Decentring love

[content notes: discussion of sex and relationships including consensual kink and non-monogamy. Some discussion of homophobia and transphobia. Non-detailed discussion of sex acts]

I was surprised to find myself so annoyed by Pride in London’s 2017 slogan, “Love Happens Here”. I admit that I am an unromantic grouch, but surely this slogan was harmless? The way in which people engaged with this at a museum LGBT Late during Pride month was rather charming – a map of London with rainbow sticky notes on which they’d written memories of their first kiss, where they met their partner and so on. It was a lovely piece of queer remembering and storytelling. But something troubled, and continues to trouble, me about it.

My problem lies with the word “love”. I’ve recently been thinking about Gayle Rubin’s discussion of social values afforded to different kinds of sexual relationships. She identifies types of relationships that are typically viewed as good/natural/desirable, and other kinds of relationships that are typically viewed as bad/unnatural/undesirable. It is important to note that these labels reflect social values and views rather than Rubin herself labelling them as good or bad.

These dynamics are binaries: so for example, relationships can be monogamous (good/natural/desirable) or non-monogamous (bad/unnatural/undesirable), or they can involve human bodies only (good/natural/desirable) or involve manufactured objects (bad/unnatural/undesirable). Rubin described the good/natural/desirable components as within a Charmed Circle, and the bad/unnatural/undesirable components as beyond the limits of socially acceptable sex. So we have

Charmed circle Outer limits
heterosexual homosexual
married unmarried
monogamous non-monogamous
procreative non-procreative
non-monetised monetised
in pairs alone or in groups
in a relationship casual
same-generation cross-generational
in private in public
no pornography with pornography
with bodies only with manufactured objects
vanilla BDSM

Homosexual sex, therefore, is out of this charmed circle simply by virtue of being homosexual. However, there are other things that we might associate with sexual practices among LGBTQ people: the use of manufactured objects in the form of sex toys; non-monogamy in the form of polyamory, open relationships and other forms of ethical non-monogamy; sex in public through cruising and cottaging; casual sex; non-vanilla sex (which also may include manufactured objects); sex and relationships between people with an age gap.

At the same time, these things are not static. Over time, some practices and types of relationships may become more socially acceptable. Rubin argues that there is an area of contest, a grey area of potentially acceptable kinds of “bad” sex: unmarried heterosexual couples, promiscuous heterosexuals, masturbation, and long-term, stable lesbian and gay male couples (note that this excludes bisexual, trans and queer people). Therefore, homosexuality might be acceptable in some cases – if, in other words, it ticks the boxes for the rest of the charmed circle.

In order to be acceptable to wider, heterosexual society, LG(btq) people must become very, very good at mirroring relationships within this established charmed circle. The charmed circle focuses on stability and love. How should non-heterosexual couples make their relationships demonstrate stability and love? Same sex marriage equality, the ability of same sex couples to adopt and issues of reproductive technology have been areas of public debate, fulfilling the charmed circle needs of “marriage” and “procreation”. There are tensions about assimilation, heteronormativity and homonormativity – issues of how much LGBTQ people should want the same things as heterosexual people, how similar LGBTQ lives should look to heterosexual lives, and what becomes “normal” (and what is excluded from this new normality).

Heterosexual people are increasingly happier about accepting LGBTQ relationships as long as our love is visible and intelligible to them. As long as they can see that our relationships are centred around love (and it is a love which they can identify and understand), they don’t have to think about sex.

I’m uncomfortable with this emphasis on LG(btq) love.

Firstly, homosexuality was only decriminalised 50 years ago. Section 28 effectively banned any teaching of LGBTQ issues in schools for fear it would be perceived as promoting homosexuality; it was only repealed in 2003. So many of us grew up scared and alone – scared of arrest, scared that we were going to catch AIDS because we were told that’s what happened to people like us, scared because we didn’t feel the things we were meant to feel and there was a huge, cavernous silence around what we could be. Section 28 is no more but the Stonewall Schools Report shows that LGBT children continue to be bullied in schools, and that trans students are particularly targeted. LGBTQ people from ethnic minorities and religious communities can face huge pressure to act straight, including being forced into heterosexual marriages.

For too many of us, love is a luxury – instead, our relationships are furtive and fleeting, on hook-up apps or with an expiry date of hours, not recognised by our families or communities, dangerous for us to be in. We are not allowed to love, to luxuriate in settled, loving, married partnership. To be told that your desires are unacceptable but might be tolerated only in the context of a long-term, loving partnership that you are not remotely equipped to build is a cruel catch-22.

Secondly, being on the outer limits of acceptability means that LGBTQ people have had contact with other groups at the limits (or, indeed, are part of these other groups) and have had the freedom to reimagine relationships. Not all LGBTQ people are going to be engaging in non-monogamy, sex work, kink, casual sex, public sex or cross-generational relationships, but I think it’s important that we do acknowledge the hard-won wisdom of people who have experienced these kinds of sex and relationships. We may have learnt to talk about communication and to critique the relationship escalator from poly and non-monogamy practitioners, learnt about consent (and being safe and risk aware) and the importance of communicating our desires and our limits from people into BDSM and kink, experienced non-nuclear families of choice, known or experienced child-rearing through being a single parent by choice, part of a poly group, or as donors of gametes, learnt about boundaries and self-care from sex workers, learnt about sexual health from people who practice casual sex. We may have been able to pass on our knowledge and teach other people.

We may be able to use this awareness to reimagine a binary of good and bad relationships that, as M-J Barker does here, places sex and relationships which are not consensual, not informed, and which insist on strict, non-negotiable gendered roles within sex at the outer limits. They place consent, fluidity, diversity and being critically informed within the charmed circle – something that I think is valuable for all sex and relationships, no matter how long-term, monogamous, vanilla or romantic they are.

We may value love – but also be able to recognise that it doesn’t describe all the queer experiences (histories, relationships, desires) out there.

So here’s to munches and dungeons. Here’s to cottaging and cruising. Here’s to fumbles in gay club toilets and fucking by the bins in the alley. Here’s to kissing on the bus. Here’s to caring, tender casual sex. Here’s to safewords and using them. Here’s to that look, the look that says “I’m sorry about my homophobic relatives” and “I’m sorry they’re calling you my friend instead of my girlfriend” and “let’s get out of this place”. Here’s to Grindr and when it crashes due to the sheer density of gay people in a room. Here’s to whipmarks that say “I love you”. Here’s to love without sex that is every bit as important and life-changing and life-shaping. Here’s to fuck buddies and hookups. Here’s to sex without love because you’re all into it and everyone knows that this is casual and meant to be fun.

Here’s to love that doesn’t have to be visible.

Here’s to love that is expressed strangely and queerly.

Here’s to kindness and communication and consent and community, without which love couldn’t exist.

Here’s to decentring love.

five thoughts (plus one) on same sex marriage

This has been brewing for a while now, but with recent same sex marriage victories in the US and the Republic of Ireland, I think I want to jot down some of these thoughts.

1.
Honestly, I am probably not the best person to talk about getting married. As a child I couldn’t even feign interest in my primary school classmates’ breaktime ceremonies held in the playground. As a teenager, one of my favourite rants was about marriage being an institution of patriarchal oppression trading women’s bodies among men for economic and social gain. Emotional and physical abuse, rape, forced reproduction and murder all happen within marriage. Marriage doesn’t guarantee love and security.

I think LBGTQ critics of the institution of marriage are right to be ambivalent about its heavy history. I worry that same sex marriage buys into the more problematic aspects of marriage in a capitalist society. Now we, too, can have an eye-wateringly expensive wedding and have articles about our spending power written about us! Hooray! Brands, including Proctor & Gamble, Starbucks, Budweiser and Coca-Cola promptly tweeted rainbow images. It feels like a carefully managed publicity stunt; do brands really care about human rights, or is this a ploy to make them seem a bit more human and appeal to us (and our money)? It seems to be a similar issue to corporate presences at Pride marches. HowUpsetting observes that “being seen to be ‘LGBT-friendly’ attracts a progressive sheen which is viewed as separate from the social activities your corporation or government may engage in; indeed, it can serve to largely obscure these for certain audiences”.

2.
I think there’s a temptation for queer activists to see their relationships as inherently radical. If the relationship escalator ending in State-recognised marriage and children is not open to us, how else do we conduct, recognise and honour our relationships? Dean Spade writes on how “interrogating the limits of monogamy fits into […] queer, trans, feminist, anti-capitalist, anti-oppression politics” by examining relationships, capitalism, and the romance myth’s connections with scarcity. Such queer critiques view marriage as assimilationist and inherently conservative.

However, Yasmin Nair rightly points out that sex – queer sex, poly sex, BDSM sex – is not inherently radical. Instead she argues that “the revolution will not come on the tidal wave of your next multiple orgasm had with your seven partners on the floor of your communal living space. It will only happen if you have an actual plan for destroying systems of oppression and exploitation”. She urges us to “think and agitate collectively around how sex is deployed against the most vulnerable bodies” such as those in prison and sex workers. And she concludes that “Your sex is not radical. Your politics can and should be. Consider the difference, and act upon it”.

3.
Amongst the celebrations, it is impossible to not notice that some parts of our community get less attention than others. There’s a particular poignancy to seeing photos and hearing stories of devoted elderly LGBT couples – this seems to be the only time when we do see them, and hear their stories of determination and resilience. Elderly LGBT people face erasure at best and abuse at worst in care homes, may have been ostracised by their family, and may live with the physical and emotional legacy of violent repression and the AIDS crisis.

Same sex marriage often gets referred to as “gay marriage”. This renders invisible the lesbians who do not identify as gay, bisexual people in same sex relationships, and transgender people (including non-binary people) in relationships that are same sex only in terms of legal documents. Each of these groups face different – often complicated and damaging – issues to the white cis gay men that are so often the face of same sex marriage campaigns and celebrations.

4.
It’s essential that people pay attention to the nuts and bolts of legislation and are prepared to critique it. The UK Marriage (Same Sex) Act 2013 introduced some especially transphobic legislation, as well as further codifying binary genders in law. There are alternatives – Canada, for example, defines marriage for civil purposes as the “lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others”. It’s my hope that any same sex marriage bill passed in the US doesn’t further marginalise people, especially transgender people (including non-binary people) and bisexual people. It’s critical that LGBTQ activists examine – and challenge if necessary – the specifics of any legislation instead of simply accepting whatever’s offered.

5.
This is only the beginning. It varies by state, but many LGBT people in the US are not federally offered protection in terms of employment, recognition of hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, discrimination in schools and discrimination in housing programmes. LGBQ people who are also women, of colour, disabled, of faith, immigrants, elders and/or transgender often face intersecting issues that same sex marriage cannot fix. Trans lives and trans rights cannot be forgotten. Since January, ten trans women have been murdered in the US. Others will take their own lives. Others will be denied vital healthcare. LGBTQ undocumented migrants will be detained, deported and die. LGBTQ people in poverty will suffer. Young LGBTQ people will be made homeless. For a lot of people, being able to marry their same-sex partner won’t change a lot.

+1.
However, and despite all my misgivings, I am pleased that the US Supreme Court have made this decision – the alternative would have been worse. Legal recognition of relationships is essential for so many things: immigration purposes, healthcare, rights as next of kin, parental rights, pensions and other survivor benefits. As someone in a long-term relationship with an American, I am pleased that we could marry, move there and that I would be recognised as her partner for immigration purposes – just as she would be recognised as mine in the UK.

I have heard of too many people whose partners were denied space at their hospital bedsides, too many trans people whose partners were shoved aside and who were buried with a dead name on their gravestone. Ideally, these dignities wouldn’t be contingent on marriage, but until that fight is won, I suppose this is the legal framework we have to work with. Let’s see this as a beginning, not the end point, and fight for human rights and human dignity to be afforded to all LGBTQ people.

Activist academia, academic activism

This is my contribution to a roundtable discussion on trans and non-binary activism at Sexual Cultures 2: Activism meets academia. My co-panellists were Ruth Pearce, Jade Fernandez and Dr Jay Stewart and the facilitator was Dr Meg John Barker.

____

Today I’m basically going to argue that academia and activism inform and enrich each other. There are commonalities between the two: both engage with the world around us, both describe it and seek to understand it. Both ask – and respond – to difficult questions. However, there are also differences: activism explicitly seeks change whereas not all academic work does so. Activism can also take many different forms, and there are different barriers to enter it[1].

Both my academic research and activism are interested in people – how they form the identities they have, how they communicate these and make them legible, how they understand themselves, how they challenge the societies they live in.

My academic work has focused on the newspaper representation of the suffrage movement and, more recently, how trans people are represented in the media. Representation is crucial to changing perceptions of minority and/or disadvantaged groups – it is how people who may never meet us and interact with us learn about us. As my research on the suffrage movement shows, mainstream media representation can over simplify complex issues and debates, conflate identities, and focus on things like property damage to the exclusion of decades of non-violent direct action – all of these are pretty damaging to already disadvantaged groups. We can see this focus on accurate media representation in trans activism through projects like Trans Media Watch and All About Trans. I’ve also found myself contributing to discussions on Black and Minority Ethnic LGBTQ elders and have had difficult experiences at conferences when my intersectional identity means I am seen as the subject of someone else’s research rather than a researcher in my own right.

Academic work allows us to gather, interpret and analyse data. In my field of corpus linguistics, we talk a lot about rigour – can these results be replicated? are they statistically valid? how can I be sure that the things I find are actually there and not simply a case of overextrapolation? These things are necessary to talk about in activism too – how do I know there is a problem? is it systematic? who does it affect? how does it affect them? This is especially important in a context of funding cuts and pressure on services. I’m sure that I am not the only person to have been asked whether there is a demonstrated need for services that support trans, and especially nonbinary, people. There’s a vicious cycle at work where we don’t know exactly how many trans people or nonbinary people there are because surveys rarely ask the right questions to get decent answers, so it’s hard to get changes made that will help us and increase our visibility, so it’s harder for trans and nonbinary people to make their identities clear and be counted.

Nat Titman notes that “Reliable figures show that at least 0.4% of the UK population defines as nonbinary when given a 3-way choice in terms of female, male or another description” before going on to observe that “If gender is asked in terms of frequency of feeling like a man, a women, both or neither then there is evidence that more than a third of everyone may experience gender in a way that defies binary categories”. Nat argues that “If you wish to measure the numbers of people who don’t fit within binary classifications of female/male or man/woman then your choice of question will have a huge effect on the results […] Asking for ‘Other’ in the context of ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ is likely to reduce the number of people identifying outside of the binary to the lowest possible figure, those who feel strongly enough to reject classification with binary ‘sex’ as well as the man/woman binary”.

As Nat makes clear, there is a need for more research in this area – and designing the kind of surveys that can be sensitive to this kind of information is something that academics and activists can work on together.

On a more personal note, my undergraduate essays were possibly an extremely awkward and nerdy coming out process. My first introduction to gender as more complicated than a binary and ideas about gender as a repertoire of behaviours didn’t come from message boards, IRC channels or people I knew, but from an edited collection of linguistic articles. The first time I used gender neutral pronouns was in an essay analysing the linguistic interaction between my student radio co-presenter and me. These concepts blew my mind and started giving me words to describe myself and my experiences. Academia, perhaps weirdly, helped me find my way into activism.

I also believe that activism can enhance academic work. As I’ve alluded to previously, activism can help us ask questions – without the efforts of nonbinary activists like Nat, we wouldn’t have nearly as good an idea about how many nonbinary people there are in the UK and wouldn’t be so aware of the urgent need for more rigorous research in this area.

Some of the academic work I most respect has been from academics bringing their lived experiences and their own activism into their research. As an MA student, one of my formative books was Paul Baker’s Public Discourses of Gay Men. As corpus linguists, Paul and I examine large amounts of text to find patterns in them. These patterns don’t have to be grammatical, but can reflect cultural ideas – and to recognise that they’re present in the first place, let alone analyse them, you have to be familiar with the culture that produced the text. What so struck me about Paul’s work was the way he uses his experience as a gay man to research from within. He does not shed his identity as a gay man in order to pursue an impossible notion of objectivity – instead, it is his very subjectivity that makes it such an illuminating piece of work.

Finally, I believe that activism can help us become more compassionate academics – more open and aware of others’ experiences, more ready to accept others’ realities. Patricia O’Connor argues this when she says “Activist linguistics, as I see it, does not mean that the researcher skew her or his findings to support one group or one ideology or another. Nor does it mean that a famous linguist use her or his fame to support causes. Rather, an activist linguistics calls for researchers to remain connected to the communities in which they research, returning to those settings to apply the knowledge they have generated for the good of the community and to deepen the research through expansion or focus”

I wrote a chunk of my PhD in a university occupation. As an activist, I think I offer a much greater understanding of the frustration when peaceful direct action – petitions, meetings, lobbying – doesn’t get you anywhere. The women I studied for my PhD had campaigned peacefully for over 30 years before developing militant tactics! I got a better sense of the courage it took to take part in protests when it might lead to violence against you. I hope that this is reflected in my writing. It’s easy to judge people or campaigns for not making the same decisions as you would, but my activist experience highlighted what a difficult context suffrage campaigners worked in and the sometimes impossible decisions we have to make.

I’m still developing my new project on trans media representation, but I aim to be the kind of researcher Patricia talks about – connected to the community and using what I find for its good. I want my work to stand up to scrutiny from both activists and academic researchers. As I hope I’ve shown, I believe academia and activism can combine to create something better than their parts.

[1] I expanded on this in the discussion: there are huge barriers to activism in the form of finances, access to transport, access to childcare, education, dis/ability, having an already marginalised identity and more – I’d love to discuss this further in the comments.

References:

Baker, P. (2005). Public Discourses of Gay Men. London: Routledge.
O’Connor, P. E. (2003). “Activist Sociolinguistics in a Critical Discourse Analysis Perspective”. In G. Weiss and R. Wodak (Eds) Critical Discourse Analysis: Theory and Interdisciplinarity. Basingstoke: Paulsgrave Macmillan
Titman, N. (2014, 16 December). “How many people in the United Kingdom are nonbinary?”. Retrieved from http://practicalandrogyny.com/2014/12/16/how-many-people-in-the-uk-are-nonbinary/

Where are our elders?

[content warning: discussion of homo-, bi- and transphobia, racism, domestic abuse and suicide. I’ve tried to keep these fairly non-explicit; the reports I link to go into more detail]

This is a write up of a short talk I gave at the final conference of the ESRC seminar series ‘Minding the Knowledge Gaps: older lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans lives’. The organising team and I have been having an involved discussion since my first post and they were kind enough to invite me to speak as part of the summaries of previous events.

In this talk I discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) identities, Black and minority ethnic (BME) identities and ageing identities. I ask what it means to live at the centre of these overlapping identities and look at how we can extrapolate some issues from what we know about overlaps of age and LGBTQ identities, age and BME identities, and LGBTQ and BME identities. However, this is by no means a perfect solution because it misses that complex intersections bring their own unique issues – there is effectively a known unknown about the experiences of older LGBTQ people from BME backgrounds, and I want to highlight that.

Intersectionality

Very basically, intersectionality is the concept that we have multiple identities and that these identities overlap and inform each other.

age, BME and LGBTQ venn diagram

Here’s a diagram to show these intersections a bit more clearly.There are three coloured circles: a blue circle representing people’s LGBTQ identities, a red circle representing people’s identities as older people and elders, and a yellow circle representing people’s BME identities.

Overlaps of age, LGBTQ and BME identities

When these identities overlap, they create something new. The purple overlap shows the interaction of ageing and LGBTQ identities, the green overlap shows the interaction of LGBTQ and BME identities and the orange overlap shows the interaction of ageing and BME identities. At the very centre is a space where all three factors interact: age, LGBTQ and BME.

We don’t know much about the people who occupy this really complex space. Roshan das Nair talks about “levels and layers of invisibility” and of each factor – age, sexuality and race – all contributing to invisibility. However, intersections change the experience of “being” – of accessing care, of forming relationships with other people, of moving through and understanding (and being understood by) the world. As this seminar series has strikingly shown, being an older LGBTQ person is not the same as being an older heterosexual and cisgender person. And being an older LGBT person from a BME background is not the same as being an older LGBT person from a white background

LGBTQ and BME

While there is a paucity of information on the unique issues faced by older LGBTQ BME people, there is research on ageing LGBTQ people as showcased in this seminar series, on BME LGBTQ people, and on ageing BME people.

Two current projects highlight some of the issues for people who are both BME and from sexual and gender minorities. A Public Health England report on the health and wellbeing of BME men who have sex with men highlighted that:

  • Black men who have sex with men are 15 times more likely to have HIV than general population
  • a third of Asian men and mixed ethnicity men have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16 compared to one in five of white gay and bisexual men
  • significantly higher rates of suicide, self-harm and mental illness

A recent focus group held by the Race Equality Foundation on the experience of being black and minority ethnic and trans* highlighted that people experienced:

  • religious communities overlapped with ethnic communities, and losing one often meant losing the other
  • racism in LGBT communities and homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in ethnic communities
  • cultural assumptions and racism when accessing healthcare

The last point had particular repercussions for Black and minority ethnic trans people seeking to access hormonal and/or surgical interventions for gender dysphoria through Gender Identity Clinics (GICs). Respondents to the Trans Mental Health Survey often found it difficult to access treatment through GICs, with one respondent describing it as “a paternalistic gatekeeping exercise where psychiatrists exercise inappropriate levels of control over the lives and choices of patients”. Another described clinics as having “very rigid ideas of masculinity and femininity”. This affects Black and minority ethnic people if genders in their culture do not map onto gendered expectations in white UK culture. BME trans people also encountered assumptions about family (for example, what does “being out to your family” look like if you have a huge extended family or if “kinship” doesn’t neatly map onto “family”?), assumptions about transphobia in their families, and poor understanding of non-binary genders.

Age and BME

Research on older BME people tended to show that people were affected by health issues occurring at different times (e.g. diabetes and high blood pressure). Black and minority ethnic people may have complex issues around mental health and accessing services. Some communities may stigmatise mental health issues. African and Caribbean men are “under-represented as users of enabling services and over-represented in the population of patients who are admitted to, compulsorily detained in, and treated by mental health services”. As this report on older South Asian communities in Bradford discusses, how families live together is changing. However, there is still an expectation that the extended family will care for elders; this role often falls to younger women in the family. This study also reported that South Asian communities often found accessing care difficult for a huge range of reasons – cultural differences, a lack of cultural competency in service provision, language difficulties, attitudes of staff, differing expectations by both service users and service providers, location of services, gender roles within the family and the role of different children and siblings.

It is also important to recognise the diversity of BME experiences. There are some BME communities that have been settled in the UK for decades, if not centuries. There are South Asian people who migrated to the UK as young adults in the 1970s and who are now reaching retirement age. There are older people who accompanied their family members. There are more recent immigrants. There are people who live with the trauma of fleeing their home and seeking asylum. The term “Black and ethnic minority” itself covers a huge range of people from all over the world, all with different experiences.

Extrapolations

As I wrote earlier, there are going to be known unknowns – without talking to people, we cannot know about the unique, unexpected issues created when identities intersect. However, I think that the research on LGBTQ and BME communities, the research on older LGBTQ people, and the research on older BME people can hint at some issues.

Older LGBTQ people report different kinship structures, the existence of chosen families and possible lack of children. I wonder how this works for older BME LGBTQ people whose cultures may strongly support care of elders within the extended family (and who dislike the idea of care homes or care workers coming into their homes) but who may be estranged from their family and don’t have children.

I can imagine that there are really complex issues around mental health in communities that are more likely to experience mental health issues but who may also have negative experiences of accessing services or who may feel shame about doing so.

Older BME LGBTQ people may have complex histories of violence. As Public Health England reports, gay and bisexual men from BME backgrounds are more like to have experienced domestic abuse. Other BME LGBTQ people may have sought asylum due to violence in their home countries. What might their care needs be?

I wonder about older BME LGBTQ people continuing to face racism in LGBTQ spaces and homo-, bi- and transphobia in BME spaces as they age and these spaces change. This seminar series has discussed older LGBTQ people’s fears about prejudice in care homes; older BME LGBTQ people in care homes may fear a double whammy of prejudice.

Where are our elders?

I argue that there is an absence of older, LGBTQ BME voices in research about older LGBTQ people’s experiences. As researchers, we don’t know much about the issues faced by those in this intersection – as I’ve shown above, we can guess some of them. However, the nature of intersectionality means that there are some issues that will be unique to this group and that we cannot predict.

This is not to say that older BME LGBTQ people do not exist – rather, that we have to do better at reaching out to these communities. I suspect that research into the experiences of older BME LGBTQ people has to be carried out by people from BME LGBTQ backgrounds. My experience of younger BME LGBTQ spaces is that community members are fiercely protective of the tiny spaces they are able to carve out for themselves and they do not want to be observed as a “learning experience” for White straight cis people. It is crucial to recognise that, and crucial to be able to respect how rare and precious these spaces are.

This absence of visible older, LGBTQ BME voices also has implications for younger BME LGBTQ people. Out of the many trans people I know, I can only think of three who are BME and over the age of 40. 40 should not be considered old – and yet. A US study reveals that the attempted suicide rate for multiracial transgender people is 33 times higher than for the general population. Andre Lorde’s litany, “we were never meant to survive”, has a heartbreaking resonance.

As a younger Asian queer person, I want to meet my elders. I want to know that it’s possible to be an older BME LGBTQ person. I want to be able to see some of the possibilities, to see that there are people living lives that are true to their identities. I want to listen to their rich histories and hard-won wisdom. I want to know that we can survive.

Our elders are so important, and their lack of visibility is so sorely felt.

Reflecting on a year and a half of Conference Bingo

I went to a conference 18 months ago where nearly everything that could go wrong went wrong. I stayed with the excellent Heather Froehlich afterwards, and as we talked about our crappy conference adventures we noted that a lot of these things were not isolated events.

Conference Bingo mingles the humorous with a sharper edge. A good proportion of the items are there out of affection – I’ve certainly been both the starstruck postgraduate and the postgraduate frantically working (sometimes at the same time). I think (and hope) that most of these items provoke a chuckle of wry recognition as we recognise ourselves in them. Some of the squares are there because Heather and I find these things funny or ridiculous. I personally love witnessing “clash of the academic alpha males” because I can start an internal David Attenborough style narration to accompany them (“and here, two silverback males find themselves in unexpected confrontation…”). You will find me in the middle of any unseemly jostling for a power socket. Weird things happen to me at conferences. Here are a few of them: the time I ended up in a motel laundry room, with several prominent academics, in the dark, because there was a tornado outside. The accidental lock-in. The time I had to persuade an academic that stroking a very angry looking man’s tattoo in the pub would be a Very Bad Idea and then having to persuade the very angry looking man not to punch the academic. The time a rabbit died on me.

However, some of the bingo items have an edge to them, a recognition that conferences are not always safe or accessible spaces for everyone. We have items critiquing gendered interactions, poor accessibility for attendees with disabilities, and issues faced by international attendees. I hope we get a nod of recognition from people with those experiences, and hope that they feel their experiences are acknowledged and recognised. I believe, passionately, that we have our places in academia and just as much right as anyone else to be there. If we cannot get into the venue and/or find ourselves planning which sessions to attend based on our harasser’s movements and/or are left anxious and miserable and isolated, that is not our fault.

We also hope to make people who don’t share those experiences more aware of them through simply noticing that they’re an issue. Food not clearly labelled as vegan/vegetarian or with common allergens? Slides that prompt a “sorry if you can’t see this at the back”? Okay, it may not affect you but it’s a box to tick off! We hope that, through humour, we’re quietly raising awareness of some of these issues. I hope that some of these items will make you think about the implications for other people. Last minute programme changes are probably frustrating for most of us, but can (for example) mean that those with fatigue issues or who use mobility devices have to suddenly replan how – and, indeed, if – they can get from different parts of the building/campus.

Those of us who experience these things may not be in a position to criticise them. As early career researchers who, between us, are female, queer, non-white, and non-binary gendered, neither Heather or I are necessarily in a position to kick up a fuss. There are many people in similar positions: young, female, queer, Black, disabled, transgender, and/or without tenure or a permanent job, people who don’t have institutional might behind them and who fear ostracisation if they complain.

from http://calmingmanatee.com

from http://calmingmanatee.com

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve had to ask trusted friends to keep an eye on me and swoop in if “my” lecherous academic manages to get me on my own. I should probably complain to someone, but it’s hard to make complaints against widely respected senior members of your field when there can be repercussions against you for complaining. Dorothy Kim writes that part of the problem is that this isn’t seen as something the entire community should be aware of, but it’s framed as an issue between individuals: individual harassers, individual complaints. I hope that in some tiny way, Conference Bingo might contribute to that community awareness.

Maybe you’ll use Conference Bingo as a checklist of things to not do in your talks or at the conferences you organise. I suspect it’s helped me become a better presenter. I no longer tell people that I’ve only just finished my slides (even if I have) and I have a much better idea of how much I can cover in 20 minutes so I’m not racing through the last few slides. I know it’s been immensely helpful for me when organising academic events – make it easy to access wifi! spell people’s names correctly on their nametag! people WILL remember your event for all the wrong reasons if your provide terrible coffee!

However, one of my favourite things is when people suggest things and I get to think about them. As an example, Liz C’s comment of “Social evening inexplicably at opposite end of the city” – I suspect most people would probably find that annoying. But what happens if you have an anxiety issue that means that navigating a different city’s public transport is daunting at best, terrifying at worst? What if you can’t afford to take a taxi? What if you’re sleeping on a friend’s sofa because you can’t afford hotel accommodation and going to the other end of the city means you’ll be back unreasonably late? What if you use mobility aids or have an assistance dog and aren’t sure if the city’s public transport or taxis will cater for you? This has been especially helpful when I don’t share those needs, and, I hope, makes my involvement in academia a bit more thoughtful, a bit more welcoming, a bit kinder. Maybe Conference Bingo will inspire you, too, to dig deeper.

Either way, I love that Conference Bingo resonates with so many people from so many disciplines. I love hearing suggestions. I love that it’s gone a bit viral. I genuinely love it when people tweet me (@mixosaurus) to tell me they’re playing or have got a full house so please let me know!

L, G, B – here’s your T

On 30 September 2014 I attended Stonewall’s first group meeting of trans activists. I wrote about my thoughts on Stonewall’s missing T before the meeting; here is my response to the meeting itself. Other people have also written about it and I will be updating the list as other things are posted; please let me know if you’re written something about that meeting and you want me to link to it.

Jane Fae: What happened at Stonewall’s first meeting with the trans community?
Natacha Kennedy: Alliances and Oppositions. Trans activism and Stonewall
Zoe Kirk-Robinson: Putting the T Back in Stonewall
CN Lester: #TransStonewall – the first meeting
Zoe O’Connell: #TransStonewall: The Meeting
Ruth Pearce: Imagining a trans-inclusive Stonewall

What happened on the day
To very briefly summarise, there are four options on the table for Stonewall’s future involvement in trans issues. One option was that Stonewall can remain as an LGB organisation but works to be a better ally for trans people and issues affecting us. The general feeling in the room was that this was to be taken as given. The other three options were that Stonewall could be a much more active partner. We discussed the following three options in small groups, looking at the pros and cons of each.

  1. That Stonewall become a full LGBT organisation.
  2. That Stonewall helps set up a sibling organisation to tackle trans issues – raising initial funds, sharing expensive resources such as IT and HR, and helping with training. This organisation would then become an autonomous, though linked, entity.
  3. That Stonewall remain an LGB organisation, but provide grants to existing trans organisations.

One of the things that Ruth Hunt wanted to explain was just how Stonewall functioned as a strategic lobbying organisation. Part of their role is to work with organisations that are homophobic and/or really unaware of LGB issues. For example, they work with Paddy Power, and will continue to advise on their campaigns. There are also campaigns they can’t get involved with (e.g. sex worker rights) because they’re under so much scrutiny from, for example, religious groups that would kick off about it. I wonder how comfortable trans people would be with that – especially when survival sex work is something that affects many trans women.

I think the current feeling is that we don’t want to completely assimilate into Stonewall and we want to keep a degree of flexibility that will allow for trans specific stuff to be tackled. From the trans perspective, there are issues that will affect us without affecting cis LGB people and we may decide that we wanted to operate in a way that Stonewall doesn’t (for example, by offering services or supporting individuals). Ruth Hunt stressed that she did not want the relationship between Stonewall LGB and Stonewall T to be unequal, junior or paternalistic.

The overwhelming feeling in the room was that we didn’t want Stonewall to issue grants to existing organisations. This felt paternalistic, felt as though it could introduce unnecessary competition between groups, and tied up limited resources into the process of applying for and administering grants. While both options 1 and 2 have flaws, the group generally felt that some kind of option 1.5 would be suitable – sharing resources with Stonewall but being a critical friend rather than subsumed into Stonewall.

Positives and negatives
On the whole, I am cautiously optimistic. The following points are things I liked and found reassuring about the day.

  • Ruth Hunt seems genuinely committed to changing Stonewall and has clearly been thinking about this for a long time.
  • Calm, thoughtful facilitation.
  • On the day itself, there was very little fighting. There had been problems on the facebook group about people’s political affiliation, but there seemed relatively little of that in the room itself.
  • They want to have further meetings with non-white people, people with disabilities, intersex people and children/teenagers.
  • Stonewall are exploring lots of options in how Stonewall should become trans inclusive and it’s not going to be a top-down decision.
  • Ruth Hunt is very, very aware of what Stonewall has done badly in the past and has apologised profusely. She’s very clear on how and why things went wrong in the past.
  • She’s also aware that just general understandings of gender and sexuality have changed and become more sophisticated, and Stonewall hasn’t really moved with that. While they run some very effective campaigns (and I think that some, like ‘Some people are gay – get over it’, have helped create an environment of acceptance and room for more nuanced understandings) but she’s aware they have to be able to engage on a number of levels from 101 to complex, nuanced stuff.
  • Non-binary identities are included and Stonewall is very aware of our existence. Any trans inclusion in Stonewall will not simply focus on binary trans identities and ignore the rest of us.

However, there were also things that I feel less confident about. Some of these are things that Stonewall could have done better – but others are things that the trans community has contributed to. We have to put our own house in order.

  • It was really, really not diverse in terms of race and age. When I pointed this out, Ruth Hunt said that they’d invited more people of colour who declined to attend. I think this is a problem in itself and worth thinking about in terms of why people wouldn’t have felt comfortable attending.
  • There was no information about how the day would be structured given to us before the meeting which worried me – I had no idea about how we’d be expected to work, what they actually wanted to discuss or when we were going to get breaks. This is a problem for people with both mental and physical health issues – for example, what if you have blood sugar issues?
  • Some people had already made their minds up. It’s annoying when you have to see pros and cons of an option for making Stonewall trans inclusive and someone has already decided that that particular option is A No Good Terrible Idea and refuses to see any positives at all.
  • Microagressions. I got mansplained at, and a friend was called “exotic” because she’s mixed race. This is unacceptable – how can we expect cis people to acknowledge the diversity of the trans communit(y/ies) if we can’t be respectful ourselves?

There are some big legal fights looming – I don’t believe the Gender Recognition Act is fit for purpose – and Stonewall have experience in political lobbying, bringing legal test cases and so on. I think it would be foolish to throw that away, but it’s really, really important to think about what trans inclusion in Stonewall looks like, how it works, how closely tied to Stonewall it is, who it’s accountable to and so on.

Three things we want from a trans-inclusive Stonewall
My group came up with three things we’d like to see from any kind of trans inclusion from Stonewall.

  1. Trans issues should be incorporated into existing and future campaigns where appropriate. The current ‘No Bystanders’ campaign is already trans inclusive, we’d like to see ‘Some people are gay’ extended to ‘Some people are trans’ (and, indeed, ‘Some people are they’).
  2. We want to see inclusive, accountable, effective, diverse trans-specific campaigns on a nationwide level.
  3. Any campaign must involve trans people and must be sustainable – both financially, and also in terms of the human cost.

Next steps
The next steps are to consult with a wider variety of people. This meeting was not decisive – only a starting point. Stonewall will be holding further meetings with trans people of colour, intersex people, people with disabilities and trans children and young people. In addition, they want as many people as possible to email and phone them.

They will release an interim report in January and ask for responses on that. They will issue the final report with their recommendations in April. They could be starting to campaign on trans issues by Autumn 2015.

East London Suffragette Festival

East London Suffragette Festival banner

I’m delighted to confirm that I will be speaking on the Hidden Histories panel as part of the East London Suffragette Festival.

The event runs between 10am – 5pm on Saturday 9th August; the panel starts at 11:45am. It’s free and is at Toynbee Hall, London – a place seeped in the radical history of the East End and where many notable suffrage campaigners spoke.

The Hidden Histories panel will be discussing who gets left out of the history books, how history is shaped by what is recorded and who records it, how a multiplicity of narratives are boiled down into stereotypes, and why it is important to uncover these hidden histories.

I’m really excited about speaking because this ties in incredibly well with my research on newspaper discourses of the suffrage movement; it was striking how differently The Times was talking about the suffrage movement to how campaigners themselves saw both the campaign and themselves. I argue that the multiplicity of suffrage identities, aims and experiences were conflated into narratives about suffrage disturbance, outrage, violence and disorder. This extended to blurring the distinction between constitutionalist and militant approaches – a distinction that suffrage campaigners saw as very important and which they frequently wrote and spoke about.

However, there is one place in the newspaper where suffrage campaigners’ voices are heard: in the letters to the editor. In my forthcoming book, I analyse this section of the newspaper separately – and find that the areas of concern are very different. Discussion of suffrage direct action framed in terms of disorder and violence appear much less frequently – instead, there is concern for prisoners, discussion of leadership and clever, witty refutations of stereotypes of suffrage campaigners.

I believe that the media representation of the suffrage movement is not so different to the media representation of other protest movements. Having been involved with various social justice, feminist, race and queer activism(s) for over a decade, I am aware of the ways that even peaceful direct action can be reported as disturbingly, frighteningly violent. Like the suffrage campaigners, we have debates about the forms our protests should take, how to create understanding and sympathy from those who don’t know much about us, how to include people in our movement, how to protect ourselves from violence, intimidation and burnout, how to create and maintain sustainable, compassionate activism.

Uncovering these so-called hidden histories (hidden to whom?) helps us challenge dominant narratives, locate diversity in campaigns and, ultimately, recognise historical campaigners as people not so very different from ourselves. In researching the suffrage movement, I also discovered a history – and a legacy – of activism.

S_onewall and the missing T

So, let’s talk about Stonewall. Or, as many UK trans activists call them, S_onewall (the T is silent). It’s perhaps ironic that an organisation named after a riot kicked off by trans women and gender non-conforming people is so very bad at trans issues.

As a couple of examples, Stonewall is notorious for inappropriately addressing trans issues in anti-bullying material for schools and celebrating transphobic journalists like Julie Bindel and Bill Leckie. Natacha Kennedy has discussed whether Stonewall is holding back transgender equality and whether they are institutionally transphobic. Let us be clear: many trans people feel that Stonewall goes beyond lack of interest in trans issues to actively undermining our efforts. It’s been doubly galling because Stonewall have reach and influence that trans organisations can only dream of – they have the resources to campaign against homophobia in schools, influence government policy and to have a respected international presence.

As such, I cautiously welcome Ruth Hunt, Stonewall’s new Chief Executive, and her desire to open dialogue with the trans community and support us.

At Stonewall we’re determined to do more to support trans communities (including those who identify as LGB) to help eradicate prejudice and achieve equality. There are lots of different views about the role Stonewall should play in achieving that. We’re holding roundtable meetings and having lots of conversations. Throughout this process we will be guided by trans people.

We want to hear about what you think the next steps are to achieve equality for trans people and the role that Stonewall might be able to play. We’re determined to get this right and we promise to keep you updated as conversations progress.

I have been invited to one of these meetings at the end of August.

Ruth Pearce has written an excellent post, Putting the “T” into Stonewall? An important opportunity, in which she explores why this dialogue is important, outlines some of the proposed approaches to working with Stonewall (or not), and outlines her priorities in discussing this issue with both Stonewall and other trans activists. It’s a very comprehensive summary and I don’t want to reinstate it, so I will urge you to read her post first.

My own observations on this:

  1. Currently, there seem to be two strands of trans activism: local and national. National trans activism is focused on media representation, as seen most clearly in Trans Media Watch’s media monitoring and All About Trans’ interventions with media professionals. I am not objecting to this at all; one strand of my own research explores the media representation of trans people. Trans Media Watch offer compelling evidence in their submission to the Leveson Inquiry (.pdf) that negative media represention has a direct impact on trans people’s safety, welfare and mental health.

    However, I do think that there needs to be more to support non-media issues at a national level. In my experience, this tends to fall to local trans support groups. These groups tend to focus on issues that directly impact on individual members of the local community. These may include cases of discrimination in employment and education, access (or lack of) to medical interventions and appropriate healthcare, asylum and immigration issues, and housing issues. When such issues have occurred, the lack of a national organisation capable of advising – or even aware of similar issues around the country – has been sorely felt. As an example, trans people in my local area have had huge problems with the local NHS trust “red-listing” cross-sex hormones, meaning that GPs (with a budget for prescriptions) were unable to prescribe them. Instead, the local Gender Identity Clinic (that does not have a budget for prescriptions) had to assume responsibility. It would have immensely helpful to have a national organisation capable of advising on – or even aware of – the situation nationally. We were left wondering whether this was just affecting us or whether it was a national issue.

  2. In addition, many local groups are entirely volunteer-run. This means that volunteers may have the skills but not the funds, time or energy to provide a consistent service. Activist burn-out is a real problem in our community. It is exhausting holding down a job, dealing with an often unhelpful medical community, dealing with gender dysphoria – and, often, mental and physical health problems – and attempting to support other trans people, to provide training and education, to campaign about the latest transphobic or simply unintentionally trans exclusive awfulness. I know so many brilliant people who are simply exhausted, worn out, ground down by the fact that this never stops, is relentless.

    This also tends to mean that volunteers are more likely to be those who can take on an unpaid, time-consuming position and are less likely to be at the sharp end of homelessness, unemployment, medical abuse, disability. People who are, in other words, privileged and often without first-hand expertise in dealing with such complex, difficult situations. I believe that secure paid positions for trans activists is a priority and would free people to actually work on these issues in a systematic and consistent way instead of expecting them to give up their free time. It would be a very concrete demonstration that trans activism is valued.

  3. We must be focusing on issues like housing, healthcare, disability, violence, poverty, mental health, immigration and asylum, and access to education. We must have an intersectional approach and focus on areas that affect the most vulnerable members of the trans community. We must look at areas where a trans identity makes already dangerous situations life-threatening.
  4. Having looked at the list of attendees, I am concerned that the group Stonewall has invited is skewed towards white, highly educated, established activists who tend to be trans women with a binary identity. As non-white/people of colour we have concerns and experiences that aren’t shared by white people, and I want to raise as many as I can at this meeting.

    Some things I want to talk about are poor understanding from healthcare professionals (everything from their understanding of what family looks like to post-op scarring on non-white skin), racism from the LGBQ community, mental health and lack of representation of QTIPOC (Queer, Trans and Intersex People of Colour).

  5. Building on the last point, we have to be aware of intersectionality and privilege beyond the obvious of a trans history and/or identity e.g. aspects of class and education. We have to be aware of who is underrepresented, or not represented at all. Future meetings must be more diverse.
  6. I would welcome the development of a national trans organisation but feel that Stonewall is not trusted by the trans community; after years of active disinterest and undermining of trans activism (such as its use of “tranny” in the Fit campaign materials) I find such hesitation understandable. However, Stonewall does have lobbying power and has vast experience in bringing lesbian and gay issues to national attention.

    Ideally I would like to see the development of a national trans organisation that can collaborate with Stonewall on campaigns and the development for paid positions within it. However, trans liberation has to take priority rather than keeping Stonewall happy. I am for being challenging, radical, awkward, uncomfortable. I want to have these difficult conversations. I do not want any trans organisation emerging from this to be seen as “safe” or existing to appease cis people. It has to be for us, by us.

I welcome any comments, suggestions or feedback. Please either comment here or send an email to contact (at) mixosaurus (dot) co (dot) uk.

Content, choice and consent

This is a post about trigger or content warnings. The specific content I will be discussing is sexual assault, but there will be brief mentions of police violence, forced feeding, transphobia and death (cancer and suicide). I am lucky in that I don’t experience PTSD; I’m therefore writing with that perspective (and privilege). However, there have been times in my life when I’ve benefited from content warnings and there are still things I treat with caution. I prefer the phrase “content warning” because triggers vary so widely and encompass so many things – as well as words, they can include objects, scents and music and people with similar experiences may have different triggers. “Content warning” avoids some of those issues.

This post is prompted by an event, Transpose: Tate Edition. Transpose is a semi-regular LGBTQ event organised by CN Lester showcasing writers, artists, musicians, photographers and performers from within the LGBTQ – but especially the trans – community. Because it gives lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer artists and performers a space, Transpose often explores difficult things: our bodies, our families and relationships, the violence meted out to gender non-conforming bodies. I should mention here that I’ve performed at the London Pride and Halloween Editions

You can read DIVA’s review of Sunday’s performance, All About Trans’ review of the evening, an extract of CN’s longer meditation on gender, bodily experience and art and Fox’s notes on his performance.

Self-Portrait 1927 by Christian Schad. Image from Tate Modern

Self-Portrait 1927 by Christian Schad. Image from Tate Modern

The piece that prompted these thoughts was Juliet Jacques’ exploration of the painting on the right, the trans woman who modelled for it and the emotional, physical and sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of the artist. Jacques skilfully wove a tale constructed of institutional records, historical events and diary entries to give an astonishingly detailed insight into Heike’s world: her affiliation with Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, the experimental surgery being explored, the world of cabarets and the loose community of bohemians that flourished in Weimar Berlin between the wars. Jacques’ piece was vivid and harrowing – the artist’s treatment of her was brutal in a way that resonated with the experiences of many trans women, and a number of people had to leave the room. I didn’t leave but I was tense – braced for the worst, braced for the way that so many trans women’s stories end. I was transfixed, at once acutely uncomfortable and compelled. Part of the reason I stayed was because I felt it was important to hear and bear witness to this forgotten woman’s life; that the least I could do to honour her was to listen.

At the end Jacques described the destruction of Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft: its libraries were burned and the women and staff attached to it had disappeared – either in hiding, trying to escape the country or dead. The bohemians of Berlin were scattered. Heike was never heard of after the attack on the Institut on 6 May 1933. Jacques paused, allowing us to think about that. Then she announced that Heike’s story – Heike’s life – had been a work of fiction.

It was an astonishing double-punch. As a writer and an academic I was incredibly impressed with Jacques’ work and how she wove the real and the fictional together. A huge amount of careful, detailed research had gone into the creation of this piece encompassing history, politics and art history. It explored bodies as they’re perceived by their owner and by others, the rare opportunity for us to see ourselves as others see us, the different subjectivities and untruths and exaggerations offered by words and paint, the hurt of discovering that someone sees you very differently to the way you try to make yourself be seen. As a writer I recognised that Jacques’ skill in telling an undeniably powerful story. I would very much like to read it again.

But as a friend I knew some people in the audience had traumatic experiences of sexual assault. As an activist I think about the spaces I am in and which I help create, and how they embody and facilitate ways of being and interacting. One of the things that is vitally important to me is consent, and I see content warnings as being part of that.

Like Mary Hamilton, who discusses the problems of trigger warnings spreading from closed to public communities, much of my early experience of content warnings was in closed livejournal communities. As Hamilton notes, “[t]rigger warnings on the web were born in communities trying to balance the need to speak with the need not to hear”. Through various textual conventions like ROT-13, clever use of CSS and cut tags that hide a portion of text and have to be clicked on to view the hidden text, there were means to balance the complex needs of different users. The default behaviour was to hide potentially distressing material. Viewing such material had to be a decision, and members of that community were given a choice in whether they unscrambled the text, whether they highlighted the CSS formatted text, whether they clicked to view the full entry.

However, Hamilton is responding to other pieces discussing content warnings in more public arenas. Crucially, these arenas encompass not only online written and visual communication, but spoken and offline print communication. The New Republic’s “Trigger Happy The “trigger warning” has spread from blogs to college classes. Can it be stopped?” and the Guardian’s “We’ve gone too far with ‘trigger warnings'” argue against content warnings for similar reasons. A valuable alternative perspective is offered by this post by Tressie McMillan Cottom; see footnote [1].

The New Republic and Guardian articles both argue that content warnings

[…] are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.

These articles, to me, miss the point on several levels.

Firstly, they overcomplicate content warnings to the point of creating a straw man. Content warnings have been around a long time – consider the ratings (and justification for them) on films or the phrase “this report contains scenes some viewers may find upsetting” on the news. When thinking about content warnings, I realised that my teacher had given the class a content warning in secondary school. I was 14, and we were just starting our GCSE studies. The English Literature course focused heavily on war poetry. Before we started reading, analysing and discussing the poems, our teacher told us about the content of the material we were about to deeply engage with and asked us what our experiences of war had been: had we been involved in any way? had our families? did we have relatives who had been the armed forces, or were currently in them? We had the opportunity to discuss these things and flag these up for our teacher so she knew something about us, our experiences and what we were bringing to these poems.

Contrast this with another experience: I was 19, and in my first year of my English degree. It was a close reading tutorial; we’d get an unseen poem, spend an hour discussing it then write a formative essay on it. The poem we were analysing that hour was a response to Tennyson’s “Crossing The Bar” I don’t remember much about the poem; it was about someone being told of someone’s death, and struggling to come up with a eulogy before the clear, tolling words of “Sunset and evening star, / And one clear call for me!” came to him. I sat, silent and miserable, and the tutor rebuked me for not being my usual responsive self. My friend – also 19, a schoolfriend – had died of cancer the previous day; I’d been told the previous evening. To frame it in terms of the educational institution as the New Republic and Guardian articles want to do: was this good pedagogy? I could have brought a unique perspective to my analysis – the rawness of grief, the awareness of one’s teenaged mortality. Instead I sat there silent, barely able to engage with the poem.

Secondly, they argue that anyone needing a content warning is a special, selfish snowflake demanding the world be shaped to accommodate them. I suspect that of all people, those who have experienced trauma know that the world is not shaped to accommodate them. There’s a more interesting issue of how educational institutions should teach and engage with deeply problematic texts, and the duty of care we have towards our students and how this should be manifested, but I think that’s an issue for another post.

Thirdly, they conflate empathy with consent. Content warnings enable someone to make an informed decision about whether they want to participate in an event and if so, how best to prepare themselves. Sometimes this may mean saving reading material for another day when your mental health is less fragile. Sometimes it means engaging with material in a different context – reading a book in a busy cafe rather than alone and in the quiet of your bedroom in the dark hours. Sometimes it means scheduling activities differently to make sure you don’t get trapped in your own head – for me, this might mean spending the afternoon reading concordance lines about distressing things and seeing friends in the evening. If I know in advance, I can make a choice about how I structure my time. By not giving a content warning, you remove that choice.

I am reminded here of China Miéville’s[2] concept of choice-theft in Perdido Street Station. In it, sexual assault and rape are conceptualised as “choice-theft in the second degree” (with murder being that as the first degree). As a character explains,

“To take the choice of another… to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to..for all we individuals to have…our choices.

[…]

But all choice-thefts steal from the future as well as the present”.

[…]

What he saw most clearly, immediately, were all the vistas, the avenue of choice that [Spoiler] had stolen. Fleetingly, [Spoiler] glimpsed the denied possibilities.
The choice not to have sex, not to be hurt. The choice not to risk pregnancy. And then…what if she had become pregnant? The choice not to abort? The choice not to have a child?
The choice to look at [Spoiler] with respect?

I sometimes research really horrible stuff – they include police assault, forcible feeding and violent transphobia. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time going through thousands of concordance lines of transphobia, suicide and misgendering. Yes, reading it was upsetting and reminded me of the street abuse I’ve received, the risks I take by existing. But I believe, passionately, that it is vital to talk about these things – to haul them out and shine a ruthless light on them. I believe it’s important to understand how these things happen, to dissect them and understand their anatomy. How else can we challenge them? But when I talk about these things – when I present on them, when they emerge in my creative work – I give content warnings. My decision on when and where and how I engage with these things are not anyone else’s; I do not have the right to force someone along with me.

Instead, I seek my audience’s consent to come with me. I ask that they trust me enough to put themselves in my hands, that I will lead them through my academic or creative work without inflicting further hurts. I ask for their trust that I will talk about difficult things, but to do so in a way that offers them something: a vocabulary, a reconceptualisation, a challenge. I make it clear that they can leave the room and I won’t be offended or upset.

I refuse to enact further violations of consent.

I ask for their trust.

I offer them a choice.

__________________________________

[1] Tressie McMillan Cottom argues that “no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression”. I’ve tried to reflect this tension between content warnings and sites of resistance in my argument.

[2] I’m unhappy about referencing Miéville for reasons outlined in this post [CW: non-explicit discussion of emotional abuse]. I’ve chosen to acknowledge this and to also warn for the content in a way consistent with the argument I make in this post. If any writers have explored a similar concept, I’d be very interested in reading their work.

A defence of political correctness

Trigger warning: this post contains slurs for race, sexuality, disability, neurodiversity and gender.

So I tweeted something the other night and was a bit surprised that it took off:

As a queer, Asian, female-assigned-at-birth person with an interesting medical history, I like political correctness. Political correctness is why it is generally considered unacceptable to loudly inform me that I am a “chink”, a “paki”, that I should “fuck off back to where [I] came from”, that I should “fuck off back to Santa’s grotto”, that I am a “fucking dyke”, that I am a “fucking lesbian”, that I am a “fucking dwarf” or that I’m an “it”. Obviously not everyone agrees, which is why all of these examples are taken from real life.

When I come across a written article that uses slurs, I am not inclined to read it. I have lots of things to read: my “to read” list is constantly full of books, journal articles, blog posts. Unless someone has contracted my services as a proofreader or copyeditor, I am not obliged to read anything – and I am not wasting my time on something that uses hurtful language. I am not obliged to “look past” those slurs when those slurs hurt me.

If someone who doesn’t have the right to reclaim the term uses the word “tranny” throughout an article, I also have to wonder how far their knowledge extends. As someone who is involved with trans* welfare, health and legal issues, I have to wonder what I can take from it. I read a lot of those articles because one of my academic interests is the media representation of minority groups and issues, but – please forgive me if this sounds arrogant – I tend not to find something interesting and insightful and useful in such articles.

I love words. My degrees have basically been a love affair with words – how they’re used, what they mean, how they come with associations and connotations. I’ve also been accused of being “politically correct” and I’m well familiar with the argument that such political correctness stifles free expression and is a form of censorship. However, I think avoiding these slurs makes me a better, more thoughtful and more creative writer. For example, when I see the word “demented” being used, my mind flashes back to the dementia ward and day hospital where my mum worked and where my sister and I would accompany her if we were off sick from school. I think of my friend’s dad – my mum’s patient – and having to pretend to be my mum because he couldn’t recognise that I was a different person and trying to explain to him that I wasn’t my mum would be pointlessly upsetting. I think of the astonishing people my mum has treated – doctors and teachers and lecturers and footballers – and their families, and the aching loss of a mind, a history, a person.

I almost certainly don’t think what the writer wants me to think, which appears to be “isn’t this insane[1]/outrageous!”.

If I wrote something and there was so great a mismatch between what I wanted to say and what my readers took away from it, I’d consider that an unsuccessful effort. Not because I’d upset someone – I enjoy creating discomfort and disquiet in my creative work – but because I’d upset someone without intending to, because I’d used my words ineffectively, because it meant that I wasn’t doing my best as a writer.

Being politically correct has made me think about my language choices, and to think carefully about what I want to say. I’m reminded of these posters by Alison Rowan:
that's so...

There are lots and lots of alternatives which often express something more precisely. Just look at what you could use instead of “gay”: silly, heinous, preposterous, contemptuous, hideous, hapless, uncouth, unfortunate, deplorable, trashy, ridiculous, atrocious, corrupt, foolish. Or “retarded”: childish, absurd, indiscreet, ignorant, uncool, pointless, careless, irrational, senseless, irresponsible, illogical, unnecessary, trivial, ill-considered, dull, fruitless, silly. Each of those has different shades of meaning. Instead of the scattershot of “retarded” or “gay”, your words can be like precision strikes, hurting only the people you intend to hurt.

If you want to hurt people, that is. How much worse it is if, in your casual and unthinking use of “gay” or “retarded” or “spaz”, you wound someone you never meant to wound, never realised you wounded.

So back to political correctness.

The term “political correctness” was popularised by its opponents; people who agree that political correctness is often a good thing tend to call it other things, like “basic courtesy”. Political correctness means treating people with respect and courtesy, being mindful of what they do and do not want to be called and how they do or do not want to be addressed. It is offering dignity to minority groups, who are already being shat on in so many ways without having to deal with a barrage of slurs.

Saying that you’re against political correctness is not radical or edgy or subversive; it affirms the status quo. It affirms society’s default as white, straight, cisgendered, neurotypical, non-disabled, male. It does not challenge or mock or destabilise power. What, precisely, is subversive about trotting out the same tired racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, ableist crap?

 

[1] And let us contemplate the wide variety of words used to stigmatise mental illness and neurodiversity.