In one’s travels through the Tubes you’ll often find rather a lot of fecal matter clogging it all up. Perhaps the grandest of these turds is the notion of ‘political correctness.’ There have been long and thoughtful deconstructions of this ultimate, Voltron-like straw man, but suffice it to say: the next time someone chides you for being “PC” just replace ‘politically correct’ with ‘respectful’ in your mind to keep your focus on what it is the speaker is actually trying to communicate.
Privilege is many things. Pervasive, invisible, colourless, odourless, noxious. It’s a lot like carbon monoxide. In this particular case, privilege manifests itself as the simple belief that you are entitled to a higher level of respect than other groups of people. At heart, that’s what it’s really about. The idea that being decent and respectful- values many of our parents raised us with- is somehow uncouth or even verboten when one is talking about Black people, or Muslims, or trans people is simply privilege made manifest. People found a term that enabled them to get away with being assholes. It’s not being a horse’s ass. It’s being politically incorrect. You sound edgy, and awesome, like a latter day beatnik.
Plus you get to put uppity [insert group here] people in their place.
It should take you all of five seconds to start seeing how this works in regards to trans people. Calling me ‘she’ and ‘her’ and ‘a woman’ becomes a privilege, something I have to earn. Why? Because it’s ‘politically correct’ and implicitly untrue as a result. Time after time I’ve read the words of people who insist that the truth is that I’m male and that any suggestions to the contrary are mere politeness on their part, into which they’ve been strongarmed by the “PC Police.” When basic respect and common courtesy to you is no longer considered correct but ‘politically correct’, you know you’re being marginalised.
But that’s what it’s for, in truth. The term political correctness is just a recent addition to our lexicon to describe a weapon of privilege that has been wielded for a very long time. The simple idea that if you are marginalised, any respect given to you by a privileged person is a bonus, a boon, a privilege unto itself. One you probably had to dance to earn. But the moment you say or do anything they dislike, the cookie is taken away. It is, above all, a tool of control. One that is designed to remind you that respect for you exists at the pleasure of the privileged.
It also divides marginalised people into worthy and unworthy classes. Deserving and undeserving.
Take for example the case of a trans woman who is in prison for life in Massachusetts for murdering her wife. A gruesome crime to which she has confessed and for which she is doing her time. Yet, when the Boston Herald calls her a “transvestite”, a man, and refers to her by her old name which has since been legally changed, what is one to think? That she does not deserve to be called a woman because she committed a terrible crime. If that makes sense to you consider the inverse. Was Timothy McVeigh ungendered or misgendered because of his murderous crimes? Was he termed a drag king for it? No. Any journalist would’ve told you his gender was just a fact about him and the story is his terrorism, naught more.
So why can the same respect not be paid to a trans person?
Because that respect is still seen by society as a privilege. Something one must earn. When one looks at ‘bad’ cis people and the fact that they do not get misgendered, it’s quite clear what’s going on here. Cis people use this as a weapon against you: if they deem you unfit, they can try their damndest to take away your identity. If it can be taken away from that woman in prison it can be taken away from you. This is far from a slippery slope argument: we’ve long since slid down it.
Early on in my transition I told an erstwhile friend of mine what I was up to and came out to him. He seemed quite accepting at first and he started to refer to me appropriately. I was still riding high from the successes with other friends so I thought he’d be no different and went on my merry way. A couple of months later I penned an article criticising the Catholic Church, of which he’s still a proud member. He told a mutual friend behind my back some rather grotesque and trans phobic things as he complained about the piece, the gist of which was “this is how he thanks me for accepting his lifestyle!?”
True colours revealed, I broke ties with him. It was less than pleasant, for sure, but it had to be done. I wasn’t about to come within ten feet of anyone who dared wield that cudgel. My womanhood is not a privilege, it simply is. Calling me by my real name, addressing me as you would any other woman… these things are not cookies that I am to be given for pleasing you, nor something you have any right to take away when I upset you. “Good trans women get called ladies and bad trans women get called trannies” is bullshit, yet that’s exactly what’s going on here and it sure as hell doesn’t happen to cis people.
If you try to misgender me because you’re mad at me, you’re telling me exactly one thing: you do not take me seriously as a woman and you’ve got unresolved issues about the whole thing.
I don’t need that crap. It’s not a matter of political correctness, just about simple correctness.
Yet for anyone who would think of accepting this arrangement on the basis that you intend to be a “good person” who will surely please the cis majority, and that thus this isn’t really intolerance or transphobia, just another way ‘bad’ people get punished… consider the following.
By now many of us have heard of the elevation of Amanda Simpson to the US Commerce Department where she will be responsible for overseeing weapon exports. She is smart, accomplished, determined, and was tapped for a high level government position. To top it all off, she’s also white. All of which should be the nadir of what our “polite society” considers accomplished, acceptable, and ‘good.’ Now consider the reaction to her in the media. Many mainstream outlets were, to their credit, quite good about her. One, however, was especially and frighteningly egregious.
The New York Post ran an article about her with the oh-so-witty tabloid headline: “Obama sez: You Da Ex-Man!” Genius. But it gets worse. Out of all the articles about her I’ve seen, this was the first to include the dreaded ‘before’ picture, from when she was living as a male. The caption under the pictures was headed with “Tranny Nation:” More sheer brilliance. She was also called a “gal” which again goes to the heart of the male chauvinism that often lies within transphobia against trans women.
But this is just in the headlines. There was exactly one thing the Post got right; calling Ms. Simpson a ‘her.’ The rest was beyond atrocious. I actually crushed the paper in my hands as I read past the halfway point where the reporter said Ms. Simpson declined to talk about her medical history… and then proceeded to regale us with how he went and dug it up anyway from Arizona records and news clippings he’d cobbled together to reveal in detail what her medical history was and how much it cost.
So take note: Upper middle class, white, graduate education, years of experience, accomplished… and you’ll still get trashed in the media as a tranny who had a sex change, and by the way here’s how much it cost, what you did, and to top it off I’ve got this hugely witty pun for a headline.
So imagine the rest of us.
The cookie is made of bullshit.
It is, of course, worth mentioning that the New York Post was a positive paragon of decency compared to the legions of internet comments about Ms. Simpson, which put the final lie to the idea that you can earn the respect of cis people by assimilating to what they consider respectability.
But how then to report on trans people respectfully? Let’s refer to one Rachel Maddow for assistance:
Goddess bless her. *eyes her dreamily*
What is most fascinating to me is that in a world where column inches are at a premium and every second counts when one is on the air, reporting respectfully is actually less time consuming and unwieldy.
- No time spent on “before” pictures.
- A couple of seconds shaved by never uttering the old name.
- Loads of time and space saved by making no mention of medical procedures.
- Lots of time saved by not making needlessly complex constructions like he/she or giving hackneyed explanations of what a transgender person is, beyond a basic and objective definition.
It’s so easy, guys. We all have everything to gain.
In the end, never back down from demanding the basic respect accorded to everyone else. It is not a privilege. To accept that, and play the game of cissexists in so doing, is to put your rights and dignity in their hands, and to empower them with a weapon that can be used against you. This isn’t just true of trans people, but of all who face marginalisation, great or small. Respect for you is not a joke, nor a privilege, nor politically correct.
It’s simply correct.
I think I can also understand it from the other side.
The trouble is that seeing privilege is actively counter-intuitive, it requires a certain mental sideways step that most people haven’t learned and could never originate. They know that how they think is normal, because it’s how everyone else they know thinks, because it’s how they were brought up – it’s so pervasive they don’t even see it as anything but “facts”. And suddenly they are being told that a simple thing like sex needs to be split up into complicated ideas like gender, and it’s disrespectful to say that birth sex is permanent. Or, suddenly they’re being told that it’s OK for two guys to kiss. And so on… they think they are being put under pressure to deny the plain facts. Maybe they “play along” to get along, but they don’t understand.
I think possibly that we rush people. Not that we shouldn’t expect them to get it right, and right now – but we present them with the results without leading them through the process. Ultimately, the process is more important.