There’s a duplicitous game of sleight-of-hand that is taking place in discussions about freedom of speech in academia and the public square.
Here’s how it works: at first, a person fishes for controversy by saying several things that they know will offend people. If this garners enough attention, then the process recurs organically — say, whenever a politician wants to reference the controversy as a coded dog whistle to their base, or when a teaching assistant replays a recording in class because she thinks the discussion is interesting and challenging.
And the moment the people targeted by that discussion get angry and protest, they’re described not as being upset about the content of what is being said, but rather their protest is reframed as opposing freedom of speech itself. Whether you see that as accidental or deliberate probably depends on how cynical you are about the whole issue. Continue reading Free Speech, When The “Debate” is You (and You’re Not Invited)
Although I’ll be remarking on the passing of Bill C-16 elsewhere, I wanted to post Bill Siksay’s closing speech from February 7, 2011, back when the bill was in its third incarnation (of five), Bill C-389. To me, it’s a profound moment to look back on, and realize just how far we’ve come.
It took 12 years to pass this bill. For the first six, it was completely ignored, as was the trans* rights movement. Shortly after this speech, the bill did pass at Third Reading, and the effort finally was taken seriously… but was then very hard fought. This speech was the moment (if there was any single one) that things changed.
I hope that Mr. Siksay’s efforts are remembered now. Trans* people have usually been told to wait their turn, that legislation is incremental, that we should work for gay rights, and then the LGBTQ movement would come back for us. This was a rare exception in which someone actually did come back. Continue reading Trans* Human Rights Bill C-16: A Look Back
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.
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…”
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)
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:
- 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
- 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)
When I started my transition, the first troubles I had were with the tenants in my building, though the conflicts weren’t overt. Instead, it seemed as though I’d had the plague: neighbours shunned me. Someone talked loudly in the hall on more than one occasion (probably deliberately) about how they didn’t think I “should be allowed” (to live there, I assumed from the context, although there are other possible meanings), “especially in a family building, where there are children present.” Within a week, I received notice that I’d be getting a special bonus rental increase (just a month after the last rent hike) which essentially doubled my rent — an increase that no one else in the complex received. Since there was no proof that the increase was because I was trans*, there wasn’t really anything I could do about it, other than pay it or move.
One family I was particularly worried about in the beginning was the Middle-Eastern couple who lived downstairs from me, with a toddler and a newborn. The husband stood about 6’3″ and was stocky, much of it muscle, and he frequently took cigarette breaks outside the back entrance. I’d often pass him on the way to and from my car. When the family had first moved into the building, I assumed they were devout Muslims, given that when the wife (rarely) left the apartment, she was wearing a hijab and chador. In later years, this changed a little, and I saw her travel about more frequently, in contemporary clothing plus just a lighter version of the headscarf. My experience with religious objections to the existence of trans* people was not pleasant to begin with, and given all of the stereotypes that circulated about Muslims after 9/11, I was fairly apprehensive.
This quickly changed, about a week after I started presenting as female. One evening after I arrived home, I heard a soft knock at the door. I answered, and there she was, smiling slightly as I opened the door. She was a bit nervous, but knew what she wanted to say:
“Hello. We, um, have seen you coming and going, and wanted to let you know that we know what you are doing. And that we support you completely…”
We spoke for about fifteen minutes while I awkwardly tried to keep my cats from racing into the hallway, and then again a couple days later over tea in their apartment — though the husband was mostly away during the latter conversation, just stopping in to pick up a few things, give a polite greeting and leave for work. (I’d only realize later how significant it was that she was the one who first came upstairs to talk to me.)
They were a fairly young Afghani couple, who had moved to Canada in the months before the war, in 2001 (they had actually started the immigration process some time before 9/11, so the timing was more luck for them than anything). They had come to the country mostly to escape an oppressive political regime (the Taliban were not so much a religious sect as a hardline political faction), looking for the freedom to seek a direction that was still in keeping with their faith, but which they felt was truer to what they understood in their hearts. It was not a coincidence that they seemed to westernize somewhat: they were following their faith on a personal level, and it was leading them away from fundamentalism and toward what they felt was a truer spirituality.
It turned out that they had some familiarity with trans* people (albeit in a different cultural context), through a relative on her husband’s side of the family. In Afghanistan, there had been a fairly common practice in which girls dress as boys — especially in (but not limited to) families in which there was no male heir — so that girls could acquire a number of benefits and freedoms. My neighbour admitted that she had even done so for awhile as a child, in order to escape scrutiny when attending school. But her husband also had a niece [she used the word “nephew,” but that was because of some of the limits of the language and understanding about trans* people at the time] who had made the transition to live as female. This was not looked upon quite so fondly, since crossdressing is considered punishable in a strict reading of the Quran. Afghanistan historically had an occurrence of bacha bazi, of young, effeminate males becoming dancers, concubines or sex workers, but it was most often out of coercion and exploitation, rather than something chosen because of one’s gender identity. Nevertheless, their niece had elected to live as female, and had found a (wealthy — there may have still been some bacha bazi aspects to the arrangement) patron in Pakistan, and seemed to be quite happy in her chosen life — even though it did cost her the support of many people in her family. My downstairs neighbour did express regret that her niece’s options in life were so limited, but they had come to accept that she had at least found a situation in which she could be happy.
I wasn’t able to get to know them well. The rent-doubling increase had forced me to move, and so those were the only conversations we’d had.
But I think of them any time I hear people making assumptions about Muslim people, or coming up with racially, religiously and socially jaw-dropping attitudes, and offensive ideas on how to combat terrorism.
Assuming the worst about Middle Eastern peoples is not helpful. Religion can absolutely be a problem, but on a macro level, it’s a bull$#!t argument about which religion is “worse” purely based on one measure of degree or other, or to assume that everyone who subscribes to a religion is guilty of the excesses of its extremists. The problem is fundamentalism.
Christianity has gone through a number of evolutionary changes — indeed, Christianity itself is a kind of evolutionary change beyond Judaism. The Reformation, the Renaissance era, the Anglican schism, the rise of science, a humanist evolution, the rise of LGBT-affirming churches (although that is only one measure)… there have been many stages at which ancient traditions were questioned, and when found wanting, replaced with new tenets. And yes, more are needed.
Islam has not gone through as many changes, although with the rise of the Internet and the global community, it has been forced to adapt. Rapidly. And this, I believe, is why fundamentalism is militantly attempting to reclaim, police and speak for Islam aggressively, visibly and sometimes violently. And caught in the middle of this intensely polarized ideological civil war are the Muslim peoples themselves, sometimes struggling between the hardliners’ policing of their faith, and their own genuine soul-searching and life experience.
That said, Islam is not the only belief system that has a fundamentalist problem. For all of its evolutions, there are still hardline elements within Christianity who attempt to reclaim, police and speak for that faith as well, and impose a radically polarizing version of it upon Western cultures. There may be differences in degree (although there are certainly radicalized individuals who become capable of terrorism), but the intent is still very similar. [In fact, there is a very specific reason that I use terms like “far right” or “religious conservative” to describe radical socially conservative personalities or organizations: I refuse to accept their assertion that they speak for all of Christianity. It is flawed framing, and I will not perpetuate it.]
In fact, many other ideologies also have the capacity to become dangerously fundamentalist and radicalize individuals to a menacing level. This is on all sides of the political spectrum. The Floyd Lee Corkinses don’t happen as frequently on the political left, perhaps, but denying they exist obfuscates that fundamentalism is possible in any form. Fundamentalism is an infectious, rotting presence that eats away at any ideology from within, until it manifests itself explosively. Even Atheism, though not a religion of itself, can become a fundamentalist ideology when an adherent becomes militant about not just simply separation of religion from state, but the idea of eradicating faiths — again, rare (in fact, I can’t think of an example, offhand), but possible. And with the growing awareness about economic disparity, we as a society are starting to see the harmful effects of economic / market fundamentalism — a different sort of toxicity. The particulars can vary; the harm still results.
In the meantime, look at this statement for a moment: “Christianity promotes cannibalism.”
Of course, I don’t actually believe that statement, but bear with me, because it’s a good example that most people in Western countries will be familiar with.
Most Christian churches engage in a sacrament known as communion. Of course, we know that it’s a traditional ritual that’s sort of done as a commemoration of the Last Supper — although it’s really not that different from some early pagan rituals that were seen to have a bit more esoteric significance. But either way, when you look at the Last Supper, Jesus actually told his disciples that “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” It was meant to have a totemistic significance.
Additionally, in the particularly Catholic subset of Christianity (as well as some other offshoots), there is a tradition known as transubstantiation, in which the Eucharist (wine and wafer) are said to literally be changed by a priest into the body and blood of Christ.
But for the moment, forget about whether you see this as a symbolic gesture or as a ritual in which the Eucharist acquires something more. Look at it from the point of view of an outsider, from the verses themselves, from the tradition, and without any context. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was ritualistic cannibalism or at least borderline (in lieu of any actual flesh and blood) — indeed, it might be hard to come to any other conclusion.
This is what Westerners are often doing when they scrutinize contextless Quranic passages, and fixate on the most violent, shocking ones they can find, and create this mythologized terror-specific form of Islam to assail. It’s a kind of fundamentalism in mirror opposite, from the outside looking in. And in an age where things like sex education that is carefully scaled in an age-appropriate way by grade can be spun to sound like children “as young as kindergarten age” are being encouraged to engage in anal sex, we really do have to parse and fact-check the sensationalism that we are being fed by media and ideologues.
I’ll admit that there is still I don’t know or understand about Islam, but I did learn one important point: a jihad, in Quranic essence (or at least as explained to me by my neighbour, years ago), is a process of keeping and safeguarding one’s faith. Sometimes, it involves a spiritual quest. The couple who lived downstairs from me were on a personal jihad… and it caused them to contemporize. It only becomes the terrorizing concept of “Jihad” when poisoned by a fundamentalist will to police and impose a purist form of ideology on entire populations. Or when responding to it in a similarly fundamentalist, purist way, framed as a righteous / religious war.
Now, personally, I’m not fond of any religion. Religious traditions have tended not to be kind to women and other minorities, and provide excuses for bigotry. But I do also recognize how belief can be an important means of finding strength and passage through life, and mitigate its spiritual somersaults. I don’t care if someone believes in Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, Yahweh, Brahma, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or a squirrel that farts magic coconuts. I’m prepared to accept one’s faith up to — but not including — the point at which it seeks to define or impose upon others (and that’s where “religious freedom” legislation oversteps and becomes a license for bigoted action and special rights). And this place of peace wasn’t achieved without a whole lot of personal hurt from a toxic influence of religion on my life, either… but I had to let go, and achieve this equilibrium.
Because that’s where my spiritual quest has led me.
I didn’t really understand all of this when my downstairs neighbour knocked on my door that evening. I think I understand it a lot better now.