Posts Tagged ‘ gender expression ’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know that I have missed many powerful moments.

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

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

And in doing that, we can move forward.

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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)

Google Trends on “Transgender”

Posted for discussion and interest value.

Out of curiosity, I plunked the word “transgender” into Google Trends.  It’s not my terminology of choice, but it’s what most people use and what the general public is most likely to search for.  Here’s what I got:

transgoogletrends01

The numbers aren’t an exact value of something, but a comparative value versus the highest peak on record, which is apparently right now.  Or as Google Trends puts it:

Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart. If at most 10% of searches for the given region and time frame were for “pizza,” we’d consider this 100. This doesn’t convey absolute search volume. Learn more

I don’t know if there were other stories that occurred during the same months of those peaks and contributing to the results — it’s possible, I’ve only noted what Google flagged as the top search item.

A few more charts:

transgoogletrends02

and

transgoogletrends03

Presented without commentary, in case anyone is curious.

Reblog: A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism

This is how you decolonize activism.

A wide swath of people have demonstrated how to decolonize activism: not with negativity, but with constructivity.  The following is being reblogged from Feminists Fighting Transphobia, and you will need to follow the link to see the ever-increasing number of signatories who have signed on.  I did not take part in authoring this, but gladly lend whatever support I can — M.

A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism

We are proud to present a collective statement that is, to our knowledge (and we would love to be wrong about this) the first of its kind.  In this post you’ll find a statement of feminist solidarity with trans* rights, signed by nearly 100  feminists/womanists from at least eleven different countries [it’s now 383 individuals and 17 organizations — exactly 400! — from at least 15 countries] who wish to affirm that feminism/womanism can and should be a home for trans* people as well as cis.  It has been signed by activists, bloggers, academics, and artists.  What we all have in common is the conviction that feminism should welcome trans* people, and that trans* people are essential to feminism’s mission to advocate for women and other people oppressed, exploited, and otherwise marginalized by patriarchal and misogynistic systems and people.

If you are a blogger/writer/academic/educator/artist/activist/otherwise in a position to affect feminist or womanist discourse or action and you would like to sign on to this statement, let us know!  You can use the form on the contact page or you can email us at feministsfightingtransphobia1@gmail.com.  We’d love to hear from you. [NEW: You can also just sign right on in the comments, particularly if you’re wanting to sign in a personal, rather than professional capacity–this will be much quicker and also easier on our moderators!]

Note: this blog in general and this post in particular are places where trans* people can come and find welcome and support from feminists.  For this reason, all comments are moderated for now, and hateful or abusive or bigoted discourse directed against marginalized groups or their members will not be approved.  It will either be deleted or it will be replaced with mockery of that discourse, depending on what the moderators feel like doing.  To be clear, transphobia, misgendering, racism, misogyny, slut-shaming, etc. are unwelcome.

We particularly welcome comments regarding ways in which feminists and womanists, both cis and trans*, can organize to demonstrate solidarity with and support and acceptance of trans people.  Reading the names of prominent feminists on statements of transphobia is heartbreaking to many of us, but as Joe Hill said, “Don’t mourn; organize!”

– Moderators

A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism

We, the undersigned trans* and cis scholars, writers, artists, and educators, want to publicly and openly affirm our commitment to a trans*-inclusive feminism and womanism.

There has been a noticeable increase in transphobic feminist activity this summer: the forthcoming book by Sheila Jeffreys from Routledge; the hostile and threatening anonymous letter sent to Dallas Denny after she and Dr. Jamison Green wrote to Routledge regarding their concerns about that book; and the recent widely circulated statement entitled “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Critique of ‘Gender,’” signed by a number of prominent, and we regret to say, misguided, feminists have been particularly noticeable.  And all this is taking place in the climate of virulent mainstream transphobia that has emerged following the coverage of Chelsea Manning’s trial and subsequent statement regarding her gender identity, and the recent murders of young trans women of color, including Islan Nettles and Domonique Newburn, the latest targets in a long history of violence against trans women of color.  Given these events, it is important that we speak out in support of feminism and womanism that support trans* people.

We are committed to recognizing and respecting the complex construction of sexual/gender identity; to recognizing trans* women as women and including them in all women’s spaces; to recognizing trans* men as men and rejecting accounts of manhood that exclude them; to recognizing the existence of genderqueer, non-binary identifying people and accepting their humanity; to rigorous, thoughtful, nuanced research and analysis of gender, sex, and sexuality that accept trans* people as authorities on their own experiences and understands that the legitimacy of their lives is not up for debate; and to fighting the twin ideologies of transphobia and patriarchy in all their guises.

Transphobic feminism ignores the identification of many trans* and genderqueer people as feminists or womanists and many cis feminists/womanists with their trans* sisters, brothers, friends, and lovers; it is feminism that has too often rejected them, and not the reverse. It ignores the historical pressures placed by the medical profession on trans* people to conform to rigid gender stereotypes in order to be “gifted” the medical aid to which they as human beings are entitled.  By positing “woman” as a coherent, stable identity whose boundaries they are authorized to police, transphobic feminists reject the insights of intersectional analysis, subordinating all other identities to womanhood and all other oppressions to patriarchy.  They are refusing to acknowledge their own power and privilege.

We recognize that transphobic feminists have used violence and threats of violence against trans* people and their partners and we condemn such behavior.  We recognize that transphobic rhetoric has deeply harmful effects on trans* people’s real lives; witness CeCe MacDonald’s imprisonment in a facility for men.  We further recognize the particular harm transphobia causes to trans* people of color when it combines with racism, and the violence it encourages.

When feminists exclude trans* women from women’s shelters, trans* women are left vulnerable to the worst kinds of violent, abusive misogyny, whether in men’s shelters, on the streets, or in abusive homes.  When feminists demand that trans* women be excluded from women’s bathrooms and that genderqueer people choose a binary-marked bathroom, they make participation in the public sphere near-impossible, collaborate with a rigidity of gender identities that feminism has historically fought against, and erect yet another barrier to employment.  When feminists teach transphobia, they drive trans* students away from education and the opportunities it provides.

We also reject the notion that trans* activists’ critiques of transphobic bigotry “silence” anybody.  Criticism is not the same as silencing. We recognize that the recent emphasis on the so-called violent rhetoric and threats that transphobic feminists claim are coming from trans* women online ignores the 40+ – year history of violent and eliminationist rhetoric directed by prominent feminists against trans* women, trans* men, and genderqueer people.  It ignores the deliberate strategy of certain well-known anti-trans* feminists of engaging in gleeful and persistent harassment, baiting, and provocation of trans* people, particularly trans* women, in the hope of inciting angry responses, which are then utilized to paint a false portrayal of trans* women as oppressors and cis feminist women as victims. It ignores the public outing of trans* women that certain transphobic feminists have engaged in regardless of the damage it does to women’s lives and the danger in which it puts them.  And it relies upon the pernicious rhetoric of collective guilt, using any example of such violent rhetoric, no matter the source — and, just as much, the justified anger of any one trans* woman — to condemn all trans* women, and to justify their continued exclusion and the continued denial of their civil rights.

Whether we are cis, trans*, binary-identified, or genderqueer, we will not let feminist or womanist discourse regress or stagnate; we will push forward in our understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality across disciplines.  While we respect the great achievements and hard battles fought by activists in the 1960s and 1970s, we know that those activists are not infallible and that progress cannot stop with them if we hope to remain intellectually honest, moral, and politically effective.  Most importantly, we recognize that theories are not more important than real people’s real lives; we reject any theory of gender, sex, or sexuality that calls on us to sacrifice the needs of any subjugated or marginalized group.  People are more important than theory.

We are committed to making our classrooms, our writing, and our research inclusive of trans* people’s lives.

Signed by:

Individuals

Hailey K. Alves (blogger and transfeminist activist, Brazil)

Luma Andrade  (Federal University of Ceará, Brazil)

Leiliane Assunção (Federal University of the Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil)

Talia Bettcher (California State University, Los Angeles)

Lauren Beukes (novelist)

Lindsay Beyerstein (journalist)

Jamie “Skye” Bianco (New York University)

Hanne Blank (writer and historian)

Kate Bornstein (writer and activist)

danah boyd (Microsoft research and New York University)

Helen Boyd (author and activist)

Sarah Brown (LGBT+ Liberal Democrats)

Christine Burns (equalities consultant, blogger and campaigner)

Liliane Anderson Reis Caldeira (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil)

Gloria Careaga (UNAM/National Autonomous University of Mexico)

Avedon Carol (activist and writer; Feminists Against Censorship)

Wendy Chapkis (University of Southern Maine) – “I don’t love the punch line ‘people are more important than theory.’  More to the point, it seems to me, is that feminist theories that fail to recognize the lived experiences and revolutionary potential of gender diversity are willfully inadequate.”

Jan Clausen (writer, MFAW faculty, Goddard College)

Darrah Cloud (playwright and screenwriter; Goddard College)

Alyson Cole (Queens College – CUNY)

Arrianna Marie Coleman (writer and activist)

Suzan Cooke (writer and photographer)

Sonia Onufer Correa  (feminist research associate at ABIA, co-chair of Sexuality Policy Watch)

Molly Crabapple (artist and writer)

Petra Davis (writer and activist)

Elizabeth Dearnley (University College London)

Jaqueline Gomes de Jesus (University of Brasilia, Brazil)

Sady Doyle (writer and blogger)

L. Timmel Duchamp (publisher, Aqueduct Press)

Flavia Dzodan (writer and media maker)

Reni Eddo-Lodge (writer and activist)

Finn Enke (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

Hugh English (Queens College – CUNY)

Jane Fae (writer and activist)

Roderick Ferguson (University of Minnesota)

Jill Filipovic (writer and blogger)

Rose Fox (editor and activist)

Jaclyn Friedman (author, activist, and executive director of Women, Action, & the Media)

Sasha Garwood (University College, London)

Jen Jack Gieseking (Bowdoin College)

Dominique Grisard (CUNY Graduate Center/Columbia University/University of Basel)

Deborah Gussman (Richard Stockton College of New Jersey)

Dr Sally Hines (University of Leeds)

Claire House (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, Brazil)

Astrid Idlewild (editor, urban historian)

Sarah Hoem Iversen (Bergen University College, Norway)

Sarah Jaffe (columnist)

Roz Kaveney (author and critic)

Zahira Kelly (artist and writer)

Mikki Kendall (writer and occasional feminist)

Natacha Kennedy (Goldsmiths College, University of London)

Alison Kilkenny (journalist and activist)

Matthew Knip (Hunter College – CUNY)

Letícia Lanz (writer and psychoanalyst, Brazil)

April Lidinsky (Indiana University South Bend)

Erika Lin (George Mason University)

Marilee Lindemann (University of Maryland)

Heather Love (University of Pennsylvania)

Jessica W. Luther (writer and activist)

Jen Manion (Connecticut College)

Ruth McClelland-Nugent (Georgia Regents University Augusta)

Melissa McEwan (Editor-in-Chief, Shakesville)

Farah Mendlesohn (Anglia Ruskin University)

Mireille Miller-Young (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Lyndsey Moon (University of Roehampton and University of Warwick)

Surya Monro (University of Huddersfield)

Cheryl Morgan (publisher and blogger)

Kenne Mwikya (writer and activist, Nairobi)

Zenita Nicholson (Secretary on the Board of Trustees, Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, Guyana)

Anne Ogborn (frightening sex change)

Sally Outen (performer and activist)

Ruth Pearce (University of Warwick)

Laurie Penny (journalist and activist)

Rosalind Petchesky (Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Sexuality Policy Watch)

Rachel Pollack (writer, Goddard College)

Claire Bond Potter (The New School for Public Engagement)

Nina Power (University of Roehampton)

Marina Riedel (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil)

Mark Rifkin (University of North Carolina – Greensboro)

Monica Roberts (Transgriot)

Dr. Judy Rohrer (Western Kentucky University)

Diana Salles (independent scholar)

Veronica Schanoes (Queens College – CUNY)

Sarah Schulman, in principle (College of Staten Island – CUNY)

Donald M. Scott (Queens College – CUNY)

Lynne Segal (Birkbeck, University of London)

Julia Serano (author and activist)

Carrie D. Shanafelt (Grinnell College)

Rebekah Sheldon (Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis)

Barbara Simerka (Queens College – CUNY)

Gwendolyn Ann Smith (columnist and Transgender Day of Remembrance founder)

Kari Sperring (K L Maund) (writer and historian)

Zoe Stavri (writer and activist)

Tristan Taormino (Sex Out Loud Radio, New York, NY)

Jemma Tosh (University of Chester)

Viviane V. (Federal University of Bahia, Brazil)

Catherynne M. Valente (author)

Jessica Valenti (author and columnist)

Genevieve Valentine (writer)

Barbra Wangare (S.H.E and Transitioning Africa, Kenya)

Thijs Witty (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Groups:

Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ (Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia)

House of Najafgarh (Najafgarh, India)

House of Kola Bhagan (Kolkatta, India)

Transgender Nation San Francisco

[See http://feministsfightingtransphobia.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/welcome-to-our-most-recent-signatories/ for our newest signatories, as of the end of the day on September 16, 2013]

[See http://feministsfightingtransphobia.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/six-hours-later-we-have-a-new-signatory-list/ for our newest signatories, as of the end of the day on September 17, 2013]

“Sex by deception” and the shades of yes

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

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

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

Gender vs. Sex

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

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

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

Consent

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

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

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

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

Legal vs. Ethical

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

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

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

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

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

Shades of Yes

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

  • express,
  • deemed, or
  • implied consent.

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

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

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

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

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

Legal Exceptionalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethical Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open-Ended As It Should Be?

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

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