant, say, developmental psychological authorities. The idea that identity is something you define purely subjectively is an idea without status as far as I’m concerned.

“I also think it’s unbelievably dangerous for us to move towards representing a social constructionist view of identity in our legal system. The social constructionist view insists that human identity is nothing but a consequence of socialization, and there’s an inordinate amount of scientific evidence suggesting that that happens to not be the case. So the reason that this is being instantiated into law is because the people who are promoting that sort of perspective, or at least in part because the people promoting that sort of perspective, know perfectly well they’ve lost the battle completely on scientific grounds.

“… the social constructionist view of gender isn’t another opinion; it’s just wrong…. 99.7 per cent of people who inhabit a body with a given biological sex identify with that biological sex. They’re incredibly tightly linked.

“If you can’t attribute causality to a link that’s that tight, you have to dispense with the notion of causality altogether. Of the people who identify as male or female who are also biologically male or female, the vast majority of them have the sexual preference that would go along with that and the gender identity and the gender expression.

“These levels of analysis are unbelievably tightly linked, and the evidence that biological factors play a role in determining gender identity is, in a word, overwhelming. There isn’t a serious scientist alive who would dispute that. You get disputes about it, but they always stem, essentially, from the humanities. As far as I’m concerned – I’ve looked at it very carefully – those arguments are entirely ideologically driven. It’s a tenet of the ideology that identity is socially constructed, and that’s partly why it’s been instantiated into law, because there’s no way they can win the argument but they can certainly win the propaganda war…”

I don’t know about you, but to me, that says that if there are so few trans* people and they can’t prove their existence on a scientific level that Peterson is willing to accept, then he shouldn’t have to accept their existence or treat them as anything other than deluded people.

For what it’s worth, to make this argument, Peterson has to disregard decades of medical case histories which have consistently demonstrated two key points: 1) that suppression and reparative therapies are extremely harmful to trans-identified individuals, and 2) acceptance and accommodation alleviates distress to the point that it (social stigma and circumstance aside) allows them to reach a kind of “square one,” from which they hopefully move on to happier and productive lives.  There is some discussion about the medical study of gender identity here, here, here, here, and elsewhere, but the bottom line is that the overwhelming weight of case histories has been so compelling that the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and all other major medical professional organizations (with the lone exception of an astroturf reparative therapy advocacy group with the official-sounding name of the American College of Pediatricians) call for the accommodation of, medical access for, and acceptance of trans* people.  So even though you can’t circle someone’s gender identity on a radiograph, the medical evidence is there — and when it comes to human rights, also isn’t the point.

Indeed, it’s become a common adage for trans* folk to say that we only hear about ten “regret” stories a year, and nine of them are Walt Heyer (although since the backlash to trans* human rights protections arose, that ratio has become more like 70 out of 80).

With all of that said, freedom of speech is a critically important part of Canadian life — and not just in academic settings.  The people who are first to lose it are typically those who are marginalized, those who never really had much visibility, or a public voice, or access to platforms to speak out in their defense. Whatever else they may feel about it, trans* people must take the side of freedom of speech, because their continued existence and eventual acceptance depends on it.  What is critically important, then, is to seek true freedom of speech, which as Abigail Curlew points out is not a neutral proposition that all parties come to with equal enfranchisement:

“From a sociological perspective, our society suffers from extreme stratification along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Your identity shapes where you might be located within society’s opportunity structure. Where you were born and what body you were born with matters and has a significant impact on your material and symbolic wealth.

“For transgender folks, this positions us in a precarious reality. A great portion of Canadian society doesn’t recognize trans folks as real persons. And when they recognize us, it is often filtered through crude stereotypes that emphasize perversion or mental illness. The point is, we must go to great lengths to justify and defend our very existence in everyday situations.

“… The pressures of daily transphobia and cissexism push us back into the closets where we are unable to express our voices. The “freedom of speech” of those who hold bigoted views silence the freedom of speech of those they target…”

In the end, the very reason that opponents use free speech as a weapon is because they feel threatened.  This is because in recent years, trans* people have demanded to have a voice in the cultural debate, have increasingly been given that opportunity, and have been compelling when they are heard. Indeed, by telling their stories and having the audacity to assert themselves as authorities on their own experiences, trans* people have already changed the actual debate, making it necessary for opponents to use some twist of logic to re-establish a hegemony that uses the language of academia — couched in theory that can be misguided or at times even deceptive — but removing the authority of lived experience, to once again justify trans* exclusion from that discussion.

This, then, is the solution for trans* people: to keep speaking their experiences, and for there to be continued platforms available for them to do so.  Protest, yes (with an effort to be clear what is being protested and what non-censorious remedy is being sought), but do not waste an overly unnecessary amount of energy on them (especially since that draws undue attention to them).  When trans* people are considered authorities about themselves and are prioritized, then opponents’ collective stance against acceptance begins to be recognized as archaic.

For people like Jordan Peterson and Ezra Levant, the thought of this is apparently terrifying.

(image source: Adobe Stock, with modification by author)

Crossposted to rabble.ca

Advertisements

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)

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)

Conscience, Human Rights, and a Kentucky Clerk

KimDavisSo inevitably, a blog that’s all about religious freedom would need to comment on the ongoing troubles of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, and her stand against issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  I didn’t want to rush on that right away, because I wanted to do so thoughtfully, and dig underneath the impulsiveness and spin of both right- and left-wing media… and also add some context from the experience of a Canadian, living in a nation where marriage equality happened back in 2006 without a “Christian genocide” (I’ll discuss that sort of phrasing in a later post) occurring.

Because the “conflict between LGBT human rights and religious freedom” is actually remarkably un-complicated, when you drill down to the bottom of it.

First, the particulars.  Kim Davis is the elected (2014 — as a Democrat, ironically) clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky.  After the Obergefell v. Hodges U.S. Supreme Court ruling, she chose to defy a U.S. Federal Court order which required her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  Saying she was acting “under God’s authority,” she was jailed for contempt of court, on September 3rd and may face charges of official misconduct.

Here are some of the points that her legal team, Liberty Counsel, has made on her behalf:

“Davis only asked that the Kentucky marriage license forms be changed so her name would not appear on them. She would record any license without her name affixed. Marriage licenses remain in county records permanently. Davis said, “I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience.”

“Before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Obergefell on June 26, 2015, 57 clerks, including Davis, wrote a letter to Kentucky legislators during the regular session, pleading with them to “get a bill on the floor to help protect clerks” who had a religious objection to authorizing the licenses. The Kentucky Clerks Association also recommend that the names of clerks be removed from the forms.

“… Kim Davis does not hate homosexuals or lesbians, as she explained: “I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word. It is a matter of religious liberty….”

“… The Supreme Court did not change Kentucky’s marriage law or its forms, but invalidated the legislation limiting marriage to opposite sex couples…”

There are a few other points at that link establishing her God credentials, and discussing her divorces, which in my opinion have been (perhaps fairly, but overblown) touted in media as showing her own hypocrisy.  Those points are irrelevant to the specific discussion here.

Liberty Counsel’s statements are a bit dubious.

Davis not only refused to sign and provide the licenses: a major part of the contempt ruling was because her deputies were not allowed to issue the licenses, either.  (Following Davis’ jailing, 5 of 6 subsequently have started issuing licenses, but without Davis’ signature)

Additionally (this is hinted at in one of the above points, but not made clear), the licenses may not be valid without her signature.  Davis has in fact argued that they are not.  Admittedly, this isn’t clear — a judge questioned about the discrepancy only remarked that couples getting licenses in Rowan County do so at their own risk — but it’s certainly likely that Liberty Counsel or another right-wing group would attempt to contest the legality of those licenses, at some point.  Either way, Davis is in essence demanding the right to deny all licenses from her county office, altogether, which goes beyond the jurisdiction of personal conscience.

There are nuances, and this is no exception.  I’ve touched on the first two, and there are also others:

  • As mentioned above, she used her power to disallow her deputies to issue the licenses;
  • Also mentioned above, it’s not simply a question of a refusal of a signature, but also an attempted refusal of legal standing of the licenses;
  • Davis is a public employee, and responsible to all citizens of the State of Kentucky;
  • As a public employee, she is subject to the legal principle of the separation of church and state;

But a crucial point, independent of all of the above, is probably that in any dispute centering on a conflict in rights, there should be at least some effort to accommodate.  All of the above assumes that LGBT human rights cannot be accommodated at all, without automatically invalidating the rights of Christians to live their faith.

But it’s not an either/or proposition.  There is a key flaw in the way this is framed.

In Canada, the conscience debate has had some instructive resolution in the medical field (although there are occasionally attempts to resurrect it).  Many provincial Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons across the country have some form of policy that allows medical professionals to decline to participate in processes that violate their conscience, provided that a timely referral is made and the patient is able to access the medical care they need, in a timely manner.  “Timely” is somewhat relative, and the rules don’t always work well (honestly, sometimes the process fails and care is denied or unreasonable obstacles are created), but it is at least a formal acknowledgement that there is a duty to accommodate, in a way that is relatively equitable for both parties.

What is instructive is that in Kim Davis’ very public demand for her right to freedom of religious conscience, this is not even a question.  The closest it ever came to being addressed at all was when some supporters claimed it’s a reasonable accommodation to require county residents to drive to a neighbouring county to obtain their licenses.  It’s not hard to recognize that that’s actually an undue hardship.

As someone who has advocated for trans* people and know how the Colleges’ policies fail in Canada, I don’t consider theirs an ideal solution.  However, the point is that there could be some form of middle ground, even if imperfect.  The State of Kentucky could amend their laws to ensure the validity of marriage licenses without Davis’ signature (to Davis’ credit, she does appear to have asked, and was ignored by legislators), and require that at least one person in the office be present besides herself who would be willing to issue them.  But among the far right, this isn’t even a discussion.  Among the far right, the objective is simply to have the right to deny licenses altogether, with no compromise being considered.

And that speaks volumes about Davis’ and supporters’ demands for religious freedom.

In closing, here’s a hint about what Davis’ supporters (and arguably perhaps puppetmasters) really feel about things:

“[Wallbuilders’ David] Barton, predictably, responded by asserting that Davis is entirely in the right to refuse to allow her office to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because “the Founding Fathers made it real clear that the laws of God are higher than the laws of man.”

“This is a law of God. Man’s law is not allowed to contradict God’s law,” Barton said, which means there can be no justification for jailing Davis because she is upholding God’s law…”

(From my sister blog, Today In Religious Freedom)