Monthly Archives: January 2014

I am not a science experiment

Sometimes I could just go doolally listening to folks trying to trump social and cultural ideas with their clearly “superior” scientific sensibilities. The latest hoo ha on my LFAT page was over how “sex” cannot be socially constructed, for it clearly is a scientific fact. I blogged previously about this nature/nurture debate, but perhaps I did not make it clear just how much tension there is in feminist and trans circles between the scientific method and a more sociological approach. 

I’ll come back to this in a minute, but first, a personal history lesson.

My undergraduate degree was in chemistry. I was a bright young thing planning to save the world by solving the problems of ozone depletion, greenhouse emissions and world hunger. I was a nerd who believed in “facts” and loved the solid truth that if you took this chemical and that chemical and applied that process you’d get the same outcome every time. And I was good at it, a high flyer.

Lots of complicated things happened to me when I was studying that set me on a different path. But the overriding thing I learned from “pure, hard science” is that it was not going to solve the world’s problems because it had become unnecessarily powerful. It was something that had become blindly worshiped and followed in a manner akin to religion, and as such it was becoming increasingly used to control and abuse people. The Daily Mail would inform us on a daily basis that science tells us women are inferior, everything gives you cancer and (back then) global warming is not happening. If science said it, well it must be so.

I came to psychotherapy, which is a beautiful amalgam of art and science, when I realised if I wanted to really make the world a better place I needed to understand people. My Rogerian form of therapy had the added advantage that it does not seek to control – it works alongside people and allows them to be their own experts. It is the antithesis of an expert, authoritarian, scientific position, allowing people to discover their own truths and accepting these as valid.

Sandy, what does this all have to do with gender? I hear you ask.

Well, on all sides of the gender debate I hear people both invoking and dismissing science – invoking the science that seems to support them, even if it is bad science, whilst dismissing science that seems to be inconvenient as “junk”. Meanwhile, there seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding that scientists do not live in a cultural vacuum where they can see the world more clearly than the rest of us – science is riddled with blatant assumptions and errors of conclusion. Therefore, the only honest scientific consensus we can come to about gender is “we just don’t know enough about it yet”. Humans use knowledge as a form of control; we are far too reluctant to admit our uncertainty.

Science is a strong ally but a frightening enemy. Trans people are caught in a difficult double bind. Science could prove my existence and legitimise me, but science could also discover a mechanism to prevent people like me from being born. Science could find a test to make it easier for trans people to access services, but what if there are different mechanisms for being trans, and the test worked only for some of us? What if some of us are trans as a result of biology, whereas some are trans as a result of environment – would some of us be left out in the cold, less legitimate? And indeed, if being trans was proven to be a choice, would that necessarily mean the choice should not be made? That becomes a moral, rather than a scientific question, but it is true that we can be tempted to prove we have no choice in our existence as response to people’s looking down upon transgender lives as inferior and artificial. As if any of us, in the year 2014, live fully “natural” lives.

I see these tensions play out on my page the whole time. Some folks get jumpy when I post a science article that may clash with their own self-understanding, others are frustrated when things like social construction are discussed, unable to understand that there can be a genuine scientific underpinning to concepts like gender and sex but that by their nature these ideas are socially constructed, as all science is socially constructed, because no human being can fully stand outside of their culture and be truly objective.

The facts and figures may not lie, but the choices of what to count and when, what to note and what to ignore, how to categorise and divide, and how to interpret findings are all influenced by our socially susceptible primate brains. And that is a scientific fact. Probably.

Can we salvage the privilege debate?

Lately I have had my head spun round a few times on the subject of privilege. Quite a few people I respect have pointed out that the dominant narrative on privilege is toxic and shaming, and I have fought to rehabilitate it.

I have previously blogged about my own take on how we should handle the privilege debate with empathy and self-reflection. I do a lot of reflective work around privilege and I facilitate a unique take on difference and privilege training, which I speak about here:

In a recent discussion, someone made the statement that trans women always have less privilege than trans men and non-binary folks. This statement got me pondering. I am happy to own that I personally have a lot of privilege, but I felt uncertain that non-binary people are always and universally more privileged than trans women. The more I thought about it, the more my head started to spin.

I realised trans disprivilege, like gender disprivilege in general, is not one simple thing but many different individual circumstances that are hard to tally.

For instance, alongside all the other privileges I have (white, human, middle class, articulate and relatively able) I feel I have a certain amount of masculine privilege; I experience the world’s approval sometimes when I exhibit “masculine” traits. But something I experience the world’s disapproval that I am defying gender norms. However, I know that traditionally male qualities are valued more in society, and that if I was gender non-conforming in the opposite direction, that would be even harder – another advantage I have as long as I am read as female.

Of course, I also experience common-or-garden cis female disprivilege when I am read as cis female.

Being non-binary is another double-edged sword – on the one hand I currently do not feel the need to go through medical transition and for the most part I am cis-passing, because in my culture it is relatively acceptable for people assigned female to dress and express themselves in traditionally masculine ways. I appreciate someone who gets read as male displaying any kind of femininity is judged more harshly, because femininity is seen as inferior.

The other side of this is that my own experience being trans is invisible and little understood and therefore my individual needs are rarely met. My experience in the world is a unique and complex web of privileges and disadvantages.

It is far too easy to single out the area of disadvantage I have, and say “you don’t have this disadvantage therefore you hold privilege over me”. Lately, this has been extrapolated into “and therefore I can talk to you how I like and if anyone calls me on it they are “tone policing”. Although the “tone policing” trope has genuine validity, it has become an excuse to throw empathy out of the window and speak in a shitty way to people. Once we go to a place where we allow ourselves to be shitty with people based on their assumed privilege, we create a sense of entitlement from which all manner of abuse can then spring.

To illustrate my point, if I am having a discussion with a cis-het white man, I cannot assume he has more privilege than me, because these are not the only privileges that exist. I may have class, age, ability, and neurotypical privilege over him, and in the final tally I may be more advantaged in the world. I learned this lesson profoundly when working in schools in deprived areas with young white men who simply were not going to experience the advantages in life that I had – their glass ceiling was set even lower than mine, and that was hard for me to face up to.

Oppression is too complex a phenomenon for easy, lazy calculations. That does not mean we should ignore the overall effects of male, white, cis-het privilege but what it does mean is that it is dangerous to assume that a man, for instance, always has the advantage over a woman, even if he certainly does have male privilege. An elderly blind gay black African man living on a rubbish heap in Mumbai is probably not more advantaged than the Queen of England, but he does still have male privilege, it just doesn’t count for much amid all his disprivileges.

But what does all this mean? It means us owning that the need to set up a specific service or safe space might relate to our unique and individual needs but it can never legitimately be about creating a space for the “more oppressed people” because there will inevitably be people we are excluding who are individually more oppressed and disadvantaged.

Equally, I can never assume the person I am interacting with, especially on the internet, has more privilege than me. I can never assume I am entitled to exclude them based on their privilege. I can never assume I am entitled to yell at them based on their privilege. I can never assume anything, in fact, about their relative overall privilege.

Trying to work out the intricacies of who is more privileged than who, particularly within the intersecting oppressions of gender, gender identity and sexuality, is a road leading nowhere. We can call out sexism, cissexism, homophobia, biphobia and misogyny without the need for a hierarchy of oppression.

For me, reflecting on rather than dismissing my own privilege is key in all my activism and social justice work. By keeping my empathy switched on, and by inviting people to empathise with my concrete differences and disadvantages without drawing sweeping conclusions or jabbing my finger at them, I hope to communicate and understand the complexity of our lived experiences without competitiveness over who is the most oppressed.

Tis the season to be misgendered

Well, the decorations are coming down and I have to say, an awesome holiday has been had.

My partner and I spent time with some fabulous, accepting, loving people. Life is good. We rounded off a year in which both of us came out as transgender knowing that we are still loved, we are still supported, and we are very privileged to have wonderful friends and family. Not everyone can make such a claim.

But oh, the misgendering! When everything is going so nicely, it is really hard to say to someone “please get our pronouns right” so I’m saying it now – please get our pronouns right! It makes a difference to both of us, it matters. It may be hard to make the adjustment, but we kind of need people to, because we both want to be nice about this but the truth is, it hurts to be misgendered.

I am not going to be that person who says “you got my pronouns wrong, you’re an arsehole!” Even trans people don’t always get each other’s pronouns right, and they’ve probably given the whole thing more thought than most people. But when we get pronouns wrong, we’re taking away a basic civility that most people are given automatically. It is surprisingly undermining. 

When I am called “she”, I feel an imposition that has never fitted my lived experience. “She” is not some fundamental biological fact, it is a human-invented word, a social categorisation, a box to put people into, and ultimately, it is a choice we do not have to make.

Yet when a friend of mine switched to gender neutral pronouns some time ago, I have to admit, despite how “cool” I thought I was about all things trans, I struggled to accept their pronouns. Despite the way I naturally use they/them/their without really thinking about it in everyday speech, using it for a specific person made my head rebel. I felt defensive and cross, and my resistance was strong. At times I was almost petulant about it.

I had to work to change my attitude. I had to have a word with myself about why I was resisting such a simple request. Much as I want to say I just needed to get used to it, it was more than that – I needed to fully accept this friend’s right to be respected in their difference. That friend eventually inspired me to make the same step myself, and I don’t doubt part of my own resistance was being forced to question gender rules I had been trained to perpetually reinforce. Breaking the rules, even inasmuch as changing their pronouns, was hard work, and if just saying a different pronoun is hard work, imagine what hard work it is living as transgender.

Struggling to use somebody’s pronouns can be a clue to our assumptions about how the world should be – taking a good, self-exploratory look at those assumptions may be an enlightening and enriching experience.