The gap between experiences and (media) representation

On Sunday, the Guardian published an article reporting that “Dr Richard Curtis is under investigation following complaints over treatment of patients seeking gender reassignment”. Zoe O’Connell offers important context and I urge anyone who reads the Guardian article to also read her response.

Mainstream media pounces on anything with a whiff of malpractice or trans regret but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article in the mainstream media about the everyday struggles trans* people experience in trying to access care. Sarah Brown playfully demonstrated how eager the media is for stories about trans regret by referring to an operation she regretted – unfortunately for the newspaper that phoned her within minutes of her tweets, the operation in question was on her hand.

Stories framed as “trans regret” are not harmless, but are used to deny trans* people necessary treatment. Trans* people must undergo months and years of psychological assessment and “Real Life Experience” tests (without hormones or surgery, thus placing them at risk of transphobic abuse and attacks) to test if they really want to transition. It is apparently better to make thousands of trans* people suffer than to allow a consenting but mistaken cis person access to hormones and surgery.

On Tuesday, Sarah Brown highlighted this discrepency in media attention and urged trans* people to tweet about their experiences using the #TransDocFail hashtag. The response was incredible – thousands of tweets and hundreds of participants – but the stories were depressingly similar. Zoe has collected the lowlights, grouping them under the headings “The NHS doesn’t do that!” (GPs’ insistence that specifically trans* care is not offered by the NHS), “The long wait”, “At least delays are not outright refusal to give treatment or right letters”, “The Transsexual broken arm” (every medical condition will be related to your gender), “Pointless abuse”, “Doctor knows best”, “Administrative errors and misgendering”, “Jumping through hoops” and “Non-binary genders don’t exist”. There are clear patterns to this data – at best, medical professionals are ignorant of trans* issues, at a bit worse they directly and deliberately put obstacles in the way trans* people’s attempts to find health and happiness, and at their very worst they abuse people both physically and mentally.

The following comment pieces have been published:
New Statesmen: As the #transdocfail hashtag showed, many trans people are afraid of their doctors
Guardian: The real trans scandal is not the failings of one doctor but cruelty by many

On the same Tuesday, Suzanne Moore’s piece on female anger was published on the New Statesman. It included the observation that

We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.

This observation is all the more crass for the sheer number of Brazilian trans people who are murdered each year. As this articles notes,

On the last Transgender Day of Remembrance, out of the 265 reported cases of murdered trans people between 15th November 2011 and 14th November 2012, 126 of them were from Brazil.

Moore’s response on twitter was shameful: among other things, she declared that transphobia and Islamophobia simply did not exist, stated that she doesn’t “prioritise this fucking lopping bits of your body over all else that is happening to women” and that “People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me”. She then followed this twitter rant with a Guardian comment piece. Stavvers has an excellent response, as does leftytgirl.

Bear in mind that Moore’s twitter rant was concurrent with #TransDocFail. Had she wanted, she could have easily found tales of horrifying medical abuse perpetuated against women.

What I find so interesting about this is how difficult it is to publish things that don’t fit a desired media narrative of trans* experiences, but how apparently easy it is to publish problematic things if you’re a noted feminist. There’s a lot to say here about access to platforms – Suzanne Moore, as an established writer, has built up a network of contacts which many trans* people don’t have. She can pitch things to them, or is invited to comment on issues or write response pieces.

However, there is something else going on here. Trans* writers and journalists have pitched articles on the difficulties of accessing treatment. It is something that clearly affects a lot of people, perhaps everyone who has been under the care of a Gender Identity Clinic. If this was happening in another NHS department there’d be outrage – not just that treatment is inadequate, but that gatekeeping is built into the system and the patient is forced to prove that they want the treatment enough before it is offered to them. And yet this goes unreported. Instead, what are the media narratives of trans* people? This is something I hope to explore in my next research project, but a quick survey of the articles @TransMediaWatch links to, I’d suggest that as well as medical malpractice, there’s interest in personal, “unusual” transitions. I pulled the two most recent transition-related stories from @TransMediaWatch’s timeline and they’re pretty typical:

Dame of two halves: I was a 24-stone football hooligan but now I’m going to be a woman
‘Having Harry Styles as a role model has helped’: Transgender girl reveals on This Morning why she wants surgery on NHS to look like One Direction star

Note how, in the last article, the person is referred to as a “transgender girl” and the article consistently uses the wrong pronouns. Best is presented as being superficial and transitioning only to resemble a pop singer when his quoted speech suggests something different. In both, the individual is foregrounded and their current situation is emphasised. Focus on the individual, not the system. Focus on the surgery, not the hoops jumped to get it. Focus on surgery as the moment when you “become a woman” rather than the years spent worrying, thinking, shifting, unfurling yourself within a wrong, alien body. This difficult, lengthy process and a system that gatekeeps and denies is not a news story and the media does not, apparently, want to hear it.

As I write this on Friday afternoon, “the Left” is busily shutting down valid criticism of Moore’s transphobia – another reminder that there are some experiences that no one, apparently, wants to hear.

Thoughts on #1share1condom

Today is World AIDS Day. The past couple of days have seen the hashtag #1share1condom pop up on my twitter feed. Being the curious sort, I discovered that it was a Durex campaign to donate condoms to help fight HIV. You retweet (or share on facebook or renren) one of their facts about HIV and AIDS with the hashtag, they donate a condom to “a local charity”. Sounds good, right?

Actually, this sort of thing makes me really uncomfortable.

I’m one of those awkward discourse analyst types, so naturally my mind immediately goes to what’s not being said here. If I look past the corporate social responsibility speak, what I see is the distribution of life-saving condoms being based on how many slacktivists (and I include myself in that term) can be bothered to retweet something. Durex has a target of 2.5 million condoms; what if that target isn’t reached? Are they going to withhold aid because not enough people shared their facts or used their hashtag? Admittedly I haven’t done much digging, but I haven’t seen anything about minimum donations or what they’ll do if their target isn’t met and this concerns me.

Of course, Durex could just donate 2.5 million condoms – but then they wouldn’t have their brand all over twitter.

I completely agree that it’s important to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS. As someone involved in LGBT welfare I’ve given out countless free condoms and advice on safer sex. At any other time I’d be glad to see awareness of HIV and AIDS seeping into my feed because this is a really important, global issue. I’d also be glad to see free condoms being distributed to those who need them. I’d be even happier if those condoms were accompanied by advice on safer sex, addressing the stigma of HIV and AIDS and empowering women and sex workers. Tackling HIV and AIDS means addressing a host of complex issues including education, stigma, gender, homophobia and transphobia, poverty and religion. It’s too important to be a social media campaign.

Durex’s facts are horrifying:

3.4m children under 15 are living with HIV.
30m people have died from AIDS in 30 years.
HIV is the leading cause of death in women of reproductive age.
7000 people per day are infected with HIV.

Surely people’s lives are worth more than how many retweets something gets?

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance when we remember the trans* and gender variant people who have lost their lives this year – 265 lives lost, often in savage, brutal ways. These are the dead we know about; we also mourn the nameless, faceless dead, those whose murders we’ll never know about. As I look through the the list of names and at the breakdown of these statistics, I see patterns to the violence.

Many of these people were trans women or somewhere on the transfeminine spectrum. Many lived in Central or South America. Many were people of colour. Many were sex workers. They lived and died at a particularly cruel set of intersections – racism, misogyny, transphobia, hatred of sex workers, classism.

It is important not to forget these intersections. It is not simply transphobia, but a toxic brew of multiple kinds of hatreds that mean that the existence of anyone living at that intersection cannot be tolerated and they cannot be allowed to live.

Many trans and gender variant people experience prejudice and violence; however, the violence experienced by someone with some privileges (being white, upper/middle class, able-bodied, highly educated) is different from that experienced by those who are insulated by none of these privileges. In remembering them, it is important to never appropriate their experiences and lives and deaths. They are our dead, but we are not all Thapelo Makutle or Laryssa Silveira just as we are not all CeCe McDonald. As Monica Maldonado writes,

We should gather to mourn the dead, not conscript them into a battle they never had the privilege to fight while living.
[…]

Remember trans people today…but remember us tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. And never forget that fighting for trans justice is fighting for social justice. And just the same, fighting for economic justice, disability justice, and racial justice are fighting for trans justice.

[…]

Reflecting on those whose lives were senselessly lost at the intersections of violence and injustice is one of the most important and sobering works we can do as a community.

[…]

But it can’t be all we do. And until we rise to the occasion; until each of us rises to action; until we meet the very real challenge of creating a more equal community and society; until we do better, we’ll keep meeting here each year, reading this ever-growing list of names of those who lost their lives at these intersections of violence and injustice.

Today we mourn. As Ruth Pearce writes, “today is for the dead. If we don’t acknowledge their passing, it may be that no-one will. If we don’t offer respect, it may be that no-one will”.

Tomorrow, we who still have breath in our bodies, can live and love and fight and hope.

But today is for the dead.

Police infiltration, then and now

Protests outside Parliament

Suffragette photo by Victoria Gray, taken 24/10/2012; other photo by K Gupta taken 9/12/2010

POLICE SPIES AMONG THE MILITANTS.

LETTERS FROM A DETECTIVE.

The Suffragette this week says that in the attempt to repress the militant women’s agitation, the Government has enrolled an enormous number of plain-clothes political police, hundreds of whom prowl round the dwellings and meeting-places of suffragist leaders. It adds:-

At private meetings at times police spies are found, having gained admission by first becoming members of the Suffrage Society, under whose auspices such meetings are held, and gradually wormed their way into the confidence of staunch friends.

When it is difficult for some reason for a detective to join a suffrage society, the plan of employing spies is adopted. For a consideration these hirelings will do their best to find out the plans of the militants. The following specimens from correspondence duly authenticated will furnish some idea as to the methods of the so-called political department of Scotland-yard. The letters were sent through the post to a spy who had joined one of the men’s unions for woman suffrage, and were written by a well-known detective who has on more than one occasion participated in the arrest and trial of suffragists.

The letters quoted contain the following passages:-

Don’t fail to let me know if you are going to Town Hall, Battersea, on Thursday, and if S. P. will be there.

Sincerely trust that you suffered no ill effects from the wrestling bout in which I hear you took part, – old boy, try and go up and find out all you can re G- and D- (the names of two officials of a men’s union), or anything else going and let me know either by letter or tell me where and what time I can see you as I want to defray your out of pocket expenses. I am enclosing a postal order for you to have a drink, and hope you got the one I sent last week. In the meantime, – old boy, send anything you get to hear of concerning intentions of your union addressed to me at Scotland-yard, which will be opened and afterwards sent to me.

P.S.-In case anything is on during opening of Parliament, don’t forget to lot me have a line at office.

The same journal announces that Mrs. Pankhurst’s next public meeting will take place at Lowestoft on Wednesday, April 15.

The content of this article is startlingly contemporary: police gradually infiltrating activist organisations, gradually gaining trust and acceptance of their members and becoming trusted friends, but reporting everything to their handlers. This article, however, was published in 1914. I was reminded of it as I read this article about present day surveillance of activists. In it, Ellie Mae O’Hagan describes a conversation she had with a friend:

And then the conversation turned to something less unremarkable; something most people will never talk about with their friends. What if none of the memories we share, the secrets we’ve told each other, or the histories we’ve disclosed to one another were real? What if everything we knew about each other was based on a lie, so that one of us could extract information from the other that would eventually be used against them?

I am also based in Nottingham, and the uncomfortable fact remains that while I never met Mark Kennedy/Mark Stone, I have marched and occupied and planned and stood in the cold alongside those who did. In light of that, why should they trust me? Why should I trust them?

While there are lots of things activists can do to guard against surveillance – the Reporters Without Borders Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-dissidents offers a good introduction to online and digital security – infiltration is very difficult to guard against. Is there much point in setting up elaborate email encryption if an infiltrator has access to the account password? Is there much point in carefully setting up meetings or using clean SIM cards and phones if someone has your details anyway?

Closely linked to police infiltrators is the role of the agent provocateur – someone from outside the activist organisation pretending to be part of the organisation and engaging in or encouraging acts that the activists themselves would be wary of. This can range from an agent provocateur slipping in amongst the black bloc to an embedded police infiltrator helping to plan and organise acts of direct action.

One of the posts I’ve read about police infiltration is this one discussing four main dangers resulting from infiltration. The problems of evidence gathered by the infiltrator, the emotional harm to activists and the potential for an infiltrator to disrupt, divide or derail the activist organisation seem pretty obvious but there’s a fourth danger – that of activist organisations becoming less trusting, more closed and more difficult for newcomers to get involved. As the article points out, it’s not newcomers who pose a threat; it’s our friends, lovers, co-workers, housemates – people embedded in our community – who are more likely to be infiltrators. As Mark Kennedy shows, it’s the people who put money into funding campaigns, dedicate a lot of their time and energy towards campaigns and are most enthusiastic about direct action who should worry us.

No Police Spies campaigns for an end to “political policing”; however police infiltration has been going on for a very long time. Suffrage campaigners were among the first to have their photos taken as part of police surveillance. These days, we call them Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT).

This newspaper article indicates a different form of police surveillance that again continues to be used today. It also raises interesting questions about the nature of police surveillance almost a hundred years ago – who was doing it? how extensive was it? were women among the hireling spies? and, perhaps inevitably, what was the relationship between the police infiltrators and direct action?

“Suffragettes storm the Houses of Parliament”, 2012

Very quickly because I’m in the middle of bashing at this chapter, but saw this today and thought it was interesting (I am nothing if not predictable): In pictures: Suffragettes storm the Houses of Parliament for feminist lobby, with more background on it from the Olympics Opening Ceremony.

From the article:

When Gail Collins stepped out in front of the deafening 80,000-strong crowd watching the Olympics opening ceremony, wearing a high-neck Edwardian blouse and the purple, white and green sash that marked her out as one of Danny Boyle’s 50 suffragettes, she couldn’t hear the noise, just the beating of her heart. “It was one of the biggest days of my life,” she said. “Getting married, having my children and being in the opening ceremony. I felt proud, really proud that we had got there.”

In the months before the ceremony, the women forged a particular bond – with each other and the women they were representing. So when the experience ended, what did the Olympic suffragettes do? They kept marching.

Dozens of suffragette performers, led by Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, plan to march on parliament, at the vanguard of a major feminist rally organised to urge MPs to stop “eroding erosion of women’s rights” and make more progress on women’s equality.

[…]

No longer under the guidance of Boyle – who included the suffragette section in the ceremony after becoming enthralled by the memorial plaque to Emily Davison, found on the back of the broom cupboard door where she once hid in the House of Commons – the group may treat observers to a scaled-down version of their performance. It may even include the critical moment, which to the annoyance of many wasn’t featured in the TV coverage, when the women formed a human scaffolding to carry a Christ-like Davison above their heads.

I find it fascinating because it demonstrates present day understandings of suffragettes very clearly. One of my chapters has the working title “Public figure and private nuisance: the problem of Emily Wilding Davison” and focuses on discourses of Davison and the WSPU in the days and weeks after her actions at the 1913 Derby. Davison, the WSPU’s wild child, often acted unpredictably and in ways that challenged the autocracy of the WSPU leadership. However, her actions were often innovative and headline grabbing – none more so than when she was struck by a horse at the 1913 Derby. I argue that the newspaper representation of this shows the WSPU bringing her under their aegis so they could make her their martyr. Davison occupied an interesting and complicated place within the WSPU and the wider suffrage movement, so I find the image of a “Christ-like Davison” intriguing.

I also want to find out more about remembering and history and what it means to summon these ghosts and remake them for present day issues, but that will have to wait until after I submit.

References:
Rosen, A. (1974). Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union 1903-1914. London: Routledge
Stanley, L. and Morley, A. (1988) The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison. London: Women’s Press

National Coming Out Day

Be the trouble you want to see in the world

The t-shirt I’m wearing today

Today marks National Coming Out Day and my facebook and twitter feeds have been full of the wonderful, brave people I know announcing their LGBTQ identities. Somewhat predictably, I have complicated thoughts on the topic.

Stella Duffy writes movingly about the importance of coming, being and staying out while my fellow linguist Anna Marchi writes about the importance of visibility. Neither of them have found it particularly easy but both speak of coming out as a duty; they recognise that their relative privilege allows them to come out in safety, if not without difficulty.

They both note that coming out is also not a single event where you burst from the closet in a shower of rainbows and glitter. Instead it’s a process of coming out to lots of people. I’m inclined to think there’s a difference between coming out to your family and friends and coming out at university, at work, to your GP and, should you get your relationship legally recognised, legally as well as in your social relations. There are no rules on who you should be out to, in what order you should come out to various people – you might tick a box in a university diversity survey before you tell your family, for example – and how long this process should take. It won’t ever end, but it’s your choice whether you tell people immediately, gradually, or at all.

However, coming out is not necessarily easy or straightforward, especially if one must negotiate religious and/or cultural issues. There are lots of people for whom coming out is difficult and dangerous, and I worry that days like these put pressure on people to come out when it’s not safe to do so. There’s a particular kind of sadness when you see people proudly declaring their sexuality and gender identities and knowing that you cannot join them in that.

I’ve been reading Avory’s post on the problem with the LGBT movement’s obsession with coming out and Hasan El Menyawi’s 2006 discussion of coming out in Egypt, the globalisation of a US-centric narrative of coming out and activism from the closet. El Menyawi reconceptualises the closet as a place of safety and community, with flexible, ever-expanding walls. He argues that “activism from the closet occurs by publicly hiding — covering — one’s gay identity outside of the collective closet, but still actively engaging in activism — hidden activism”. Such hidden activism may involve campaigning on privacy rights, questioning the close relationship between religion and the state, or activism on issues such as “economic revitalisation, democracy, rule of law, and human rights more generally”. Avory expands this idea, observing that “there can be a joyous safety in sharing our brilliant ideas and forming unique relationships with our peers without having to first make those ideas and relationships fit for mainstream public consumption”.

So while coming out is brave and important, let us not devalue the closet, and let us not forget those for whom the closet is shelter and protection rather than confinement.

Nottinghamshire Pride

Last year, I wrote about my slightly complicated feelings about Pride. As a result of some rather unpleasant transphobic incidents last year, this year the Pride organising committee offered the trans* group I help run our own tent and a bit of money to start us off. This was tremendously exciting – we’d never had a dedicated trans* area and we were determined to showcase the talented, diverse and creative trans* performers in our community, offer a space to our allies to perform in a friendly place where the complexities of their identities were welcomed, be a visible trans* presence at Pride and, perhaps most importantly, reaching out to people and making them feel a little less alone.

Photo of Ruth of Not Right

Ruth of Not Right. Photo by Eriw Erif

There’s an excellent review of the day by Ruth of Not Right and one of our members has a write-up and some photos on the group site.

Single Bass
El Dia (Sisters of Resistance)
Jase Redfield
Elaine O’Neill
Lashings of Ginger Beer Time
Dr Carmilla
Roz Kaveney
Sally Outen
George Hadden
Nat Titman
Troxin Cherry
Jessie Holder (of Better Strangers Opera)
Not Right

Every single one of them was fantastic, bringing their words and music and loves and lives to the stage. Whether this was furious-but-fun punk, elegantly coiled poetry about the acronyms one must acquaint oneself with as a trans* person, sweetly tender songs about growth and uncertainty, bawdily defiant poetry, eloquent fierceness about femme identity or subversively genderqueer readings of opera, our performers were both affirming and challenging. It was an honour to be able to thank so many amazing people at the end of the day, from the performers to Jess who organised the majority of the day, our stage manager and our fantastic sound guy.

As an activist, I think about spaces. I think about the spaces that I challenge and create, and as I watched and applauded and ran around trying to locate performers I thought about the space that I’d helped open up in Pride. The spaces I am talking about are both physical – like the tent – but also more abstract. Space is also about what is given voice, what is allowed to flourish, the possibilities that can be articulated. Much of my annoyance at last year’s Pride was that it was a gay man, and possibly a lesbian, space. This is important, and I’m not disputing the significance of a space where people can hold hands with their same-sex partners and not feel that tiny prickle of concern even at the best of times – that anyone, anywhere, could suddenly take it upon themselves to vocally – and perhaps physically – object to that simple, unobtrusive affection. Other queer identities were less or not acknowledged however, and I found that really problematic. The LGBTQA community is a huge, diverse community and it’s really important to acknowledge and welcome that diversity. When that diversity is not embraced, it’s not simply an issue of our experiences not being given a voice, as isolating and unwelcoming as that is. A lack of trans* awareness contributed to some really upsetting incidents and the Pride organising committee were keen to avoid that happening this year.

There was something magical about being in a tent and being able to listen and watch people who articulated some of my fears and anxieties and desires. There were trans* people speaking and singing and playing about trans* experiences, and cis performers adapting and selecting their work to speak to us. Not us trying to eke out a trans* interpretation of a song or a poem, but them finding the points where we could understand each other. It was people exploring gender and all that came with it; negotiating the NHS, the harsh realities of genital surgery, the misery and joy we find in our bodies. When we started planning our tent, we were determined to bring a radical queer feminist perspective to Pride – something that we treasured in our communities but which we rarely found represented at Pride. In this tent we were able to do something special, and create a space that was visible and proud and joyful and intersectional and defiant.

Jase Redfield of Mental Gellar

Jase Redfield of Mental Gellar. Photo by Eriw Erif.

Obviously things went wrong (technical hitches, delays, transport issues for some of our performers) and I can only thank our performers for being so patient with us. I learnt a lot about managing an event like this, even though the learning curve was so steep it felt more like a ski slope.

I found it an interesting mixture of some of my academic interests and my activist interests. While as an academic I am interested in silences and space, this was an opportunity to put some of the things I’ve been thinking about into practice. Not just thinking about what trans* positive spaces might look like, but trying to actually create one and working out what needs to be done so it is a safe(r) and welcoming space. Theoretically, I want such a space to acknowledge the different and complex ways people identify, encourage exploration of intersectional identities and recognise that there is No One True Way of being trans*. I want this space to provide information and offer solace, to be able to engage with people. What this meant was looking carefully at who we’d invited to perform, having some basic guidelines for behaviour displayed in the tent, making information from a range of different organisations and about different issues available, and ensuring that the people covered in our trans* history information were from a variety of backgrounds and reflected some of the ambiguities of posthumously assigning a trans* identity to a historical figure.

It wasn’t the most academic way to spend a weekend – I’m pretty sure most academics don’t need to hire drumkits the day before an event – but it had impact. Not just in a research sense, although I do hope to work in areas of language and gender identity, but in the way we saw people come in to say hello or out of curiosity or seeking information, and leave feeling affirmed, moved, comforted. A trans* space was political for all the reasons I’ve discussed, but it wasn’t until the day itself that I realised how very personal it would be too.

Some blog love

I’ve been ridiculously busy lately (teaching! training! seeing Jen Gupta perform as part of Manchester Science Festival and London Bright Club! linguistics reading group! oh yeah, that thesis thing I’m writing! trying to get my boiler fixed!) so not really had time to think of interesting posts, so here’s a few links to blogs I read:

BAD REPBad Reputation is a collective of writers on a “feminist pop culture adventure”. In the interests of transparency I should declare that they have plied me with cake, but I’d like them anyway because they’re incisive, intelligent and pretty awesome. I particularly like their series of Revolting Women because it contains not one, not two, but THREE posts about the suffrage movement: the Ju-Jutsuffragettes, Dora Thewlis, Teenage Working Class Suffragette and Joan of Arc, Rosie the Riveter, and the Feminist Protest Icon. They also write about films, comics, music and computer games in an interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining way. I actually LOLed at Markgraf’s illustrated review of The Three Musketeers and don’t feel the cinematic experience can begin to compare their final analogy involving pick-and-mix and “an enraged muskrat”.

Robert Lawson is a sociolinguist and brave soul who’s blogged about John Locke’s Duels and Duets in detail – part 1, part 2 and part 3. I’m reading this book for the reading group, mainly because I’m intrigued as to how a book on language and gender manages to cite Deborah Tannen but not Deborah Cameron. In the first chapter Locke cites John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, Deborah Tannen’s You just don’t understand, a baffling amount of primate research, and an anecdote from Larry Summers. I almost did the drinking game but I think I’d have to have my stomach pumped. Anyway, you can read Robert’s excellent, informative posts on this book and so avoid reading the primary source. Even if it does mean missing out on the primate research.

Lashings of Ginger BeerLashings of Ginger Beer are a queer feminist burlesque collective who combine “songs, dancing, stand-up and sketches, luxe Victoriana drag with thigh-high fetish-boots, upbeat musical theatre optimism with 21st-century political rage”. Have a couple of videos: Acceptable, skewering Gok Wan, television makeovers, unrealistic gendered beauty ideals and the expense and effort of maintaining this beauty; Dead Girlfriend which comments on TV portrayals of queer relationships and the way the characters involved are punished. The Lashings of Ginger Beer blog posts about events and does link roundups, but also features posts by members of the collective. I was particularly struck by this post examining the different effects of performing with different dancers – it’s a really thoughtful analysis and highlights the experience of the performers.

I was lucky to meet Jennifer Jones when we were both facilitators at Research Practices 2.0. Her reflections on that event are interesting, and have also shaped how she’ll facilitate social media workshops in the future; there are loads of ideas there about questioning the usual classroom hierarchy and enabling a flexible, responsive, collaborative way of learning. Jennifer’s research focuses on the Olympics and offers a much needed critical view on the ideology of the Olympics, which she explored in a recent talk at Tent City Uni. She’s also a very cool lady and it’s a joy to talk to her, whether that be over crappy university coffee, mugs of tea in an occupation or, indeed, over a pint.

Privilege in an occupation

"My protest will be intersectional or it will be nothing"

Photo and banner by K Gupta

So, there seem to be a few occupations going on, including my local Occupy Nottingham.

One of this things I’ve found interesting is the language that’s emerging. This post examines the language of the “we are the 99% tumblr. Meanwhile, Tiger Beatdown has some interesting analysis of who exactly is the 1% and an insightful, moving essay about the range of experiences of wealth, poverty and class found within the 99%.

I’ve also been thinking about who an occupation excludes. I’d define an occupation as a radical reclamation of space where alternatives to mainstream society can be explored – things like communal living, consensus decision making, and sharing the work needed to sustain a community. However, the fact remains that we are products of this mainstream society and have internalised some of its toxic elements – sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism to name a handful. In a social justice context, not having to encounter these things are often described as ‘privileges’. There’s lots of material out there on privilege but I particularly like this primer on privilege and what we can do about it. It’s important to note that, while these can be manifested in individual interactions, they’re also embedded and reinforced by social institutions.

As a non-white, queer, female-assigned-at-birth person who has taken part in occupations, I’ve found that occupations tend to be full of very earnest people who are trying their very hardest not to reproduce structures of oppression but who often don’t quite manage it. As a non-white person, I don’t want to be told that someone – almost certainly white – doesn’t see race. As this essay describes, claiming that you don’t see race both makes my experiences of living as a non-white person invisible, and means that

that person also can ignore systemic nature of racism. That person can pretend that racial issues can be solved by making people act nicer to each other; however, focusing on eliminating prejudice and racism between individuals can obscure the need for eliminating the racism that is so deeply ingrained in our social institutions.

This is particularly important when engaging in the anti-cuts movement – how are you going to protest cuts to EMA disproportionately affecting women and ethnic minorities if you don’t see race and gender, or believe that racism and sexism can be addressed by everyone just being a bit nicer to each other?

An occupation that claims to be leaderless is not exempt from privilege: this essay, on how the Occupy movement’s non power structure perpetuates sexism, observes that

Even in movements that are formally leaderless, those with privilege tend to bring pre-existing power to the table, and that power can be dangerous. This is part of any communal space, no matter how well-intended; I can testify that, even in my own best efforts, and even with trusted friends, I’ve brought my own privilege to the table, created invisible hierarchies, and hurt people. Addressing how power works — who is seen to be powerful, who is exercising power, which kinds, and why, and how that looks like the old world and old structures of oppression we are trying to break away from — has to be a central part of any radical movement.

[…]

It’s hard to focus on what marginalized people are saying, when they’re reduced to a collection of photos for the purpose of telling us that they’re “hot.” The act of finding those voices, actively seeking them out, and listening to them, is harder than taking a photo. It’s also the work that can and must be done.

Failing to address sexism leads to sexual assault, and attempts to intimidate and silence those trying to address it, as seen in Occupy Glasgow.

So what can be done about it?

All Of Us Deserve To Feel Safe has published response cards as “a way of communicating to someone that they’ve made a space unsafe without having to deal with potentially intimidating confrontation. It includes a list of different ways that spaces can be made unsafe, with checkboxes for the relevant concerns.” They also have flyers with suggestions on how to make a space safer.

In addition to their very helpful suggestions, I’d like to comment that how labour is divided in the occupation is important. It’s not okay for men to be sitting around with mugs of tea while the women wash up, sort out the recycling, collect water and so on. I’ve seen this in an occupation before and it was shocking that these so-called radical men were content to allow this gendered division of labour to happen. This is some of the most visible stuff in an occupation – if you can’t manage to make this equal in your own space, how are you in a position to call for a fairer and more equal society?

I also think it’s important to not to treat any member of a minority group as a spokesperson. Sometimes, when I’ve wandered along to an occupation, I’ve immediately been pounced on and asked how they can make the occupation more friendly to ethnic minorities or women. I’m very glad that they’re thinking about this, but aside from the assumptions this makes about my gender identity, it also makes me feel like I’ve become a token minority – that I’m happy to have these conversations at their convenience, that I’m happy to have these sometimes difficult and exhausting conversations on demand. Sometimes I just want a brew and a chat, not to give an immediate workshop on anti-racism.

Finally, it’s crucial to listen. Creating an anti-oppressive space means that people belonging to less privileged groups will critique your efforts, and it’s essential that you listen to these criticisms and respond to them in a constructive manner rather than becoming defensive or aggressive. As the open letter to Occupy Glasgow shows, if someone criticises an occupation for allowing or enabling systematic oppression, she can be insulted, bullied and accused of trying to shut the occupation down from within. This is unacceptable behaviour – it silences the activists who did complain, it allows sexists a free pass, and it stops people making other criticisms. It can be difficult to hear criticism, but ultimately criticism coming from activists who are sympathetic to the movement comes from a place of caring and wanting the movement to be as inclusive as possible.

An occupation has to practice what it preaches. You cannot call for an end of one kind of oppression while perpetuating, however unconsciously, other kinds of oppressions and, however accidentally, silencing the voices of (other) minorities.

Issues in trans language

Earlier this month I, along with two other committee members, spoke to Nottingham Lesbian and Gay Switchboard about the trans social and support group we run. One of the things that came up was the complexity of trans terminology. As someone with some knowledge of the community, as someone who is, in a small way, a trans activist, and as someone with a linguistic background I’m intrigued by the words we use and the way we try to create our stories of flux and change out of these words. Words have immense power in this community; often simply knowing the word for something is an act of empowerment, a realisation that there are others like you and there is a place for you in the world. Words can summon identities into being; words can make manifest inchoate feelings of difference and not fitting in. Words are brilliant.

However, I’ve not read a great deal on linguistics and trans issues. I have an interest in language and gender but all too often I find there’s a disconnect between the linguistic research and what I know as an activist. For example, while reading Benwell and Stokoe’s 2006 Discourse and Identity I came across the following:

The speakers are all ‘women’. They are relatively ‘young’, though not ‘teenagers’. They are ‘white’. The presenters’ accents sound ‘upper middle class’. Jane sounds ‘educated’ and ‘middle class’. We presume they are all ‘English’, and we know Jane is ‘heterosexual’ – she has a male partner.

While Benwell and Stokoe do go on to note that “[e]ach of these categories can be further unpacked”, they don’t make any comment about the fairly major assumption they make about Jane’s sexuality. In the activist communities I belong to, someone assuming that a person is heterosexual just because they have a male partner would immediately be questioned about the basis of their assumption. Jane’s last partner could have been a woman. Jane might identify as queer for political reasons. Jane might be polyamorous and have partners of different genders, Jane might be married to a man and monogamous but also attracted to women. As an academic, I have to admit that coming across this assumption in the book’s introduction made me wonder what other assumptions about identity were being made in the book – how far can I trust their analyses of identity if they can make such a basic assumption?

As someone who uses critical discourse analysis in their research, identifying the context of language use is important to understanding it. There are some issues informing the way trans identities are conceptualised within the trans community – the background knowledge and understanding that makes some words acceptable and some unacceptable or unthinkable.

One of the things that I find most striking is the awareness of queer theory; I’ve had much more interesting and informed discussions about gender and queerness at trans socials than I have at research seminars. However, this awareness of gender binaries, gender fluidity, gender performativity, and the power to reshape, reinterpret and individualise gender inevitably comes into conflict with the idea of having an innate sense of one’s “real” gender. Conceptualising gender and gender identity – where it comes from, how it is formed, whether it is innate or realised through performance – is not a theoretical exercise but has profound implications for trans people. If gender is simply realised through performance, then what about bodies and the desire to change our bodies?

However, gender identity itself is problematic. Some people identify as non-gendered – they do not feel they have a gender identity and framing the discourse in these terms is inaccurate, discriminatory and erases their experience.

There is tension between the trans community and the medical profession. People who seek to change their bodies, either through hormones or surgery, usually have to do this through the medical establishment. While there are ways to acquire hormones without medical supervision, this has risks and, at least in my experience, is not recommended (although obviously this differs according to access to appropriate medical care etc). The medical profession, therefore, also act as gatekeepers and control access to care – in the UK, an individual seeking hormones or surgery on the NHS has to go through a Gender Identity Clinic where a panel decides whether they’re suitable for treatment. Not everyone is deemed suitable, and people identifying as genderqueer or non-binary gendered have had particular difficulty in getting approved (although new WPATH guidelines should change this).

However, this brings in the issue of who gets to decide what “trans” is and, indeed, how it should be defined.
Not everyone who identifies as trans wants to medically transition, not all want to transition between binary genders and not all identify in such a way as to make transition straightforward or, indeed, necessary. I’ve heard Nat of Practical Androgyny discuss the terms transsexual, transgender, trans and trans* and how they’re in a constant process of resisting the medicalisation of trans identities, trying to be as inclusive as possible and creating space for ‘new’ identities to exist. Zagria identifies five meanings of transgender and discusses them in the linked essay.

Language itself can also be problematic. The variety of English I use – British English – doesn’t have a gender neutral singular pronoun. This post outlines some alternatives but they aren’t widely known or accepted outside the queer community – as an undergraduate, I got told off for using ze/zir in an essay about gendered language.

This post highlights some problematic language within trans communities. As the author explains

The stories of our bodies, our experiences, and our identities have traditionally been told from a perspective of assumed cissexual superiority. Increasingly, trans people want to be able to speak to one another or to cis people in our own words–words that reflect our lived experiences and empower us as trans people. That means developing a new, trans-positive vocabulary. It also means re-examining the words we use (and the words cis people use for us), tossing out words and phrases that don’t pass muster, and replacing them with better ones.

There are some obviously problematic terms – calling someone a genetic female or XX boy doesn’t really work when you realise how prevalent intersex conditions are; these terms conflate the genotype with the phenotype, but without genetic testing it’s impossible to know what one’s genotype actually is. Less obvious is the problematic use of terms like female-bodied to describe someone female-assigned at birth – some people within the trans community would argue that a female body is a body belonging to someone who identifies as female. These terms seem to wax and wane in their popularity – female assigned at birth/FAAB, assigned female at birth/AFAB, male assigned at birth/MAAB and assigned male at birth/AMAB are terms that I’ve noticed relatively recently.

So, what might a study of trans language look like?

As a linguist, I’d be inclined to break this into three main categories: the umbrella terms used to describe the diversity of trans identities; the terms used to describe identities; the terms used to describe trans bodies.

There have been surveys on trans language, but as a corpus linguist I’m interested in naturally occurring language – while data elicted through surveys can be interesting and useful for identifying words that might be of interest, ultimately I’m more interested in how these words are actually used. Which are common terms? Are certain words used more frequently in different parts of the community? Do these words have different meanings within the community? When do words start being used and how do they spread out? What’s the effect of the internet (particularly user-created material) on language? Do people use language differently if they’re seeking medical involvement or as that progresses? Happily, there are quite a few trans-related sites, forums, tumblrs etc so there is suitable data out there to include in a corpus.

One of the things I’m interested in is fine-grained use of data. My corpus made up of Times Digital Archive texts allows me to split up the data by year and, using some php, by type of article (Letters to the Editor, for example). There are loads of interesting ways to split up the trans data I’d hope to collect and to an extent it depends on what I’m trying to find out. For the questions I outlined above, it would be good to be able to split the corpus by year the text was produced, site it came from from, and some details about the writer – their age, how they identify, the variety of English they use, possibly some information about any medical involvement they’ve had or are seeking (if applicable).

Sadly this has to go on the back burner for now because of my thesis, but at some point I’d love to do more research into this. To me, trans language highlights the explicit negotiation of language in a community. New terms are coined, defined and disputed. It also is a place where queer and gender theory and practice collide in a way that has incredibly important, real-life implications – these are not the debates of the ivory tower, but affect how people lead their lives and indeed, what sort of lives they are able to lead.