Posts Tagged ‘ transphobia ’

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

Shout: “Help, I’m being silenced!”

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

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

And the moment the people targeted by that discussion get angry and protest, they’re described not as being upset about the content of what is being said, but rather their protest is reframed as opposing freedom of speech itself.  Whether you see that as accidental or deliberate probably depends on how cynical you are about the whole issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted to rabble.ca

Advertisements

Canada’s Trans* Rights Bill Now Endorses Bans in Washroom and Gendered Spaces

Canada’s trans* human rights bill C-279 was amended by a Senate committee, in a way that makes it legal to ban trans* people from washrooms and gendered spaces appropriate to their gender identity.

Sen. Donald Plett, Conservative member of the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, added a legal exemption for “any service, facility, accommodation or premises that is restricted to one sex only, such as a correctional facility, crisis counseling facility, shelter for victims of abuse, washroom facility, shower facility or clothing changing room.”  The amendment passed with six of the committee members supporting it, four opposed, and one abstention.

There were two other unanimous amendments made.  One added the category of “sex” to the protections in the Criminal Code (which has long been a bizarre and serious omission from hate crimes legislation).  The other removed the definition of “gender identity” which had been added in the House of Commons as a condition of passing the bill, back in 2013.  Because the bill has been amended, it would need to return to the House for a final vote before being enacted.  It is thought unlikely that the bill would be brought forward before an election call — and now, if it did, the bill’s original proponents would oppose it — meaning that C-279 is almost certainly dead.

“The very act that is designed to prohibit discrimination is being amended to allow discrimination,” the bill’s Senate sponsor, Grant Mitchell, pointed out.  “It holds people who are law-abiding, full-fledged and equal members of our society accountable for the potential — the very, very long-shot potential — that someone would misuse this to justify a criminal act.” (The transcript has not been posted yet, but the videocast is still available)

Sen. Plett has long claimed that the bill would be exploited by pedophiles and rapists to attack women and children in washrooms, a claim that has been repeatedly debunked by law enforcement officials and other experts:

Minneapolis Police Department: Fears About Sexual Assault “Not Even Remotely” A Problem. Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder told Media Matters in an interview that sexual assaults stemming from Minnesota’s 1993 transgender non-discrimination law have been “not even remotely” a problem. Based on his experience, the notion of men posing as transgender women to enter women’s restrooms to commit sex crimes “sounds a little silly,” Elder said. According to Elder, a police department inquiry found “nothing” in the way of such crimes in the city… [Phone interview, 3/11/14]”

Additionally, criminal activity in a washroom or gendered space would continue to remain criminal regardless of the gender of the perpetrator.  On the other hand, trans* women face very real dangers when institutionally housed with men or made to use segregated facilities according to their birth sex.

Nevertheless, bathroom-related fearmongering has been the cause of several petitions and campaigns to kill trans* human rights legislation in North America.  It has also started to spawn draconian bathroom-policing bills (some of which ignore the actual genital status of the person, even though genitals are allegedly the rationale for the law):

“Building managers who “repeatedly allow” trans people to use the bathroom that accords with their gender identity would, however, face up to two years in jail and a maximum $10,000 fine under the proposed law.

“… If passed, the law could tighten how Texas defines gender, not only singling out transgender people, but those who have chromosomes that don’t fit the strict definition laid out in the bill, like intersex individuals. The bill reads:

” For the purpose of this section, the gender of an individual is the gender established at the individual’s birth or the gender established by the individual’s chromosomes. A male is an individual with at least one X chromosome and at least one Y chromosome, and a female is an individual with at least one X chromosome and no Y chromosomes. If the individual’s gender established at the individual’s birth is not the same as the individual’s gender established by the individual’s chromosomes, the individual’s gender established by the individual’s chromosomes controls under this section…”

Plett’s reasoning essentializes trans* women as being “biological males” (“… and I will use ‘men’ because I believe they are biological men — ‘transgender,’ but biologically, they are men”), and asserts that they are inherently a threat to cis* (non-trans*) women.  When it was pointed out that his amendment would require trans* men to use womens’ facilities, Plett appeared indifferent, and he later referred to a young trans* man as “she.”  Plett added that he believed his amendment would allow “separate but equal treatment.”

Bill C-279 would affect only areas under federal jurisdiction, such as federal facilities, the Armed Forces, federal agencies, and First Nations reserves.  But it had been seen as a potentially important symbol of human rights protection to have specific federal inclusion.  Canadian human rights commissions consider trans* people written into legislation, but without explicit inclusion, there remains a possibility of an overturn in court precedent (where application is not as certain).  Meanwhile, companies that take direction from federal legislation continue to not see a need to develop policies for trans* employees.

The Northwest Territories was the first Canadian jurisdiction to pass trans-inclusive legislation, in 2002.  Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan all have provincial protections.  In British Columbia, a similar bill, M-211, has been blocked by B.C. Liberals, who refuse to allow it to face a vote or discussion.

Former Member of Parliament Bill Siksay first introduced a trans* human rights bill in 2005, and continued to reintroduce it in every Parliamentary session, until it eventually passed in the House of Commons. However, it was awaiting ratification in the Senate when a federal election was called, which killed the bill.  In 2011, Siksay left federal politics, and Randall Garrison reintroduced it as C-279.  In 2012, many trans* people stopped campaigning for the bill when the characteristic of gender expression was deleted from the bill, and a definition of gender identity was added.

(A version of this article also appears at Rabble.ca and The Bilerico Project)

Leelah Alcorn’s Suicide, Parents’ Rights… and Kids’ Rights.

On Sunday, December 28th, 17-year-old trans* Ohio teenager committed suicide by stepping in front of a tractor-trailer on the interstate.  She was killed instantly.

Her tragedy says something profound which has been almost completely missed in the discussion about LGBT-inclusive education and Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) currently wafting across Canada.

Before Leelah Alcorn’s death, she posted a suicide note online.  Some of the links to it are no longer working, but the text is archived at Slate.  In it, she relates a heartbreaking story of a kid who learned what “transgender” meant at the age of 14, despite having always known in her heart that she needed to live as a young woman.  [This I can strongly relate to, having not heard anything about trans* people until I was about the same age or slightly older.  It was an age before Internet.  I wept for days at the realization that there was actually a word for it — until then, I thought I was the only one, and that it was a character fault.]  On telling her parents, they called it a phase, said it was impossible (that “God doesn’t make mistakes”), and taking her to Christian therapists, who told her that she “was selfish and wrong and… should look to God for help.”  The situation grew worse:

“So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness…”

She felt like everything was closing in on her: her social isolation, the hopelessness of having to afford a mass of expenses (college, moving away from home and transition costs including surgery), what she perceived to be an insurmountable challenge of being too masculinized by hormones by the time she can start transition at 18 (a tragic misconception, as transition outlooks are still usually extremely good when transitioning that young), the fear of living a loveless life, and more.

Since her suicide, her parents have received a wave of anger from trans* people, and responded by claiming to have loved their child “unconditionally,” while still adamantly invalidating her and misgendering her:

“We don’t support that, religiously … But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy.”

The media coverage has turned into a circus, with various publications conflicting and editorializing over whether Leelah should be acknowledged as the person she understood herself to be or deliberately invalidated as per the family’s wishes.  Meanwhile, the religious right response has been unsurprisingly vicious and negative, blaming trans* people for Leelah’s suicide, and that the real solution should have been more antagonism, reparative therapy, and invalidation until it somehow eventually overwhelmed her and somehow (inexplicably) made her feel better:

“The attitude that says we should be able to be what we want, no matter what, is dangerous. This Abby is complicit in her friend’s death. She encouraged wrong behavior. This wrong behavior created bad feelings or depression. This furthered Joshua’s depression and desire to make himself happy.

“Rather than saying gently and calmly that his problem was not that he was a girl trapped in a boy’s body, they should have said. “You’re a boy, in a boy’s body.” The confusion is that you are trying to be something that you are not meant to be, you’re not a girl…”

Others are calling for all trans* people to go “truck” themselves (i.e. commit suicide in the same fashion that Leelah did).

Since her suicide, vigils for Leelah have taken place across North America, including one in Winnipeg.  Trans* activists are calling for a change in the discussion about the well-being of trans* youth.

With the extensive (and puzzling) debate over LGBT-inclusive education and Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in several provinces across Canada, there has been a considerable amount of ink spilled over a parent’s rights to deny their children information about sexual orientation and gender identity, and to deny the acceptance, validation and support of gay, bi- or trans* kids in schools as a matter of religious freedom of conscience.

And yet no one is talking about LGBT teens’ rights to acceptance, enfranchisement, freedom from harassment, and to learn about who they are.  Or the right of non-queer teens to learn what society now largely knows to be truth about their peers.

In Alberta, the debate has even gone as far as enfranchising parents’ rights in a way that supersedes the rights of children and teens, in law.

Canadian school boards have begun recognizing the need to enfranchise lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* kids.  But will politicians and media do the same before Leelah Alcorn’s tragedy is repeated north of the 49th parallel?

Paths of Pain, and the Ownership of Language.

Marc Maron recently ran a follow-up interview with fellow comedian Todd Glass, who had come out as gay on Marc’s podcast, WTF.  Marc’s podcast has often been strikingly introspective, and a moment came up that epitomized this. Glass started talking about language, the way that words can be weaponized, and the way he’s experienced this since coming out as gay:

(at 20:12) GLASS: But for me, I want to keep evolving.  I don’t want to be the type of person who drops one word out of my act and then the other word and then goes ‘oh my god, when’s it gonna stop? I’m done evolving!’  Don’t f***ing brag about that…  ‘Cause… you know, the reason those words — I realize it with the word ‘gay’ — the reason people think it’s not bad is they don’t see the path of pain where it leads back to…

That sticks out in my mind as important, as it speaks almost directly to the controversy that happened when Marc interviewed RuPaul Charles in the previous podcast, as part of RuPaul’s ongoing string of controversies over language:

(at 1:16:41) RUPAUL: No no no, it’s not the transsexual community who’s saying that. These are fringe people who are looking for storylines to strengthen their identity as victims. That is what we’re dealing with.  It’s not the trans community, because most people who are trans have been through hell and high water and they know — they’ve looked behind the curtain at Oz and went, ‘Oh, this is all a f***ing joke.  But, some people haven’t, and they’ve used their victimhood to create a situation…  If your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say, what they do, you are in for a f***ing hard-ass road.  Because the ego would have you think…  that is a trap that the ego will have you… it gets you every time…  My 32-year career speaks for itself.  I dance to a different drummer.  I believe that everybody, you can be whatever the hell you wanna be. I ain’t stopping you.  But don’t you dare tell me what I can do or say. It’s just words.  Yeah, words [mocking] ‘you… your words hurt me…’ You know what? Bitch, you need to get stronger.  You really do, because you know what, if you’re upset by something I said, you have bigger problems than you think.  I’m telling you this….

The sad thing about that is, earlier in the interview, RuPaul had some interesting but challenging things to say about building social movements around identity and about deconstructing “the matrix” of social illusions that people have.  While I don’t really agree with him on all points, it does provoke some thought and provide some insight about where he’s coming from.  “Identity” is a vague enough concept that it deserves to be questioned and picked apart from time to time, and that’s what RuPaul does.

Of course, language is also the means that people use to become self-aware, communicate that self to the world, and build common cause… so your mileage on that will vary.

The Spirit of It

Now, I don’t like playing word police.  I’ve done it a few times, and I recognize the importance of words and the evolution of language.  The effect that has on both forming social movements and shoring up one’s sense of self-respect (if not pride) is admittedly significant.  But the bigger issue is often the spirit with which something is said or intended.  So my overall thoughts on language are mixed.

Sometimes we only have the language we’re given.  We’ve only relatively recently coined “cisgender” and “cissexual” (words to mean “not transgender” and “not transsexual,” sort of like “heterosexual” is to “homosexual”) because using “normal” drips with judgment and condemnation, and “genetic” is not scientifically accurate or verifiable.

We still fight over terms like transgender, transsexual, trans* (with or without the asterisk), etc.  Depending on where you are, sometimes you need to be keeping a bloody scorecard.  In one group, people prefer “transgender” because it doesn’t imply that being trans is about sex; another group will prefer “transsexual” because it’s always been the term they knew, or because it is about changing the physical sex, for them; yet another group will totally reject “transsexual” because it was coined by the medical community and they want to reject the mental health stigma or the clinical abuses that people have faced in the years prior.

The words changed over time, too… it wasn’t that long ago that people embraced “tranny,” and sometimes even accepted the word “transvestite,” however inappropriate that might have been — either because they didn’t realize the implications of the word, or because it was the only label available in a drop-down menu, in one of those rare spaces we were welcome, at the time.  Although there’s a relatively consistent aversion to “tranny” and “shemale” now (aside from a few people who still use them to describe themselves), it hasn’t always been that way, and the labels each come with a plethora of nuances, and occasional people who embrace the terms for themselves.

I tend to prefer trans (or trans*), because it’s open-ended.  It’s supposed to be an adjective, not a straitjacket.  Personally, I’d hate to ever find myself parsing a descriptor so narrowly and precisely that it starts to define me, rather than the other way around.  But I really don’t blame people for getting a little peeved about there being a minefield of language.

And if you’re thinking that this kind of fight over language is just particular to trans* people, then keep in mind that decades later, LGBT people still have divisions over whether they want to retake or banish the word “queer.”  Divides exist in other communities, as well, such as the split over the terms “First Nations,” “Native,” “Indigenous,” “Aboriginal,” “Native American,” etc.:

“But lately, I question if we are empowered or disempowered by this term and this assigned title –and if it permeates and weakens our identity.

“Not the term in itself, but by all matters, machinery, and meaning (explicitly and implicitly) implied by the assignment of the title onto us by Canada, the acceptance of it on our part, and all that comes with such uncritical acceptance and internalization…”

…is a passage that almost looks as though it were plucked right out of an article on trans* -related language, doesn’t it?

Words are important to us.  They’re inevitably used to define us, so it’s natural for us to want to be the ones who determine what those words say.  Except that we can’t.  Abolishing a word isn’t going to erase the pain that went with it, nor will it change the attitudes of the people who wield the word as a weapon.

Because there can indeed be a path of pain associated with “tranny.”  When it was the language used whenever a person is attacked, disrespected, disowned, denied services, threatened, refused entry, humiliated, or more, it becomes a foci of microaggression: where any one incident can seem surmountable or even trivial, but when multiplied by thousands, it becomes monumental.  Perhaps RuPaul had the luck or privilege to escape a lot of that (he is, after all, able to take off the wig, makeup and sequins when it gets to be too much), or perhaps he found the rare strength to power through it all without it eroding his spirit — but trans* people at large aren’t always able to do the same.  Words have power.

What we can do in the discussion about language is assert our right to be respected, and to be dignified as the people we say we are. We are only ever entitled to speak for ourselves.  We never were empowered to label everyone who’s trans*.

RuPaul, of course, is speaking for himself, and that’s cool.  The whole word debate arises because he is speaking for himself, but trans* people — and just about everyone else, for that matter — assume that he’s labeling trans* people.  If there were a way to achieve clarity on this, it wouldn’t matter what terminology he embraces and throws around.

But where RuPaul Charles derails is not from pointing out the inevitable failure of communal self-identification (because we are not some homogenous collective Borg hive — I get that), but by invalidating those who are targeted by said language, and validating the ways the words are used to target them.  “Grow up, get a spine” is not helpful, and minimizes another’s pain.  While we’re busy trying to turn that “victimhood” into empowerment, RuPaul is there to act like there wouldn’t be any pain at all, if we only had more spine.  That’s not helpful, and it’s quite inelegant, at that.

The language debate became an argument over the willingness to respect.  Does one surrender the use of the word out of a willingness to listen to what someone has to say about who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean… or do they instead extend a big middle finger to them and declare that they know better, and that (whether anyone likes it or not) they’re appointing yourself the arbiter of another person’s reality?

Not One-Sided

But that respect goes both ways.

Something that always bothered me about this discussion was that often it became an angry shouting match about who trans* people are not.  Most often, this has to do with people distancing themselves from drag queens.  Now, I’ll admit, it’s difficult to change the impression that the public has, when society routinely conflates trans* with drag.  Virtually every newspaper story you see on trans* issues is illustrated with a photo of drag queens in a Pride parade (okay to be fair, some are finally starting to know the difference).

Drag isn’t the same thing as trans*, although some trans* people find that a safe space to explore and / or come out, so there can be some overlap.  Trans* is different — not better, but different.  Clarity would be nice.  But what happens is that instead of calling for clarity, people slip into the same bigoted stereotypes and assumptions about others that they don’t want applied to themselves.  Denigrating someone else in order to elevate oneself is very low.

The new argument is that “drag is trans* blackface.”  But drag was never meant to lampoon trans* people — it lampoons gender itself, both masculinity and femininity simultaneously.  It’s quite likely that it’s becoming an art that’s past its time, because of the effect it has on intersecting groups and issues (i.e. that regardless of the original intent, in current context, trans* people are lampooned by circumstance), and the buttons that it now pushes.  But I’m not going to start that discussion here, nor will I malign the integrity and motives of the people who engage in drag… some of whom set out to challenge gender as much as anyone who is genderqueer, but simply took a different avenue and during a different time.  It’s a conversation that’s looming, but not one that trans* people can have arbitrarily and unilaterally — at least not if you believe in decolonizing activism.

There’s another group of people that are often taken issue with, in the discussion about the word “tranny.”

While composing this article, I ended up getting into a heated exchange in probably the worst venue to have an intelligent conversation — Facebook.  One follower had been pushing me to write on the subject, and decided to elaborate on why they felt words like “tranny” are offensive: she associated the word with the porn industry and prostitution, and didn’t like the implication of being associated with such people… “sleazy,” “freakish” and “deluded” (because apparently, doing sex work means that one must not be really trans*) people.

People like me.

I don’t do sex work now, mind you. I did at two points in my life, though — once when I first left home at 18, and again later when I transitioned and was more or less dropped off the payroll by my employer.  I was outted on this point a couple years ago and haven’t written about it much here — but I’ve been having to discuss it a lot more recently because of legislative issues in Canada. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it, either.

I didn’t use words like “tranny” or “shemale” then, mind you, unless it was part of a date’s fantasy (at which point one inevitably has to put up with it).  And currently, things are fading far enough into the rear-view mirror that it would make as much sense to call me a tranny as it would to call me a soup can.  So I have no vested interest in defending the words themselves.

But the words used are no longer relevant, because the question of intent goes both ways, too.  Because what I was really being told was that my conversant’s pain was from having to be associated with what they felt was a lesser form of person.

Your path of pain does not give you entitlement to create more pain by bulldozing through me.

And from this point forward, I am no longer interested in this argument about language — or at least not until we have a good, solid discussion about intent.  Because while I recognize that there is genuinely a path of pain that some people have regarding the word “tranny,” sometimes it’s really about disdain.

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)