Tag Archives: trans

The bad faith “debate” about trans human rights

Recently, the National Post published a discussion that I engaged in with Jonathan Kay.

I participated in that because it was an opportunity to provide a counterpoint for readers who don’t often see one. It was a chance to challenge some of the distortions and misinformation that have been circulating about trans people and their legal protections. If you read predominantly far right media right now, you would believe that wealthy, well-funded and all-powerful “TRAs” (trans rights activists) somehow control the government (one popular conspiracy theory claims that it is a pharmaceutical company plot) and are forcing some completely unfounded ideology and social engineering on destitute and helpless schools, governments, churches, workplaces and Canadian society as a whole. So it’s worth it for those readers to encounter a discussion that is rational, measured, and provides a glimpse of the reality outside of their own tunnel vision. I doubt many minds were changed, but at least an effort was made for the sake readers who are either still open to considering information outside the range of their predisposed views, or don’t encounter any better information in their travels.

It was framed as a debate, and debates about trans human rights are always a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t proposition. If you participate in a debate, it gives the appearance of legitimacy to the idea that human rights should be debatable, and that opposition to them is an equally valid side. On the other hand, if you don’t, the debate still steamrolls on without you having any voice in it, and not only is your perspective unrepresented, it can even be characterized however your opponent chooses to portray it, without challenge.

It is worth mentioning, however, that the discussion that I had with Jonathan Kay is not “the debate” that gender critical figures are trying to have. I want to be clear that the discussion with Kay, via the Post was conducted in good faith — I don’t want to imply otherwise. The gender critical version of the debate gets framed a specific way, and it’s important to recognize this, and understand why the debate that gender critical speakers are pushing for is one that is inherently flawed and intended to be conducted in bad faith. And forgive me, because I have to generalize here: obviously, not everyone who takes issue with trans people thinks alike, but there are some general similarities, and the debate that most are trying to have has generally developed these relatively consistent rules.

From a gender critical perspective, the debate must be held within certain parameters. This is sometimes accomplished by defining terms at the beginning, but it can just as easily be accomplished by assuming those parameters at the beginning and very consistently and firmly policing anyone who deviates from them, as well as reframing anything that is said to the contrary so that it can be subsumed back into the original parameters.

“Sex ≠ Gender”

The first premise for the GC debate is that sex and gender are two different things. This statement is true, and any misinformed perspective usually begins with a kernel of truth. Sex and gender are two different things, and this is a point that trans folk have long made, when explaining why their anatomy does not define them. But for gender critical speakers, distinguishing sex from gender does the opposite, providing the opportunity to ignore both gender and gender identity, so that trans people can be once again defined according to their genital status (“sex”) at birth.

Gender critical speakers try to claim the moral authority on this point to assert that by extension. when it comes to human rights and accommodations in gendered spaces, physical sex is the only measure that matters. It’s sometimes phrased as though it’s a question of whether “sex is real,” but the intended undertone is that gender and gender identity are not, and are therefore not worthy of consideration. In reality, trans people don’t question whether sex is “real,” but whether one’s biology is their destiny, and whether one’s sex defines absolutely everything about them.

Making physical sex the sole benchmark is somewhat fallacious, given that (at least ideally) we don’t actually see the physical sex of the people we encounter, and instead assume their sex based on their gender presentation — but the folks making that argument are hoping that you don’t think too long on that. This foundation is used a bit duplicitously, though: when the subject of post-operative trans women comes up, the benchmark suddenly moves to chromosomes, socialization or reproductive capability, so that regardless of their apparently all-important anatomy, trans women can still be still essentialized as “males.” Likewise, the argument is made that segregation in gendered spaces is a matter of safety… but when the subject turns to accommodation in general (non-gendered) spaces and fears for safety can no longer be exploited, the imperative to verbally essentialize trans women as “males” (even to the point of harassment and abuse) and consider sex as the only worthy point of consideration is still viewed as being of paramount importance, and uncompromisable. Using “sex” as the one and only measure of value is actually a veiled proxy for considering cis (non-trans) status as the one and only measure of womanhood (it should be noted that gender critical people also abhor the term “cis,” because if the Latin oppositive “cis” is ever accepted as a corollary to “trans,” then it might legitimize the idea that trans people exist — so in gender critical thought, “cis” too must be considered a slur, and the words “normal,” “real,” “natal” or — most often — “biological” should be used instead).

The next extension of that initial premise is that there are only two sexes. This statement is true-ish in an overly general sense, but ignores the complexity of the science on the topic, and fails to consider intersex persons who have established medical conditions which cause developmental variances in their chromosomes, genitals or gonads. Any mention of intersex in the gender critical debate is usually met with a quick twist of pretzel logic to claim that these are merely exceptions that prove the rule, and then proceed once again under the premise that there are only two sexes — thus quickly evading the possibility that trans people (especially those who are compelled to transition between sexes, but not necessarily only them) vary in simply less visible ways than currently recognized intersex conditions, and deserve the same consideration.

Erasing Gender and Identity From Human Rights

The second major premise is that gender should be dismissed as being nothing more than a collection of outdated roles and stereotypes. This is incredibly reductive (deliberately so): gender can include them, but is not only them. Gender is the meaning that we find for ourselves inwardly and how we express it outwardly: this is usually based on our sex, but this meaning can also be chosen antithetically to what is expected based on sex — in short, it’s about who we are and how we decide to present that to the world, whether in accordance with stereotypes, despite them, or regardless of them.

As in the first point, there is a kernel of truth here too, namely, that gender roles and stereotypes are problematic. This is why “gender critical” became the new term preferred by trans-exclusionary feminists (who had previously self-identified as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” until they’d heard the acronym “TERF” in anger enough to decide that it should be considered a slur): certainly, there is a lot about gender roles and stereotypes to be critical of. On this point, gender critical thinkers and trans people should theoretically be in agreement, given that the latter challenge, question, traverse and defy those roles and stereotypes more than anyone. But there is duplicity in how gender critical people apply their argument here, too: whenever trans people happen to be in alignment with traditional stereotypes, they’re accused of reinforcing them; but when they challenge or deviate from those stereotypes, they’re mocked for being visibly trans, for how they look, and for visibly failing (by that person’s individual assessment) to meet those same expected stereotypes.

By extension of this second premise, then, gender identity is said to simply not exist, according to gender critical feminism. The collective weight of medical evidence in dealing with trans people says otherwise, but this is quickly dismissed as the medical establishment (at best) humouring trans people out of a misguided sense of sympathy, or (at worst) being in on the “gender ideology” conspiracy to reshape and destroy society. By defining gender identity as mental illness, a delusion, or even a destructive ideology, trans people then become entirely irrelevant to the debate that gender critical people want to have, and it becomes completely appropriate to dismiss them, their life experiences, and their needs from consideration. The gender critical debate, then, is entirely about us, but doesn’t involve us, as they assert that we can’t be trusted to have anything of value to contribute.

These are the starting points of the gender critical “debate,” and they are hallmarks of a debate in bad faith. From these parameters, trans women can only be considered to be “men,” and therefore everything that predatory men do can be ascribed to them, by default.  From these parameters, allowing trans women into a gendered space is automatically phrased as though those spaces are being opened up to “men” — even though that is not what is actually happening. There is no argument that can be made within these parameters that will lead to any acknowledgement that trans people exist, let alone that they should have rights or be accommodated in society in any way. This is by design: the easiest way to win a debate is to control the framing of it, so that it becomes impossible to come to any other conclusion than the one that you had allowed at the outset.

Human rights should not be up for debate in the first place… but when the debate is framed so asymmetrically, it becomes absolutely toxic.

In the discussion that I had with Jonathan Kay, it was on the condition that legitimacy issues (who I am or whether trans women are women, for example) would not be the focus of that dialogue. It is telling that he considered that “not realistic,” because the debate as he’s been hearing it has been taking place within the constraints above, and his thinking remained clearly influenced by these premises.

Many of the apparent “problems” of trans inclusion have already been considered over the past decade or more, and have been in the process of being updated based on real life experience, medical evidence, legal practicalities, and the duty to accommodate in a balanced way that considers context. By changing the parameters of the so-called “debate,” opponents hope to reset this all back to zero in a way that centers fears about trans people, and dismisses the voices of trans folk, solutions that have already been arrived at, nuances that we as a society have already learned to deal with, the context of any given situation, and any evidence that supports inclusion. It is, in a way, a means to reverse everything that has happened in the past several years, simply by insisting that it should be so and denying the validity of anything or anyone that says otherwise. It also provides a reset on language so that those who refuse to accept the existence of trans people have a sometimes-stealth / sometimes-duplicitous language with which they can be hostile, without incurring the wrath of the public at large (although we see from the complaints about infringements on freedom of speech that this doesn’t always work).

The worst part of it all is that the entire bad faith gender critical “debate” threatens to divide feminism against itself at a time when Canadian religious conservatives are attempting to reboot abortion criminalization and American religious conservatives are eagerly awaiting the overturning of Roe v Wade. It allows traditionally misogynistic personalities and organizations — ranging from the Heritage Foundation to Tucker Carlson — to deflectively posture as feminists or allies at a time when the so-called “populist” nationalism they tout is threatening to erase feminist awareness from higher education and push women back toward those very same stifling gender roles and limitations that women are still struggling to break. In the UK, it has even been used to locate and recruit gay and lesbian transphobes in order to turn them against that nation’s primary LGBTQ+ rights advocacy organization, and undercut, defund or even destroy it. Beyond that, it has also managed to turn up some transphobic lesbian, gay and feminist personalities willing to validate religious conservative talking points about “gender ideology,” without realizing that “gender ideology” is veiled code that in many uses also encompasses LGBTQ+ rights, feminism and many other aspects of social justice.

There are so incredibly many things that trans feminism and general feminism can and should agree on, and yet gender critical efforts seem to discard all of that, in order to pretend that the single most important challenge facing women today is whether trans women should be accepted as women. This absolutist, sort-of-fundamentalist and all-consuming focus is as troubling as it is self-defeating.

(This commentary also appears at rabble.ca. Image: Adobe Stock)

The Conscience Chronicles

UPDATE: As this was being readied for posting, the Standing Committee on Private Bills and Private Members’ Public Bills voted to recommend that Bill 207 not move forward in its current form, meaning that the bill will not be proceeding to the floor. I have elected to post this anyway, given the possibility that the proposal might be resurrected and amended at a later date.

At a first casual glance, the stated premise of Alberta’s Bill 207, Conscience Rights (Health Care Providers) Protection Act, might sound reasonable: most people wouldn’t expect medical professionals who object to procedures like abortion to be required to perform them.

In practice, Alberta’s College of Physicians and Surgeons already allows medical professionals to opt out of medical procedures that they have a religious objection to (a status quo that is at times problematic), so long as they provide any referral or direction to comprehensive information needed, ensuring that their patient still receives care in a timely manner. Bill 207 removes the obligation to refer and / or ensure patient care — using the reasoning that providing a referral is sort of like participating in the procedure. Regardless of any urgency or medical appropriateness of care in any given situation, this change allows refusals to increase the time delay to accessing care (regardless of any urgency), put the burden of medical care back on the patient, and be a kind of barrier and discouragement, if not more. Indeed, it can be like making someone start over from scratch. Proponents of the bill say that because medical care is still available elsewhere, it isn’t really being denied, which is technically true… but the time, emotional and informational barriers cannot be discounted.

But while those advancing the bill claim it is only codifying that status quo in law, there are more things that Bill 207 does, many of which have received little attention by media.

The bill extends conscience rights to health care organizations, as well. While religious care organizations have already asserted conscience objections in many ways already, this codifies it in law. It also allows organizations to assert their conscience-based decisions over those of their facilities, staff and resources. By way of example, Covenant Health (Canada’s largest Catholic health care provider) owns 16 health care facilities throughout the province, including two major hospitals in Edmonton; its affiliate Covenant Care owns another seven assisted living and long-term care facilities. In some rural areas of Alberta, all or most facilities are religious-owned.

In short, this moves Alberta down a landscape in which anyone in the chain of service provision — from facility administration to lab technician and pharmacist — can create a roadblock to services, without consequence. This becomes even more concerning when one realizes the potential for administrative staff, clergy or even outside groups to apply pressure to doctors and clinics to deny services that they might not otherwise have initially had objections to.

In fact, by the text of the law, it is left entirely up to the health care provider or religious health care organization to determine if their conscientious beliefs would be infringed, and there really is no appeal process to see if there is some agreeable compromise. No record is kept, leaving no way to follow up to ascertain if the patient has ever received the care they needed or sought. Gathering statistics about patients denied care in order to inspect what consequences the law has had becomes impossible, as demonstrated elsewhere.

By the text of the law, if a regulatory body receives a complaint about denial of care having to do with conscience, the complaint must be discarded (there is a caveat that complaints or portions thereof that are not conscience-related are not discarded). They are not allowed to investigate or question the decision:

5(1)  On receiving a complaint in accordance with section 55(1) of the Health Professions Act, the subject matter of which is a health care provider’s decision not to provide a health care service based on their conscientious beliefs, the complaints director for the regulatory body that received the complaint must immediately

(a) dismiss the complaint, and

(b) provide notice of the dismissal to the complainant.

It also specifies that by law, “a health care provider’s decision to not provide a health care service based on their conscientious beliefs is not to be considered as unprofessional conduct,” and providers and / or organizations are immediately shielded from legal liability.

There is also an amendment to Section 7(1) of the Alberta Human Rights Act, to immediately shield any employee from termination or discrimination based on their conscientious beliefs. This amendment is not restricted in any way to the medical profession, and could conceivably provide a shield for harassment and abuse of one’s co-workers or customers because of one’s religious or conscientious beliefs.

The bill’s proponent, MLA Dan Williams, has promised a number of amendments to Bill 207, but in those proposed changes, none of these points is substantively changed. One of his proposals — to restore a duty to assist “if not providing the health care service would result in an imminent risk of death” — isn’t altogether reassuring about the thought that was put into the bill in the first place… but even with that change, there is no clarification on whether or how the legal shield and barriers to reporting and investigation might be changed in the event of a patient’s death (especially in cases in which it was not thought that there would be an “imminent risk”).

There are many hypothetical situations that one can suggest could arise as a result of this legislation. But this is not uncharted territory. It is very easy to look at places where “conscience” exemptions have been implemented or attempted — or where medical personnel or organizations have attempted to assert their conscience rights — and see how it has affected medical care for patients.

“I was nervous and excited about the consult for my first intrauterine device (IUD) at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. After a brief conversation, Dr. Case (a pseudonym) asked me to get off the exam table and follow her to her office for a ‘chat.’ But in her office, when the door was safely shut, my excitement slowly started to fade. ‘Well, first things first, this is a Catholic hospital,’ she said in a mock whisper…”

Evann Normandin, writing at Rewire this past May, described what happened to her when hospital policy prevented her from getting an IUD. She left with a referral… and shaming. Although referrals don’t come with the added expense of multiple visits in Alberta, like south of the border, the expense of time and transportation remain, and can pale in comparison to the emotional cost of the refusal itself:

“… On my way out of the labyrinthian building, I scrunched up the unofficial paper in my hand. The ripped edges felt sharp against my skin. In the Uber ride home, after paying transportation to and from my apartment to a world-class hospital and forking over a $50 copay for unsolicited advice about my vagina, I cried…”

At Huffington Post, Ace Ratcliff described her fight with doctors over her need for a hysterectomy:

“My illness’ severity [hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome] led me to the conclusion early on that childbirth would irreparably damage my already broken body and would never be the right choice for me. My joints dislocate painfully and at random. I have difficulty swallowing food. I bruise like an overripe peach. I faint if I have to stand for too long. Wounds take much longer to heal on me than on a normal human.

“… Somehow, my personal autonomy, my health and my comfort didn’t rate high enough to outrank the desires of my future, then-nonexistent partner. And nothing I said could change my doctors’ minds [about a surgical hysterectomy], not the stories about my frequently dislocating hips, my mom’s complicated pregnancies or the increased rate of miscarriage and preterm labor for EDS patients…”

In another instance, the hospital’s policies would have allowed the removal of a dislodged IUD, but the doctor thought the policies wouldn’t, and refused care. The patient was sent home, limited in her options by her insurance company (not applicable in Alberta, but limits on options can occur because of other factors, such as rural accessibility), and she ultimately had to file suit:

“Her doctor confirmed the IUD was dislodged and had to be removed. But the doctor said she would be unable to remove the IUD, citing Catholic restrictions followed by Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and providers within its system.

“… It felt heartbreaking,” Jones told Rewire. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights…”

Something that Bill 207 does not address at all is any duty of physicians to discuss every option available to a patient. If referring is equated to participating in an objected-to procedure or medication, then one might tacitly assume that providing comprehensive information on that procedure or medication can be denied. Withholding medical information can have serious consequences:

“… a woman was traveling across the Midwest when she developed abdominal pain. She and her husband went to the nearest hospital, where she was diagnosed with a potentially fatal ectopic pregnancy. The doctors recommended immediate surgery to remove the fallopian tube containing the misplaced embryo, a procedure that would reduce by half her future chances of conceiving a child. They failed to mention that a simple injection of Methotrexate could solve the problem, leaving her fertility intact. (In fact, at a secular hospital she found on her smart phone, it subsequently did.) Why the omission? The Catholic hospital where she got diagnosed was subject to the “Ethical and Religious Directives” of the Catholic bishops, which state, “In case of extrauterine pregnancy, no intervention is morally licit which constitutes a direct abortion…'”

In fact, denial of comprehensive information is a recurring issue when medical conscience exemptions are asserted.

Of course, some of these examples focus on the emotional impact, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious physical consequences potentially at stake:

“After about 10 hours, the patient’s temperature soared to 102 or 103 degrees, Ralph recalled in an interview with Rewire in June, a few months after the incident. Ralph and her team gave the patient medication to induce labor. But Ralph could not administer mifepristone, which the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) considers part of the most effective drug regimen for such cases. The Catholic hospital didn’t carry the drug, which is commonly used for medication abortions—a failure Ralph believes was religiously motivated and needlessly prolonged her patient’s labor.

“… For more than 24 hours, the patient labored through painful contractions. She bled heavily, requiring at least one blood transfusion. Her lips and face lost their color. Finally, she delivered a fetus that had no hope of survival…”

The full extent of Bill 207’s reach isn’t understood either, until you realize that “medical provider” covers a wide range, as noted in an Edmonton Journal editorial:

“The list is long and includes emergency, primary and critical care paramedics; midwives, chiropractors, podiatrists, psychologists and psychiatrists; lab, respiratory, ultrasound and X-ray technologists; pharmacists, physiotherapists and physical therapists; opticians and optometrists; dieticians and nutritionists; anesthesiologists, surgeons, and social workers; audiologists, dental professionals and speech-language pathologists…”

The inclusion of pharmacists in that list raises the question about access to birth control, an issue that has already surfaced in Alberta and elsewhere in Canada:

“Joan Chand’oiseau of Calgary recently posted a photo on Facebook of a sign on her physician’s office door that read, ‘Please be informed that the physician on duty today will not prescribe the birth control pill…’”

It also raises questions about access to hormone therapy for trans patients, or the possibility of throwing in a bit of public humiliation for good measure:

“‘Sir, we canceled your prescription because we couldn’t figure out why a man would need female hormones,’ said the voice. ‘You’ll have to have your doctor call us to confirm this is correct because it doesn’t make any sense…'”

Indeed, trans health is just as likely to be impacted as reproductive health, and doesn’t even have to be about transition-related medical concerns. Trans people regularly report what they’ve nicknamed ‘Trans Broken Arm Syndrome‘ — that is, the refusal of care for basic health services just because they’re trans. And it does indeed happen in Canada:

“According to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan’s charge of unprofessional conduct and the penalty presentation, the incident took place on Jan. 5, 2016, when Anderson saw a patient for “reasons related to bronchitis” — something completely unrelated to the patient’s transition to male from female.”According to the documents, the disciplinary hearing committee found it ‘probable’ that Anderson ‘launched into an unsolicited running commentary’ regarding transitioning. Anderson made statements ‘which were insensitive and unrelated to the reasons for which the patient requested your medical services,’ according to the charges against Anderson…”

It should also be asked what conscience protections might do to protect the still-persistent practices of reparative therapy in Alberta (albeit with coded language). But that aside, denial of basic care is something that all LGBTQ+ people have had to worry about, sometimes even with lethal effect in situations that didn’t initially seem to pose an “imminent risk”:

“Refusing to treat patients can be be deadly, as was the case in 1995, when Tyra Hunter, a transgender woman, lost her life after emergency medical technicians refused to assist her at the scene of a car accident. According to the Center for American Progress, had Hunter received care, her chances of surviving were 86 percent — she should have lived…”

Medical assistance in dying is another area in which medical access is an issue, and in this instance, access is even more seriously limited. It is estimated that the aforementioned Covenant Health (and affiliates) oversee up to 90% of the long-term care beds in parts of Alberta, and regardless of whether long-term care patients are healthy enough to be moved, doing so is sometimes necessary just have questions answered, because of facility policies:

“Covenant Health stated in May of 2016 that it has an ‘ethical and moral opposition to medical assistance in dying’ and that the organization’s ‘unequivocal position to not provide or explicitly refer’ must be recognized. Functionally, this means that any assessment of capacity, any answering of technical questions, and the act of assistance in dying itself would require a transfer away from a Covenant facility.

“… The case of Ian Shearer, an 84-year-old Calgary man living in Vancouver with palliative heart and kidney disease and severe chronic pain, brought attention to how transfers can do harm. Shearer was denied a request for medical assistance in dying from St. Paul’s Hospital, a Catholic facility near where he lived and where he’d been admitted for care. On the day he chose to die, his ambulance was delayed three hours and his medications were withheld to allow him to confirm consent. The ordeal, last August, was described by his daughter as ‘unnecessary… excruciating suffering…'”

Obviously, the out-of-province and out-of-country examples won’t exactly mirror what would happen in Alberta, because of circumstantial differences in things like medical coverage, but what this demonstrates is the extent to which individuals might be willing to abuse a conscience protection, and the twists of logic involved. From the firing of doctors for not adhering to an organization’s conscience policies, to the chilling effect on medical care caused by activism from anti-abortion groups against clinics just for hiring doctors who’ve performed abortions elsewhere in the past, to medical residents who openly vowed to give the wrong medications to specific groups of people, to some some truly backwards beliefs about medical interventions…

“Throughout the conference’s diverse and highly academic presentations, one discernible theme emerged, namely, that “brain death” has been invented to harvest viable organs from still-living people. Only when a person’s heart stops beating and their breathing ceases for a determinate amount of time can it be said that death has truly occurred…”

… the politics surrounding medical conscience exemptions raises a broad range of concerns.

It is likely that Alberta’s Bill 207 would not survive a legal challenge. Indeed, the same day that the bill was introduced in the Alberta Legislature, a similar policy was overturned in the U.S. Likewise, a ruling in Ontario last May affirmed patients’ rights to referrals when care is denied.

But getting there could be another long, legally costly process, with very real human collateral damage caused along the way.

Photo: Adobe Stock

(crossposted to rabble.ca)

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

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

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

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

Gospel By Gaslight

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

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

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

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

Continue reading Gospel By Gaslight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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