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?


  1. Hi. Have you read this? Maybe a compromise could be - if you'd like women to identify ourselves as not-transsexual, you could identify yourself as "dominant sex class assigned at birth"? Both are factual statements, one seems to be very important to the transsexual community, the other is very important to feminism...

  2. Thank you for this, and yes I have (just) read this (and also some of your blog, which I hope is ok with you). The piece you reference is thoughtful and non confrontational, which is a start. And I understand the reference the writer makes to the desire for a shared space (she talks of Michigan) in which she can heal with others who have shared her experience. The difficulty comes when other definitions are used as a reason such a space exists - and there remains the profound difficulty of the authenticity/ inauthenticity, validation/invalidation debate (which I'll add I saw on some of your posts too).

    The replies to that post are interesting too, and my sense is that an amount of hate was not posted by the blog author, Nedra. Some got through...chiefly about trans women being men, a trope which the Radical Feminist community simply needs to drop if we are to get anywhere in my view. This isn't to say that I don't understand why some believe this, as ever it comes to essentialist definitions, and yes I have seen examples of some trans women behaving in ways in which they have clearly been socially conditioned during the time in their lives when they had to live in a male gender role. I am aware of that, and of course I cannot run from my past - I lived that life too, though I do what I can to inspect it and to jettison from my behaviour anything that another woman would find oppressive. But the fact that I and others had to live that life doesn't make me a man - for me it makes me a woman struggling to deal with one hell of a big challenge and inevitably being immersed in a few things that created some conditioning along the way. It actually hurts like hell even to think of myself like that. To think it might have happened. I work every day to face it.

    To your main point. The DSCAB/SSCAB definition. Well I had to swallow hard. The experience of the trans woman may be deeply paradoxical. Feeling brutally oppressed by the patriarchy, as she tries to find the courage to assert her true self, yet being actually gifted some privilege along the way - the gift she doesn't want but can't give back. She doesn't want it, but the modelling can be intense, and the removal of tools that men deploy to subjugate women in society starts with an awareness of these tools in oneself. I have had to do that. This didn't wait until my transition in my case, I genuinely believe I saw it before and have been fighting it for years. But point taken - it's there and needs to be dealt with (though I will reject any thesis that suggests there are parts of it that I can never access and thus will forever be disqualified from my right to see myself as a woman - as some Radical Feminists would claim).

    Trans women who regurgitate this learned behaviour to abuse other women need to examine themselves very carefully. That they do it makes them unpleasant, egocentric and lacking in self awareness. Guess what? I have had trans women do it to me. But in my view this behaviour doesn't make them 'men' - it makes them arseholes. Unless of course you believe that these behaviours are somehow essential characteristics of men. As some do.

    I will have to think more about the DSCAB term. If not used to invalidate, and not used pejoratively, and not used to really mean 'DCSAB-and-STILL-holding-on-to-all-that-privilege-to-damage-women-whilst-lying-about-their-supposed-gender' then there may be something in this thinking. But there must be equality and some sort of respectful acceptance of the validity of the trans woman's understanding of her gender, and her right to claim it.