Tag Archives: Privilege

Be More Mouse

You get used to living with a serial killer after a while. Kitty is awful cute but never lets me forget she’s a murderer.

serial-killer

Don’t let the cuteness fool you

Today, one got away. I scooped kitty in my arms while my partner rescued her mousy prey. Her heart was beating fast, and I calmed her, having learned that cats are in a heightened state when hunting and easily upset.

Yeah, I comforted the killer and she went all soppy-cute in my arms once she realised she wasn’t going to be able to get back to her nasty game. And as I did so, I had a bit of an epiphany.

Because when holding that cat I realised she was almost as frightened while she was attempting murder as her prey had been. Afraid of getting bitten, I guess, afraid of the random chance of her prey getting her back and disturbing the natural order of things.

It closed the circle on something I have been mulling over for a while. I’ve long since realised that when we go into our primal places it becomes impossible to distinguish between frightened and frightening, hence the way people often attack scared, vulnerable people. It makes sense, I suppose – mice will bite cats if they get the chance, and so if you know people are terrified of you then it makes a perverse sort of sense to fear what they might do.

This lesson has taught me something I have been trying to grasp about both local and global issues. I’ve been having a bit of trouble lately from people more comfortable and less disenfranchised than me. Often these people are white, cis, well heeled, male. Generally they are red-faced and angry. These folks attack me with such ferocity that you would think they were the real victims. And the thing is, I understand they do believe they are. Victims, of course, of mouse bites that cats feel they do not deserve. They will have you believing, before long, that mice will be safer if they just file their teeth down a bit or volunteer to never bite.

“You can’t say anything nowadays” they cry, frustrated that their freedom to be thoughtless and excluding might be curtailed. Although it rarely is. It turns out (just look to the cover of the Daily Mail for proof) that you really can say anything these days, and people general do, unconcerned about the impact their words may have, and not quite so bothered by the protests of “political correctniks” that they make any effort whatsoever to adjust the drip, drip, drip of their toxic language.

I do believe these folk see me as some kind of threat to them when I talk about including trans people, or people of colour, or being disability aware, or just plain kinder.

[image: a mouse sits on a cat's head]

#notallcats

They are so worried about getting bitten. Not just worried, they are scared and angry and ready to attack.

And when I look at Donald Trump, and the white middle classes that voted for him (it’s an absolute myth that the genuinely disenfranchised voted Trump), I see that same fear. No matter how much power a person has, there is still this fear. In fact, I swear the more power people get the more fearful they become.

Maintaining power and position over others comes at a cost. The cost is a constant, and quite unreasonable, fear. The cost is you will never feel safe enough, secure enough. We are creatures of the desert, born to be frail, to be vulnerable. To be dependent on each other for support, community, survival. We were not meant to be in competition with each other, to build walls around ourselves. The more we build, the more others will try and tear those walls down. The walls are futile. Borders are futile.

As long as there is a border, there will be people clamouring to cross it and there will be anger and fear created in the divide.

Humans are not natural predators, whatever we may tell ourselves. We are natural pack creatures, and omnivourous scavengers. Dogs just don’t eat dogs, and mice don’t generally hurt other mice. Butterflies get by without killing anyone. Not all of nature lives by the principle “kill or be killed” and humans certainly can choose not to.

Our sense of safety will always be reflected in how it is for the most vulnerable among us. Because in our hearts we know what we are doing to those people. Our fear of them biting us is exactly proportional to our unconscious knowing of how much we threaten their safety and wellbeing. Safety and wellbeing, of course, is afforded by full rights, inclusion and care as part of the pack.

Donald Trump is a fearful man because he feeds off other people. White people are a fearful race for the same reason. Certain cis gay white men that I have had the misfortune to be attacked by lately are fearful too, maintaining their position on the upper side of society by keeping other LBTQ people at bay. Fearful their position of power within an artificial social order may be undermined, fearful they may become every bit as vulnerable as the people they exclude and oppress.

Once you have power, it will never be enough. You will never be safe, you will always be under attack. And you will just become more and more and more afraid. And your fear will seek to crush the possibility of any mouse ever so much as nipping at your paws, but you will never have enough power and control, you will never be safe from mouse bites.

Most of all, these people are afraid of themselves, or rather, they are afraid of what would happen if they found themselves in the position of a mouse, in relation to others who act exactly as they do.

Someone really needs to give these cats a cuddle, but let’s be clear; that’s not the mouse’s job. Ultimately, people who chose to be predators are responsible for their own predicament. Unlike our feline friends, it’s a choice, not an instinct.

Run free little mice and bite cats whenever you need to. But do not envy the fearful cat.

 

[Cartoon image of a black woman with a black and pink background. At the top the text "Feeling uncomfortable is a necessary part", the text continues at the bottom of the image- "of unlearning oppressive behaviours".]

Not allowed to say we’re oppressed

Some months ago I was invited by Metropolitan Housing to send them our local community group’s Safer Space Guidelines with a view to them signing up. I received a response, that they could not sign up because the guidelines were “very negative”. When I asked for clarification of this sweeping statement, I was told the guidelines were “very defensive and aggressive” and that they went “against some of our values”. Still no actual detail, or suggestions of how to rectify the problem.

After much probing, I discovered that rather than the entire document being problematic, the contention was use of the word “oppressed”. Metropolitan eventually asserted they were not saying trans people are not oppressed, just that it was not “positive” to say so.

I remember the day a group of 20 people, with the backing of a few hundred people consulted online, put the guidelines together. We were cis and trans, we were professionals, parents, lay people, feminists. I remember how we were challenged as to whether we were “allowed” to boldly state “trans people are oppressed”. We still ask ourselves this, but with an air of sadness and frustration that it is so controversial to speak the truth about our lives.

Metropolitan

Of course it’s true that trans people are oppressed. There are legal and social structures in place in today’s society that make trans lives difficult by design. Trans people are in a constant fight to be safe, to have access to healthcare, legal recognition, equal employment and fair anti-discrimination legislation. But though we are oppressed, can we actually say it?

The catch 22 for minorities struggling to be granted equality is this issue of “polite request”. Put simply, we are expected to be deferential and cheery in our requests for fair treatment. This largely gets ignored, but if we are too strong or assertive we are slapped back and told we can’t expect equality if we don’t put our case in a palatable (more easily ignored) way. This is the double-bind that maintains oppressive power structures. No civil rights battle was won on deferential pleading alone, but any attempts to do otherwise are invariably, inevitably met with accusations of aggression and violence.

This is nothing new. The “aggressive” trans activist can proudly take their place next to the “angry” black rights activist and the “militant” feminist, with a shared understanding of how these words are used to silence us.

So the issue we are faced with is a community group is, do we change the guidelines so that the average person can read them through without being discomfited, and if so what will they achieve? Many organisations have signed the guidelines, and presumably they too had to think a moment about our bold use of the word “oppressed”.

Metropolitan

That’s good, we cannot let people be too comfortable with our words because comfort signifies a lack of challenge, and the status quo needs to be challenged. If people are reading through this document thinking “this is easy, this won’t challenge us, we’re already doing all of this” then it is no way near enough, because let’s be clear, we all have a long way to go and this is no time for laurel-resting.

Metropolitan went on to claim how good their own policies were on trans people, and directed me to a flimsy equalities page where they had not even managed to spell transgender correctly.

The process of challenging Metropolitan, not about their choice to not sign up, but about the way they had dealt with this, was the usual exhausting process of speaking truth to power. They of course have a complete right not to sign up to the guidelines, but how they handled the correspondence speaks volumes about them as an organisation.

This is something like how Metropolitan should have worded their original feedback: “We appreciate that we do not have the right to dictate how trans people should speak about their own experiences, but we were uncertain about the helpfulness of the specific use of “oppressed” and wondered whether there is any leeway in changing this wording?”

(Better still, they would have challenged themselves as to why they find this such a difficult word to hear.)

Here’s why my wording is non-oppressive: it doesn’t mention whether or not Metropolitan will or won’t sign up, thus it isn’t threatening the community with the withholding of support if they don’t comply. NTH don’t chase people over sign-ups, organisations sign up via the website and it’s up to them, they don’t need to defend or excuse not signing because we have no power to get organisations on board. The process is voluntary.

Metropolitan

The suggestion I’ve made is specific feedback about the wording, it isn’t vague, it isn’t patronising and condescending, it isn’t emotive, it isn’t critical, it isn’t over-generalised, and it isn’t “tone-policing”, as the original feedback was on all counts. It honours that trans people are the ones who should be able to articulate their own experiences best.

Ironically, despite their assertion that they “would be shocked if anyone in Metropolitan worked against the guidelines”, Metropolitan have indicated in their response their dismissal of the voices of the local trans community, the very issue the guidelines seek to redress. My ensuing battle to be heard by them felt akin to having my voice deliberately muted.

I remain in shock that Metropolitan as an organisation stand by the original condescending and humiliating “feedback” as being acceptable and professional. The icing on the cake for me was the phrase in response to my complaint “we’re sorry you were upset”, which only served to reinforce the humiliation and high-handedness I experienced from them.

Pretty upsetting and depressing, really, that an organisation feels comfortable dealing so shabbily with people who lack structural power, and not too encouraging as to how trans people will be dealt with by Metropolitan.

I suspect that if trans people are suitably grateful for Metropolitan’s condescension, though, and know their place, they will be just fine. Just don’t expect them to treat trans people with actual respect, equality and dignity.

In fact, Metropolitan, you have acted oppressively. But of course, I’m not allowed to say that, am I?

Hidden disability and its losses

When I look at the way disabled people are being persecuted to their deaths in my own exceptionally wealthy country, I wonder if disability is getting left out of our discussions on social justice. When we reel off our well rehearsed lists of intersecting oppressions, disability is often missing. This has led me to reflect on the impact of my own disability, and how much I discount it (and hide it).

Here’s my list, which feels pretty scary to put out there – ME/CFS, depression, autism, ADD, attachment disorder, PTSD, dissociation. Some of these have been medically diagnosed, and some realised through non-diagnostic psychological therapy. I may disagree with the construction of some of these labels, I certainly oppose any label with “disorder” in it, but I still feel their weight.

Photo0475I often spend time reflecting how lucky I am. I think it’s important, reflecting on privilege, being aware of your advantages. I grew up middle class, well educated. I was white. But home was not remotely safe, and school was where I was bullied for being different – traumatised, aspie/ADD, trans, and poorer, more neglected and scruffier than the other kids in my posh school.

Life continued with its benefits and losses. Family trauma led to me leaving home at 17 and becoming homeless, living on the breadline well into my 20s and becoming dependent on substances to cope. My good education meant that I was eventually able to get myself to university as a mature student, where I learned a lot and had access to free therapy. My poor health meant I was unable to complete the degree, and to this day (nearly 2 decades later) have never earned enough to start paying back my student loans. But having been to university still broadened my horizons.

I have ended up with a complicated relationship with privilege, where I have often discounted my own struggles because there are always people much worse off. I’m sort-of posh and sort-of university educated, but my mental and physical health has weighed pretty heavily in counterbalance to those privileges. It has created a wealth gap that we all just take for granted. We expect disabled people to have to struggle financially.

Hidden disability is ignored and dismissed and often I’ve struggled to get people to believe it’s there. Because it is inextricably bound up with trauma, it’s also too easy for people to say it’s “all in the mind”. Well, some of it really is neurological, but saying “all in the mind” makes it sound like a choice, and then people don’t have to take it into account. People are often quick to assume you’re shirking or lazy or melodramatic or manipulative, because they simply cannot see the pain or difficulty you’re having, and they require a proof that does not exist.

It doesn’t help that like most army brats, I was raised to be a brave little soldier, and showing my vulnerability is no easy task.

I have rarely been able to work full time, or managed to continue in employment without chunks of time off to recuperate. I’m in one of those off-times just now. Being on the cusp of disability, I’ve been able to claim sickness benefits for short periods, but always under duress to get back on my feet. The walking wounded, I always feel thankful for how relatively unscathed I am, but at the same time sometimes I just want someone to let me ride on the stretcher for a bit.

The underlying problem, I am beginning to realise, is that our current culture trains us to see ourselves, and our problems, in competition with each other. Some folks take the “my problem is bigger” approach: “Why should I care about your broken ankle when I have a broken leg?” “I bet it’s not broken really, it’s just twisted” . . . “and anyway, mine was a really, really bad break”. But as a counsellor, I actually see far more of the flipside of this – people discounting even the most horrendous of their own problems because there is always, inevitably, somebody worse off. This is what I tend to be guilty of. In doing this, people are often avoiding the discomfort of being vulnerable. It’s called not dealing with your own shit, and it isn’t as virtuous as it appears. But it’s entirely understandable – we believe somehow we can make a bargain with our minds to minimise our pain through a process of denial, as if “positivity” is all about pretending.

[Image: quotation reading "That quote, 'the only disability in life is a bad attitude', the reason that's bullshit is ... No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille. Stella Young on how 'inspiration porn' gets it wrong"

So, here’s the thing. I am a very lucky person, and I know that. I grew up with enough to eat, with the enormous benefit of being white. With praise for my “masculine” qualities, with intelligence, and the ability to articulate myself, and the benefit of a good education. I am disabled but I am also brimming with able privilege compared to many.

But I increasingly suspect that in order to live in a compassionate world, we need to learn to give due consideration to every stubbed toe – we should learn to stop measuring other’s distress against our own and be able to wholeheartedly empathise with how it feels to suffer migraines and bad backs and brain fog and depression and eczema and IBS and asthma and ingrown toenails and griefs and traumas both large and small. I will support you to grieve for your broken iPhone and not compare that to my lost family, because no two problems are ever comparable, and all feelings matter. Being able to tune in to each others differing experiences is never wasted.

I am slowly learning not to dismiss my own pain and trauma in the face of the overwhelming suffering and oppression I see around me. It makes me a more compassionate person when I learn to offer myself that same compassion. Lately, my physical health and depression have been so bad there have been lots of days when I have wondered if I can carry on working or even functioning. There are days when I have cried out for a carer, knowing full well there really is nobody out there better off who can swoop down and lift my burden off me. I tell myself I have to be strong, but the reality is being strong is exactly what gets us into this pickle.

We are none of us strong, we are all of us vulnerable, and often there are difficulties we don’t see in the faces of those who we set up as “the lucky ones”. I will continue to own my privilege, as we all must, but I also need to learn to own my vulnerabilities, and I am increasingly realising the importance of that. Compassion is not a commodity, it isn’t in short supply, or more valuable if we ration it. Capitalist, austerity-based models of caring do not fit our hearts. We can afford to be as generous as we possibly can be towards our own, and each other’s, suffering.

A critique of the hate crime agenda

Five Leaves Bookshop

The following is a transcript of my talk at the Five Leaves Bookshop event on LGBT Hate Crime. I would particularly like to thank Onni Gust for their assistance in my research and structuring of the talk, the US organisation Against Equality for their excellent resources on the subject, and Dee Fairchild for her proof-reading and encouragement.

 

This talk is going to be challenging, and I also want to give a content warning for discussions of various kinds of violence, including sexual violence. I spent a lot of time researching what I have to say today, and I hope to boost perspectives from parts of my community that have less of a voice.

I want to focus on the experiences of the trans community, but most of what I have to say is applicable to other minorities who experience hate crime.

When you are part of the trans community, hate crime becomes an everyday thing. Most of the trans women I know, and many of the trans men and non-binary people I know, have experienced hate-motivated violence – stabbing, beating, sexual assault, corrective rape, having their doors kicked in, vandalism and offensive graffiti on their homes, to name but a few. What is alarming is that most hate crime towards the trans community goes unreported. We know that reported hate crime against trans people is disproportionately high – government put it at 1% of crimes reported. That doesn’t sound much but when trans people represent more like only a quarter to a half percent of the population, that’s a lot. We also know from research by London LGBT charity Galop that as much as 80% of crimes against trans people go unreported.

My own personal experience of hate was of being driven close to suicide due to online harassment and defamation of character. This was from organised and socially powerful individuals who campaign tirelessly against the rights and recognition of transgender people. At one point things got so bad I did turn to the police out of desperation. They were kind but unhelpful and uneducated on trans issues. I learned that there is no such thing in law as hate speech against trans people, and no protection for us against incitement to hate crime.

Neil Chakraborti of the Leicester Centre for Hate Studies, who gave evidence to the recent Transgender Equality Inquiry has this to say:

“there are no incitement provisions around the stirring of hate towards trans people, but yet there are those provisions for other groups.  Interestingly there aren’t provisions for disabled people either, so it’s very much the trans community and people with physical and learning disabilities who are left out of the equation when it comes to the incitement of hate.”

He goes on to say:

“It’s frustrating that on the one hand we tell the trans community that we’re there for you, come and report your incidents and somebody will listen to you and that we want to learn from your experiences, but on the other hand we don’t have equivalent hate crime provisions as we do for the other monitored strands.”

Neil Chakraborti

So one of the barriers, then, is a lack of parity in law. But it gets more complicated still, because all the laws in the world will never put any but the most extreme and marginal figures before the courts. Trans people are currently in a position where most people are ill-informed about us, disrespectful reporting is standard, and academics and media representatives can say the most outrageous things about us without any loss of reputation, let alone other sanctions. In fact, it is becoming quite popular to take verbal pot-shots at our community in order to boost a waning academic career or increase ratings.

Our community’s surge in visibility and initial gaining of rights and recognition is double edged in this respect, as this shift in power we have experienced can be seen as threatening to some. That we have gone from utterly powerless to only slightly less so is not the point, the point for some is that we have shifted out of our place in society, and those people seek to put us back in our place.

It is this general climate of disrespect that is the background to hate crime against us, which can leave us sometimes feeling as if the general society message is that it’s socially acceptable to make fun of us, disrespect us, delegitimize us, look down on us, just so long as nobody steps over any lines.

Here’s Neil Chakraborti of the Leicester Centre for Hate Studies again:

“Those people we’ve spoken to through our research who’ve experienced transphobic hate crime have talked about there being a direct relationship between media representation and their experiences of hostility, discrimination and even violence.  I think that’s where real problems are when it comes to media reporting and can have some serious consequences for people.  I do definitely believe that there’s a correlation between representations through the media, and even political representations, the language we use, the normalisation of stereotypes, I think there’s a direct link between that and experiences of hostility.”

Neil Chakraborti pic

Neil Chakraborti giving oral evidence at the Transgender Equality Inquiry

 

 

 

Meanwhile, media representation of hate crime often also subtly manipulates our attention towards other vulnerable communities, pitting us against each other. Last year a friend of mine was in local news following a series of hate attacks. What’s wrong with the people of Mansfield? Was the question asked on local radio about her experiences. They problematised this poorer and more insular community. When in a related radio interview I tried to turn the tables on the media for their representation of trans people, they simply did not put my piece on air. But I feel the media hold structural power in this situation far more than the street-level folk of Mansfield, and it is their influence that perpetuates the problems we experience.

That great thinker and renaissance man Akala has something similar to say on the subject of race:

“all this nonsense about people being racist because they’re frustrated about their lives is totally classist, what we’re saying is only working class people are racist . . . racism was not invented by working class people, it was invented by elite academics . . . and perpetuated as part of political policy – from the top down, not the bottom up”

akala

Akala confronting EDL leader

I think what he says is equally true of transphobia. It is academia, government and the media that support the structural inequalities that make hate crime possible.

Another concerning phenomenon to me is the way the media presents LGBT hate crime overseas. We often ignore the way our own culture has framed and intervened in the countries where homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are rife. We disregard the fact that war stirs up other kinds of violence, so that for instance we talk about oppressive crimes under ISIS or in Afghanistan in the context of Islam rather than the context of a war torn country. Meanwhile the media largely ignored the rounding up of trans people into camps in troubled but then right wing and Christian Greece in 2013. We talk about India and Uganda’s attitudes to LGBT people without mentioning it was the British Empire that exported those attitudes. In doing this, we reinforce our rights to intervene in these countries or judge them. Hate crime is exploited to reinforce Western dominance and superiority.

Is it possible that our focus on hate crime legislation also serves to pit the vulnerable against the vulnerable in a similar way?

I am reminded of my former work in domestic violence. I quickly learned that those brought before the court to answer for their attacks on women do not accurately reflect the structures of power that are in place against women. When I went to observe the domestic violence courts in action I was shocked to see a parade of vulnerable, generally young men, many with poor mental health, many of them black, almost all of them from deprived backgrounds. True power does not get itself caught up in the justice system. It knows what it can get away with and it also makes the laws and runs the structures that govern us.

We know that many marginalised minorities are over-represented in the prison population. For trans people this is no different, and the reasons are complex and multi-layered. Trans people suffer disproportionately from poor mental health which is directly related to lack of social support, discrimination, poor healthcare, poor housing, unemployment and psychological trauma. Trans people are less likely to be in employment, and more likely to be harassed or discriminated against at work. Trans people are even more likely than other LGBT people to become homeless or be poorly or vulnerably housed. Massive health inequality was recently flagged up in the Government’s Transgender Equality Inquiry as a major issue for the trans community. As with many oppressed communities, drug and alcohol abuse are issues within our community. Some of our medicines, if not prescribed to us, are considered class C drugs, and of course some of us in desperation turn to illegal markets for the drugs we need. Trans people are more likely to live in poverty. Trans people are more likely to find opportunities through sex work when there is a lack of other opportunity, and when we are sexualised and objectified. Trans people are more likely to experience sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. Trans people’s experience of domestic violence is disproportionately high. We are often, as with other LGBT people, considered the aggressors if we defend ourselves against attack, simply because people look on us with prejudice.

So, like most other minorities, we are thought to be over-represented in the prison system, and we might not always feel that prison is the answer in the way others who have never brushed with the law might feel. And we might not feel safe and trusting to approach the police. We might not expect a fair hearing. We don’t always act like the model minority and our sometimes messy lives may invite more judgement than sympathy.

_86770753_vickyimage

Transgender woman Vikki Thompson, who committed suicide in a male prison in 2015

If we are people of colour, if we are from deprived areas, if we are sex workers, if we have poor mental health, if we are asylum seekers or immigrants, then we may be even less likely to feel the police are there to protect us.

We might also feel that sending hate criminals to prisons when many of us are in those prisons is not going to reduce harm to our community, and so we might feel ambivalent about enhanced sentences for hate crime. Particularly when we know that 75% of prisoners reoffend when they come out. Particularly when we know that non-custodial sentences can be better at reducing offending. Particularly when we know that the legislation is not actually reducing crimes against us.

When it comes to the police, many of us in the trans community are sincerely grateful for how much things have changed for the better. But there’s still a long way to go. Some of us are white and able and middle class and have never felt ourselves to have a complicated relationship with law enforcement. Those people often have the biggest voices, too. But we need to really work at understanding how different the experience is for those of us from even more marginalised communities. Those of us who have mental health difficulties or are neurodivergent, those from communities of colour, those who are sex workers, those who are vulnerably housed and homeless or live in poverty, those who are addicted to substances, those who have uncertain immigration status or are seeking asylum. We need, as a community, to protect and include those vulnerable people and that means putting their needs first and foremost, including showing understanding that they may not view the police as a protective presence.

The hard work has to come from the police and not from us, and the police need to be big and strong enough not to be upset and offended when we are critical. Or when we ask for them to do better for those most vulnerable, or listen to us more, or not put themselves into the middle of our social organising until we’re sure everyone feels safe about that.

Some, such as academic Wendy Brown, have argued that hate crime legislation creates an illusion of equality whilst in fact reinforcing structural power. It increastates of injuryses the power of the state over its citizens. It justifies the need for greater law enforcem
ent and increased incarceration. At the same time it devolves power away from the community and towards the state, asking the community to trust and look up to its protection, even as the state continues to perpetuate legislative inequalities.

This may be an extreme way of looking at things, but at a time when we seem to be questioning whether we can afford to look after our vulnerable citizens I find it somewhat puzzling that we still feel we can afford to incarcerate them.

Prison is expensive. The yearly cost of just one inmate could fund a full time school counsellor. The cost of incarcerating one person could fund two full-time workers raising awareness of trans issues in schools and colleges. As prisons become privatised, we start to suspect that our traumas are being exploited to create inventory for these businesses, while tackling the underlying issues that create our traumas is deemed unaffordable in these times of austerity.

At the same time, we do not seem to be able to provide adequate support to the victims of hate crime and their loved ones and communities. Many of my trans friends suffer from PTSD and access to therapy for this is extremely patchy.

Against Equality”, an organisation in the US who gave me much to think about in my research, have this to say:

“Hate crimes don’t occur because there aren’t enough laws against them, and hate crimes won’t stop when those laws are in place. Hate crimes occur because, time and time again, our society demonstrates that certain people are worth less than others; that certain people are wrong, are perverse, are immoral in their very being.

“Creating more laws will not help our communities. Organizing for the passage of these kind of laws simply takes the time and energy out of communities that could instead spend the time creating alternative systems and building communities capable of starting transformative justice processes. Hate crimes bills are a distraction from the vital work necessary for community safety.”

against equality

So where does this leave us? On the one hand, of course, I want trans people to feel safe to report crimes against them and for those crimes to be taken seriously. Particularly as it is those most marginalised people I mentioned previously who are also most at risk of hate crime. I want to overcome the barriers – the fear of being outed, the fear of making it worse, the fear of not being taken seriously or not being understood or treated well. The lack of trans awareness within the police that reflects that of the general population and the media.

My own work has focussed on awareness raising and community building. I have found through experience that giving our community a voice and building relationships and understanding with the wider community is more powerful than any legislation.

I would like to quote Jess Bradley from the organisation Action for Trans Health:

 “We are unconvinced that hate crime legislation is an appropriate tool for combating transphobia due to its poor record as a deterrent and low engagement from the trans community. We believe a focus on education, awareness and combating medical neglect is more appropriate a response to transphobia”

The work I and others have done in Nottinghamshire to create a set of Safer Space Guidelines is I believe at the core of how we go forward. Instead of people who aren’t trans telling us what we need, it’s time, respectfully, that people began listening to this community. The guidelines, which can be found on the Notts Trans Hub Website, set out ways in which people can consult us and consider how they interact with us.

One of the repeating themes the trans community face is that everyone has the freedom to speak how they like about us, but when we respond with criticism our own free speech is deemed “too much” for people. I agree, it’s a big adjustment to even begin to adapt to our needs and treat us fairly. But society won’t be equal when everyone who hates us is locked up. Society will be equal when people see no reason to hate us.

“I’m not trans”

Everyone of course has the right to define themself how they like. All labels are invented, equivocal, imperfect, subjective.

But I’d like to encourage those out there who identify as non-binary and “not trans” to reflect on what this might mean.

o-TRANS-DEBATE-2-570

Jack Monroe vs Julia Long, C4 News

It’s a tricky territory to negotiate. There is currently a backlash against non-binary, both inside and outside the trans community. In a month that saw the two most prominent  UK non-binary and trans people, CN Lester and Jack Monroe, being pitted against the worst of trans-antagonistic feminism on the national news, I have been experiencing an equivalent attack from within the community, from a minority of trans men and women.

While “radical” feminists on Twitter told Jack and CN that they looked like girls and that their scarves precluded them from being taken seriously . . .

jack

. . . some trans men and women on Facebook were fighting hard for language that continued to medicalise trans existence, or to base our validity firmly in the realm of appearance and presentation. Fighting for terms like “gender confirmation surgery” with its suggestion that we need to alter ourselves to fully affirm our identity. Fighting for the right to have their gender assumed by strangers after transition, ignoring how much that erases those who don’t or won’t or can’t have medical treatment or ever “pass”.

If I hear one more passing trans guy tell me he needs strangers to assume he’s a man because he’s “worked so hard to get there” I’m going to get really cranky. I understand the pain of being constantly misgendered and can imagine the relief when that ends, but it only ends for a lucky few, and that’s a privilege. To insist on that privilege being reinforced, to the detriment of those who can’t experience it, throws an awful lot of people under the bus – boyish looking lesbians, non-binary people, trans people who can’t access healthcare, trans people who simply don’t pass, and people whose presentation does not match their identity.

Because we are not just what we look like, or what’s in our pants, and the sooner we stop making assumptions about other people’s genders, the better the world will be.

And this is where “not trans” non-binary people feed into this narrative, because often “not trans” is put forward to mean “not having any medical interventions” and in creating those definitions, it medicalises trans identities. It’s fine for people to self-identify however they want, but care is needed not to redefine someone else’s identity inaccurately in the process. There is also, among a small minority of “not trans” non-binary people, an air of being superior in the way they are dealing with their gender incongruence – as if all our experiences are the same and should lead to the same “correct” conclusion.

what's in our pants

 

Being transgender is not a medical condition. Being transgender can come with physical incongruence or dysphoria that even in a socially perfect world would be alleviated by medical treatment, but that’s not how it is for all trans people – many trans people love their bodies.

Being transgender can also come with social incongruence or dysphoria that can be helped with medical treatment in this imperfect world, where so much of our social assignment is related to the configuration of our bodies. Ideally, we will change the world to enable trans people to need less medical treatment, but we will never get rid of the need completely.

To be clear, changing the world means things like not assuming somebody’s gender based on the way they look, not invalidating somebody’s gender based on what they wear, how their voice sounds, what their physical attributes are or what’s in their pants. Yes, this means using gender neutral language until someone tells you their gender.

Because there is absolutely no way of knowing someone’s gender other than asking them or them telling you.

This also means not medicalising gender.  Doing away with terms like “gender confirmation surgery” that give extra validation to those who have had medical treatment. Not waiting until someone “passes” or until they’ve had surgery to start using the right pronouns for them. Not suddenly starting to misgender someone because you find out they haven’t had lower surgery. No more gross “hot dog or bun?” punchlines à la Zoolander 2.

Cumberbatch2

For non-binary people, it means not conflating “trans” with medical treatment, or using the “not-trans” identifier to distance yourself from people who have transitioned in more obvious and visible ways, as if those people are somehow a different species. We are all negotiating the complicated path of gender incongruence, and there is no neat dividing line between us. Transition can take on many forms, and “trans” encompasses many stories. It is an umbrella term, and all people who experience gender incongruence belong under it. If you don’t want the shelter, that’s cool, but if you are shunning this umbrella because you want to distance yourself from the people under it, then we need to talk.

I cannot label someone as trans who does not want to be labelled as such. [eta- Many other cultures have other, better language for what I call trans, and this is not about wanting to impose my label on those cultures, or on anyone who doesn’t want it, such as intersex people who have their own language to describe their experiences]. However, I personally see identifying as trans if you are non-binary in *any* way an act of solidarity, not an act of appropriation.

[eta- In other words, nobody non-binary should feel “not permitted” to claim the label, and I’d prefer those who do not want the label not to redefine trans in order to make the label look like it doesn’t apply to them].

Can we move away from the idea that trans is a tiny, marginalised and fenced off community and see that aspects of trans stories affect many lives? Surely that is a good thing, making gender a less rigid, sure and certain proposition.

 

 

Shallow progress: What “The Force Awakens” and “The Danish Girl” have in common

CN – minor spoilers for both films , discussion of racism, sexism, intersex erasure  and cissexism

I watched Star Wars Episode IV in the cinema, aged 6, wide-eyed and full of uncritical wonder.  Later, as a much more critical adult, I was let down badly by the racism in the portrayal of Ja Ja Binks in The Phantom Menace (among so many other disappointments).

I was holding my breath before seeing The Force Awakens.

I didn’t buy into the hyped controversy around those racist asshats complaining about a black stormtrooper – it smacked of a publicity stunt, a way of displaying the film’s right-on credentials, and possibly encouraging us to overlook its shortcomings. And yet, when I went to see the film, I was seduced. I loved the film, uncritically and with the same childish wonder I had in 1977. More of a remake than a sequel, it was just like going back in time only the effects, and the acting, were so much better. And as a feminist, it was great to see a woman in the active, heroic role, spurning help and rescuing herself. It was great to see the film’s leading man playing second fiddle to her.

[image: fan art depicting Finn, a black male stormtrooper, and Rey, the white female hero from "The Force Awakens" - they are depicted next to the villain's lightsaber, which looks like a burning cross]

If it wasn’t for my feminism, would I have noticed the problem inherent in Finn being portrayed by a black actor? Because having a black man play second fiddle to a white woman is hardly shattering the status quo in quite the same way. I wonder if Finn being white would have been a much bigger challenge for mainstream audiences, or indeed for the writers. The problem is, the apparently right-on casting kind of cancels itself out: Finn being black dilutes the film’s feminism, and the strength of Rey’s character reduces Finn to yet another black character who lacks agency, as beautifully described here (more spoilers).

In the end, I felt Finn’s character, despite his prominence and screen time, perpetuated some pretty racist tropes, right down to his job in sanitation – a black janitor, how very ground-breaking.

But I still went back to see the film again, caught up in the magic of my childhood being reinvented for the 3D, IMAX generation. I saw the problem, but it was far too easy for me to overlook.

Which is where The Danish Girl comes in. Because when it’s a film about trans people, it’s much more personal. I find myself agitated and hurt when I see my cisgender friends going to see it, and tutting at my objections. I refuse to go and see it myself, based on the copious accounts I have gleaned from trans friends and commentators, all of which tally with one another.

.[image: Lili Elbe pre-and post-tranisition]

There are a number of problems with the film. Casting a cis man as a trans woman (who was also intersex) is problematic because it perpetuates the idea that trans women are men that become women. Ideally a trans or intersex woman would play Lili Elbe, but if not a cis woman would be more appropriate than a man. Just look at the picture of real life Lili pre-transition – she was never a man. I find it really sad that Nicole Kidman, apparently the original choice, was replaced by Eddie Redmayne.

There are many problematic tropes in the film, such as it focussing on the idea of performing femininity, as if being a woman is in itself just a performance, and all about clothes and mannerisms, rather than heartfelt identity. The film also has a sexualised and fetishistic gaze.

Worse, the true story has been fictionalised in ways that preserve a false but pervasive idea of trans lives. Real life Gerda was bisexual, and fully accepting of Lili – in the film she struggles, as no doubt she is expected to. Film Lili’s intersex condition is never mentioned, contributing to the ongoing erasure of intersex people. The film also appears to many to give the message that Lili died for “trying to be a woman”, with the implied blame laid at her door for her selfishness, another hurtful trope the trans community have heaped endlessly upon us. In fact Lili died because doctors tried an experimental and still impossible to this day surgery to transplant a uterus. The film has her dying as a result of a now routine and then successful vaginoplasty.

danish girl

History was changed to tell the story the cis director wanted to tell. Changed to be acceptable to the cis gaze.

Overall, a lot of trans people are concerned that yet again the film views trans people from a cis perspective that fundamentally misses the truth of our lives, and erases intersex altogether.

So is this cissexism worse than the racism of The Force Awakens because Lili was a real person, because this is fundamentally a trans and intersex story and not just a flight of fantasy? Or is it only worse because it is my minority affected by this movie?

I’ll admit it – I don’t want my friends to go put money in Tom Hooper’s coffers for this movie, I don’t want Lili’s true story trashed for this fantasy, and since it has been, I don’t want people to be sucked in.

But of course, cis people will go, and they will see it as progress, they will praise Redmayne and Hooper and they will probably brand those of us voicing concern as over-sensitive. They will tell us we should be grateful our stories are being told at all and many trans people will agree with them, thankful the portrayal is at least kind, if not accurate. It is progress, after a fashion, just like Rey and Finn are progress, sort of.

But the progress is shallow, and it too easily preserves the status quo and fails to challenge people’s views or really dig deep.

But I am a hypocrite, for while I will dig my heels in over The Danish Girl I will no doubt continue to be riveted, albeit somewhat critically, to the ongoing Star Wars reboot. I have no justification for this. In the end it is really difficult to judge the level of offence when it’s not you or people like you being undermined. All I can do is keep promising to listen to and amplify the voices that count and hope others do the same.

Will Young’s video and all those reactions

Deeply moved and affected. That’s the gut reaction of myself, my partner, and many other trans guys to seeing Will Young’s Brave Man video.

It’s an uncomfortable watch, but a powerful one. It speaks so strongly of the experience of having to constantly (metaphorically) take our clothes off in public – our bodies are everyone’s property and business, and we can never escape the cis gaze. If you don’t understand what I mean by this, imagine what it’s like to find yourself being questioned about your genitals by your new counselling supervisor, or where the most casual conversation can quickly turn to a verbal exploration of what’s under your clothes.

This is my experience of being transgender, and I know I am not alone.

It’s a world where my non-binary identity is often conflated with my (current) decision not to go for surgery, despite the fact that the two things have nothing to do with one another. The relief I felt when this man revealed himself to be non-op was palpable. Commenters who referred to the trans actor Finn as “androgynous” have dangerously missed the point. The power of seeing that non-standard male body against the constant repetition of the word “man” in the song was deeply moving. This is not about non-binary, or androgyny, it is about masculinity.

My understanding is that the video was made with very clear consent and in collaboration with the trans community. I am satisfied at the level of ethics that went into its making, but I appreciate that the video does feel an incredibly risky thing to expose to the cis gaze. While its message is to confront the way we are reduced to our bodies, I can understand how on a more simplistic level it feels like just such a reduction. As well as having a powerful emotional reaction to the video, my partner and I both experienced a lot of discomfort and fear. It’s not an easy piece of art. It is very challenging, and brave.

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That “B” word. We are not brave for being who we are, and I get oh so tired of hearing that. Because inherent in the “brave” narrative is the inference of choice – that we are being trans because we’re brave enough to be different, rather than we are being trans because that’s simply who we are. We don’t really get to choose to avoid the oppression, scrutiny and attack that’s heaped upon us. At the same time, I kind of liked Young’s statement that it’s really about vulnerability – “to be vulnerable is to be strong“.

In addition to this, I am always thrilled as a feminist to see anything that puts maleness and vulnerability together, given the anti-vulnerability narrative that exists as part of toxic masculinity and infects trans guys as much as cis ones.

Another criticism is that it’s a trope to portray trans people as a “silent, agentless, friendless symbol of suffering” (CN Lester, on Twitter). I agree, it’s a trope. At the same time I think there’s something really powerful about showing this vulnerability, because despite these “tragic trans” tropes, our community is still seen as threatening and dangerous. Seeing the video resonated with me – yes, I am that vulnerable and at the mercy of the cis gaze. For me, the most powerful part of the video is Finn’s defiantly shrugging off a coat a well meaning cis woman places over him. My partner punched the air at this point. That was the fight we needed to see. Contrast this to the clumsy scene in “Boy Meets Girl” in which trans woman Judy landed a punch on one of her bullies and thereby reinforced the lie that trans women have male power and strength and live in a world where it’s safe to defend themselves.

Another issue raised is the whiteness of the video, and this is something I want to delicately unpick, at the same time as acknowledging my own whiteness. Yes, I would like to see more people of colour represented across the board in the media I consume, and I would like to see the stories of trans people of colour, particularly women, elevated. It’s astonishingly important to be intersectional in our approach to awareness raising and activism. We need to bring a focus onto the terrifying violence and oppression experienced globally by trans women of colour.

But I have begun to notice in the stories we trans folk tell ourselves a notion that being trans on its own isn’t enough of an issue. I think this is reinforced by the fact that we are a very small minority. It’s hard to get our voices heard alone, and we are early on in our fight for rights and recognition.

But just because being trans on its own is not spoken about so much, does not mean it is a “lesser” oppression. Being trans in its own right is the cause of significant oppression and social disadvantage. I think the rarely seen image of a trans man being visible and victimised strips away the complicating factors of other oppressions and makes trans oppression very clear. I don’t need to see this image over and over, but as a one off in the mainstream I think the image is important. As a community, we’ve been too schooled to be dismissive of trans oppression as a thing on its own, and not simply as a complicating factor in other oppressions.

Finn brave man

As for Young’s patriarchy comment, I am uncomfortable with it:

As I thought more about it, I realised that there is often coverage of what it is to be a woman in a man’s body, but never to my knowledge the documenting of the opposite (almost a perverted kind of patriarchy).”

I want to believe that Young is talking about how society falsely associates trans women with transgressive maleness and that’s why the violent hypervisibility lands on them, but it’s hard to escape the fact that this comment effectively misgenders trans women.

I would like to hear what Young has to say about this, and I think he needs to be called out over it. Is some of the reaction proportionate to his crime? Maybe not, but as someone who isn’t a trans women it’s hard for me to judge how it impacts them. Also, Will, can we please get away from that awful term “woman in a man’s body” – if you’re going to wade into ally waters, you seriously need to do some work on getting your language right. Being well meaning isn’t enough, and the community has a right to call you to account.

But this brings me to my final point – how easily a vulnerable, marginalised community can tear itself up over a video like this, and how hard it is to keep our reactions in proportion.

Why are trans people so “touchy” as one commenter described it? Because they are often traumatised and hyper-vigilant and frankly scared silly, and with good reason. Does this lead to overreactions at times? Of course – ask any traumatised person, we jump at our own shadows. Please let’s be compassionate with each other though, and not overreact to each other’s overreactions.

My own reaction is a non-binary one, just like me. This video, and Young’s words and intentions, are neither perfect nor completely reprehensible. I think the ensuing discussion, even with the over-reactions on either side, is important and valid, and I hope we can listen to the various thoughts and feelings this challenging video stirs up. I do not think my perspective is definitive, but I do have a valid stake in the conversation.