Saturday, August 16, 2014

Weaponised language

I am glad that Caroline Criado-Perez replied to my last post. It was one of the few moments of civility in an otherwise ghastly, though sadly routine week in the narrative of Trans versus Radical Feminist debate.

What Caroline did in that post, and what I am hoping to continue here, is to demonstrate a few things.

Principally, that it is possible for people with different perspectives to engage in debate. That even though there are elements of that debate which include themes around which consensus may be difficult, perhaps seem impossible, this does not preclude the possibility of respectful listening and discussion. Some of the poison can be drawn and simply hearing another does not mean abandoning your principles or your beliefs. Not facing the hardest questions up front does not mean that they can never be faced (a basic principle of any negotiation is to create that which can be built on, and to move forward step by step from there). Even though there are some who open their mouths with words that they know will send the 'other side' running from the room in hurt (a kind of 'first strike doctrine'), it is possible to start the conversation from other places and then see where the path started there might lead.

Caroline and I are both women. I hope she believes that. Let's start there. Our experiences are in some ways quite different. But in other ways probably very similar. Though I do not know her - in a sense I address this to all women reading this - I can already say that we share a lot in our femaleness.

The exchanges between us have started with the language of this shared experience, rather than by tearing the scabs off unhealed wounds and thrashing around in the resultant fountain of blood. Unlike some other exchanges, elsewhere. Especially the ones going on inside 140 characters.

Which isn't to say that wounds do not need healing, nor that we should avoid the hard questions. The reverse. We have to engage with them. We have to go - step by step - to where the pain is. I have been told by some that what I am doing here is futile. That the deep-set hate of some Radical Feminists, for people like me, especially the 'Trans Exclusionary' wing, is baked in. Like the words through a stick of rock. I have seen this in action myself of course (and will say now that I have no interest in debating with anyone who enters this discussion tooled up with a package of 'first strike' weapons designed to reduce my sense of self to ashes before I have a chance to even respond).

We do have to deal with the pain being caused to people by the opinions being expressed, because actions are caused by the voicing of these opinions. 

For me, on my side of this debate, this is not an academic nor simply theoretical issue. I have been told this week (by an established radical feminist writer) that my lived experience is not valid as it conflicts with a conceptual framework that she prefers. This has in fact been going on for a long time - some years ago, journalist Julie Bindel published a piece that literally caused me to hyperventilate with shock and pain. I remember the physical feeling of sick panic one Saturday morning. I won't link to it - it doesn't need further exposure and it has been widely dissected since. I was married and in the final - literally desperate - throes of trying to hold together a life which I had constructed, believing it to be my best and only hope of happiness. An existence I had erected to try and make what I felt to be a ghastly knowledge about myself go away. I was doing this for the sake of my spouse and my children, but also for myself because I was terribly terribly frightened of what would become of me if I did address this need. I was - very classically - abused, and in a state of deep oppression. Bindel's piece, full of hate and ridicule came at a time when I knew I was running out of options. Suicide was certainly one. It turned the dial up on that abuse significantly (and it wasn't her only foray into this by any means). It moved me closer to death. Talk about oppression.

I have of course known trans people who have committed suicide  - full of despair, using an inner vocabulary to themselves taken from the world around them - especially from the media. I have heard those hate words too - said to me, over and over. The speaker of them gained authority (and, worst of all, legitimacy even to me, in my abused state) by knowing that the words they were using were appearing in print.

The climate in Britain has, thank God, started to improve. But we still face challenges and insult of course, as Julie Burchill's vile piece last year shows (still proudly hosted by Toby Young on the Telegraph's site). And then of course, there's stuff like this and this and other pieces I could find but won't (but would have if I was still a confused and closseted woman feeling desperate and trying to find out what the world had in store for me).

Beyond this, around the world, laws are passed because positions expressed in these views are taken to be valid and within some sort of morally legitimate debate - even if they question our very identity or (at worst) right to stay alive. In parts of the United States a conflation of fundamentalist Christian and Radical Feminism has even emerged to try and drive the (sometimes still fairly non existent) rights of trans people backwards in various state legislatures, with some success.

Narratives of hate are exported too. Some Southern Baptist preachers (for whom trans people are simply a particularly unbiblical version of homosexuality) have demonstrated this in their 'Kill the gays' agenda in Sub Saharan Africa - bankrolling lethal homophobia in Uganda, Nigeria and elsewhere. I met a trans woman from Uganda last year at a conference - she has to move every three days from safe house to safe house, lest the mob find her. She can't even get on a bus.

The Radical Feminist discourse is not, of course, the chief reason why people are being murdered in Africa and in the UK I can get on a bus without fear for my safety*, thank God. But my point is that words travel...have actual effect on the world, and can kill people. These words - of individual rights, of gender theory, these claims and counter claims around authenticity - might first appear in the setting of academic 'debate' or sociological discourse but they get picked up and percolate through the culture.  Its not long before they are in the hands of people with the power do real hurt.

The narrative that questions my right to even exist in the only way that makes sense to me, treating me like some negotiable concept rather than as a flesh and blood human being, is never far from the surface - even in this country. We saw this again last week when the BBC's 'Newsnight' tried to frame the recent emergence of Kellie Maloney as a transgender woman by creating a debate in which there was every chance that some fundamental, hard won but fragile social rights (possibly including the use of public lavatories appropriate to their gender) could have spewed out on to the table again. (We don't know whether they would have, because two of the three trans participants booked saw this coming and pulled out of the debate. But given the list of people the BBC initially contacted to put up 'against' those two trans guests (there still has to be an 'against' - that's a key part of the problem), the broadcaster's exploitative intention was pretty clear, to me. Nor was the response by the Editor of Newsnight anything other than disingenuous).

It's all about words then. We can be destroyed by them. Or start something with them. One word that has been at the heart of recent debate - and this recent exchange online - is the word 'cisgender' (or 'cis'). In Caroline's post, she says this:

"I had felt that cis could be a useful term if it meant nothing more than that my body was one I felt I could live with. But I have seen that that is not how it is used – I have seen many ways in which it is used that mean that I have to say I am privileged for being allowed from birth to be socialised as a woman – and there is not a day that goes by that I do not experience a reminder of just how shit it is to be born into the class woman. So I can’t accept that."
Caroline, I do not share your view that feeling that your body is one you could live with" actually gives you nothing, in relation to me. We both live in a world that is constructed around that idea of congruence, as if nothing else could even be possible - or even (in the West at least) conceptualised. That has an effect on the erased minority who do not feel that congruence. And it puts us in different power relationships with respect to that world. But I am not trying to insult you by claiming this.

For me, this is no way conflicts with your assertion that to be a woman - cisgender, transgender, whatever term we use, or none - places us both at a disadvantaged position in a wider setting though - the unfair patriarchal society in which men own the power and women work for them. But there is a web of factors in play - I feel I could also easily get into intersectionality issues too. I can speculate and accept that I have social privilege in a different context for example as an able bodied person versus someone with disabilities.I don't feel insulted by that. I can also accept that I have privilege as a white trans woman versus a trans woman of colour who is loaded with society's racial prejudice as well as its views about femaleness as well as its prejudice against people who have lived transgender lives.

As for where it nets out...my socialisation of several decades, my trans experience, my innate femaleness, your (by my definition) cisgender experience, your femaleness...the venn diagram of understanding of ourselves they create, I cannot speculate. But for me socio-cultural positioning cannot be a simple matter of a meta view which characterises everything within only the class definition of gender. Oppression is more complex than that. And so is gender, which for me cannot simply a class-defined term and an outcome of social conditioning. If it was, the David Reimer story would have been very different. If it was, the children who resist implacable attempts to socialise them one way or another would learn to live with the gender role the world gives them. If it was, I would never have felt as I did.

I do share your view that cisgender must never be used as a term of abuse.  Cisgender is becoming 'weaponised', as I saw one blogger put it, with hurting trans people presumably to the fore in doing so as they lash out against the oppression they have felt. Sadly, it's starting be used as racists use skin colour. It goes without saying that I don't support that use of cisgender at all. 

For me it's use should be only, as you put it, to characterise a relationship between self and body with which one can cope. That's all its for.

So maybe we agree on that? I hope that we can go from there.

* Sunday August 17th - having written this, I today come across news from a trans woman yesterday abused and insulted on a bus in the Midlands, whilst other passengers sat there and looked on. She writes of her distress and of how she felt more isolated and vulnerable in 30 minutes on that bus than she has done in the last 11 years. Words matter. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

We need to stop "pouring buckets of shit over each other's heads".

A Reply to Caroline Criado-Perez


The quote in the title is Stalin's. And - I'll put my hand up - the context is pretty inappropriate to the one I'm going to discuss here. He used it to describe the political volte face which was the Nazi-Soviet pact of seventy five years ago this month.

Nevertheless, in one sense I found it chiming with me after yet another week in which the simmering (and often appallingly vicious) war of words between an increasingly politicised trans community and the 'Trans Exclusionary' branch of Radical Feminism (TERFs) broke out into open warfare. Yet again. 


These flare ups have a tedious dogwhistle character. This week, the arrival of Australian academic Sheila Jeffreys and her opinions - poisonous 
to me and many I know - on the BBC's 'Woman's Hour' didn't help. In this package Jeffreys paraded a range of views used since the 1980s to destroy trans people's right to self identify, even exist, and fell back on a bunch of assertions which were frankly, well, simply not true (the fact checking is here). 

A controversial piece in the New Yorker recently ignited a skirmish that had people logging into Twitter to crucify each other.

And just the other day a blog piece by the often thoughtful Caroline Criado-Perez saw her attacking the concept of the word 'cisgender'. Which resulted, as she suspected it might, in a large pail of digital excrement being emptied all over her by the usual suspects and a few new recruits. 


I hope she got through that. This is the woman who had the temerity to suggest that the Bank of England might put a woman on a bank note and was repaid by men tweeting that they knew where she lived and that they were coming to rape and kill her. Plus worse.

Let's hope that didn't happen again. Though it seems from her latest blog that it wasn't pretty and that the Shit Fire Hose she was sprayed with was certainly turned right up. 


The completely unacceptable language to your left for example - plus plenty more.


And I have read a number of responses to Caroline's blog by trans people - some of whom I know and respect - in which she has clearly now been repositioned on the 'dark side'. 


Of course it's hardly a one way street. She says she has...


 "yet to meet a so-called TERF who denies trans women the right to live as they please"


...but seems to know nothing of this influential site, and the activities of Cathy Brennan plus her acolytes. She ignores the history in which people like Janice Raymond and Germaine Greer made it their explicit business to destroy the lives of trans women. She seems to have forgotten what Julie Burchill has said, or Julie Bindel, and the actual effect that has on people's actual lives. This is a history that is hard wired into the reaction the trans community gives to attempts to marginalise or silence it now. In a world where transwomen are routinely murdered in their hundreds, just for being who they are, forgetting this, and the many examples of hate I could mention but won't, is going to be a problem. 

But my judgement and my hope is that Caroline Criado-Perez is no Brennan or Greer.   


And more importantly, we need to stop this. It sucks the energy out the room. In fact it replaces that energy with a self defeating violence that serves only to make women - any women, with any history - weaker and more vulnerable to the bigger prejudices we all face. Not since the Church of England got stuck in a fruitless debate about sexuality and women bishops for ten years has a group that should be pulling together indulged in more pointless self destruction.

So I welcome Caroline's latest piece on this maelstrom in which she looks for a more productive way forward...

"And to ask that those who take that position exercise a little empathy. Ask that they step outside their perspective and consider the perspective of the women they denounce. Ask that they consider the “other side” as fully human, with fully human concerns, not as petty, spiteful inconsequential, trivial creatures who play games. Because only when that happens, will we be able to move forward. And until it does, we will be be forced to continue to repeat this mentally damaging (to all sides) cycle of recriminations, attacks and abuse"
We need to call a halt.

To do so we need to start to listen. All of us. Caroline talks of a 'climate of fear' about expressing her views. Trans people talk about fear a lot. We have felt frightened a lot, with good reason. But we don't own fear. And sometimes the abused can become the abuser. As she says...

"I knew that what I was doing would result in exactly what it has resulted in, and as I clicked “post”, I was literally shaking. My heart was racing, I was terrified." 
That's awful. No-one should be terrified to start a discussion. 

So let's do some work on the issue that kicked this particular hate-fest off, right here?


Her blog piece was about her difficulty in seeing herself as 'cisgender'. Indeed her rejection of the term as an appropriate one - though I didn't see her claiming that others should or shouldn't use it. 


Predictably, that got a lot of people reaching for their laptops. A position that seems to disallow the existence of cisgender as a definition because it doesn't need to exist may well have baked into it a belief that a better word for 'cisgender' is 'normal'. The fire alarm is really going to go off if people feel that's the point here. Gay people faced some of this when no-one had thought of 'heterosexual' as a word that needed to be coined, because, of course, the language did not need to stretch to include a term which even acknowledged the existence of someone who might not be. As she puts it

"As a woman, I understood the importance for an oppressed group to fight against the designation of them as other, counter to an unmarked default normal"
As a woman with a trans background (that's how it works for me...I'm a woman, that's what makes sense to me. My journey was particular. Though frankly whose isn't?) I think the difficulty comes in the changing and fluid societal meaning of language. And we need to get a hold of this, before we tear each other to pieces whilst at cross purposes.

'Transgender', you'll be unsurprised to learn, emerged as a term before 'cisgender'. 


It's not a great word (though it's maybe better than 'transsexual' or a bunch of other terms that were in wide use then as now), because it's actually built around a set of assumptions. 'Gender' itself is of course the potential subject for an entire university curriculum (and a flame war of Dante-esque scale which I'd rather not start here), but let's for now just go for the one right up front in this word, in that prefix. 'Trans'.

This is what Wikipedia says about it:

Trans is a Latin noun or prefix, meaning "across", "beyond" or "on the opposite side".
The initial usage of trans, especially when it appeared in terms like 'transsexual' and 'transvestite' came to suggest a dynamic...a direction of travel. Transsexual people were on a journey to 'go' from one gender (stay with me on the binary model for now - it was almost the only one in town when these words were coined) to another. Transvestites 'changed' their appearance when dressing in clothes associated with the 'other' gender. Underneath this was the understanding that transgender people felt a dissonance (to varying intensities) between their inner, felt, gender and their bodily one. Which they sought to fix - either occasionally perhaps (transvestite experience) or deeply and permanently (transsexual experience - mine).

I 'fixed' the 'problem'. For me, the transgender word had the character of process, of journey. I have never thought of myself as 'transgender', but - from the point when I could start to make sense of this at all - as a girl, and then a woman. With a bloody big challenge ahead as I looked at my body -  a challenge from which, for many years, I ran frightened by what the world might do to me.

I always thought that any definition of me as wanting to change 'me' was wrong. I am actually the same me as I always was, in most ways. Now the life I lead and the physical body I have seems to fit right in with that.

And I have got through this 'process' now. I describe myself as a woman. Actually I have done, inside, for quite a long time. I see myself very much as Deborah Orr describes me in this excellent piece here.

In a sense, I feel cisgender now. If I feel anything. How weird eh? But I know many people who have been through this stuff, who are keeping their heads down and avoiding all this unpleasantness because they got through their firewalk, and they want no more of it. 


Having got through it, do I need a word to describe who I am? As Deborah Orr points out, I don't need ovaries - or to be able to become pregnant (much as I would love, deeply long in fact, to be able to have a baby) - to know that I am a woman. My dissonance is over.

Frankly I neither think of myself as cisgender or transgender particularly. I think of myself as a woman named Jo.


But there's much more to this of course. I know that I have now joined (to a point - read my last post and see what happens to me when I try and date a man. Yes it's a year ago, and no I haven't had the courage to approach a guy since) the heterodoxy and I know that brings privilege. Just because I don't see all the time, doesn't mean that I don't have it. That's what privilege is actually like. Not having to be reminded you don't have it is part of it. 


In fact, I do see it, because for several years whilst I travelled my 'journey' I felt the force of its withdrawal and I have the knowledge that economically and socially I am reduced versus a decade ago (before I faced up to all this). And I know also that I exist at society's pleasure. If I lived in Russia, or Iran, or the streets of Belo Horizonte, I could have everything taken from me in a moment.

Critically, just because I don't feel I need a word to express my identity or my hard won gender congruence (which others have from the outset), doesn't mean that the word doesn't have a purpose and a value. Or that the word shouldn't even exist. 


I just have to get over that. 


A term can exist without me feeling threatened or demeaned by it. That's important if the existence of that term brings genuine meaning to others' experience. Others who are labouring under social and cultural prejudices which deny them the right to define themselves. 


Because there is another usage of 'transgender'. This is more like a noun. A loose one, which is being superseded as we speak by more accurate terms like genderqueer, polygender, agender and so on (terms which themselves will doubtless soon be replaced). People who live this life may present to the world in a number of ways but they may also see the 'trans' state (if that term even has meaning for them) as not a problem (as yes, I have to confess I felt it to be - this is what prompted me to transition) but as a legitimate space in which to live ones life. You can perfectly legitimately be transgender if this is your truth and it helps you understand your identity. The level of struggle you are going through may vary, as may the place within the concept of gender at which you make peace with yourself. Which doesn't mean it isn't often bloody hard going just not getting beaten up when you leave your house.

For some who feel this way - and I know a few - the refusal of society to entertain the word 'cisgender' (which - right or wrong - for some on one side of this debate may mean a sort of unknowing, untroubled, privileged life of acceptance by society) suggests that the conceptual space in which they are trying to live doesn't even exist. That they don't either.

If you are faced with the challenge of making the world let you live as you are because of these inner needs, those who do not face them are cisgender whether they find that a useful word for them or not. They just are, and it connotes a kind of blind automatic privilege available to them from the world - whether they acknowledge it or not. It's a standpoint issue. But just as some - like Caroline Criado-Perez - can say (for now, I hope she comes to see it differently), 'I am not cisgender', others can say 'Yes you are'. And everyone just has to get over that. 


And so, in a way, we come back to etymology which underpinned the emergence of 'heterosexual'. People have been gay since there were people. But - in a binary sense at least - the creation of a term which gave equality of status to 'homosexual' by putting it in balance in the language with the culturally dominant group in society, by saying to non-gay people "Look, you do need a word too. That's how equality works", was important.


One day it won't matter. One day, like eye colour, or left handedness, all this will have gone away. Maybe the relative privilege (in this particular sense at least) of Caroline Criado-Perez, or of I, resides in the fact that neither of us are faced with this challenge on a day to day basis. From her writing (I do not know her, so I cannot know) I sense she may that never have needed to face it. Me - not any more. Though we all have our fights to fight...and she fights hers for the rights of women with vigour and determination. 


But until the day when it doesn't matter, and we don't have to talk about it, let's please talk about it. Work on it together.


Not pour buckets of shit over each other?