There Are No Free Speech Absolutists

Or: How to Start Having a Better Debate About Speech

Raphael’s “The School of Athens,” a beautiful fresco taken entirely too seriously by people who forget it’s excellent fanart where the artist painted his friends as great philosophers.

Federal police roaming downtown Portland in unmarked vehicles to snatch protesters off the street are the most convincing argument that the “cancel culture” discourse is dangerously overblown. The now infamous open letter in Harper’s has aged so poorly that it’s merely bone dust now.

Yet there remains value in trying to understand the debate on speech, largely because we are in an epistemic break driven by new voices having their say. There is a more complex discussion to be had on the left about marginalisation, silencing, bullying, and so forth; about catharsis masquerading as activism, say, or about traumatised people hurting each other because their communities can’t or won’t support them. And yet, obviously, this is not what the Harper’s letter was about. Indeed, the letter and the high profile resignations of people like Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan seem suspect in their timing considering the fact that political science professor and pundit Yascha Mounk is starting a brand new platform called “Persuasion” whose About page reads like a first draft of The Letter, and whose initial contributor list is almost entirely made up of signatories.

We’re condemned to this discourse. But we cannot have a speech debate worth having until we accept a fundamental fact:

There are no free speech absolutists.

There are two broad issues that have to be reckoned with in any honest discussion about speech. First, most speech debates are not about the value of free speech itself, but about other values guiding our beliefs about the ideal conduct of speech; the second is the fact that if call-out culture or cancel culture is real, most of its actual victims are people we almost never hear about and whose concerns would never trouble most “free speech defenders.”

The lack of honesty about these issues bedevils the speech debate in the mainstream press, which continues to be prosecuted as a fight between those who are either for or against free speech. But every signatory on The Letter believes in curbing free speech; most are simply not candid about that.

The Values Question

In defending the open letter, some claim that the hypocrisy of some signatories (e.g. Bari Weiss agitating to get professors fired for their views) matters less than the nobility of the letter’s ideas. But the actions of the signatories offer the only real-world context for those ideas—one of whom cheered on a SLAPP lawsuit threat I received from a right-wing YouTuber. Indeed, she explicitly hoped for my impoverishment. Clearly she thought my speech was out of bounds, that I said things that Ought Not Be Said, and that I even deserved punishment for this.

That sort of thing is context. Indeed, it is some of the only context the Harper’s letter provides. It demonstrates the emptiness of its content and how thoroughly it sidesteps the very heart of the argument it claims to intervene in. How do we decide on which values guide speech?

Every signatory, and everyone who enthused about the letter, believes that some things simply shouldn’t be said—either from the privileged site of a platform, or at all. Such limits exist at every level of even the freest society, from a whole nation, to a subculture, to a given space, to a given affinity group. Debates about speech are about where and how to draw the boundaries and not truly about whether such boundaries should even exist. The boundaries in question are informal; they are neither drawn nor policed by titled state actors, but by the subtler forms of enjoinment that define any society. And, as with any informal system, it is wide open to abuse.

Yet this issue is not addressed in grandiose declarations like the open letter. They can’t be because they force the would-be free speech absolutist to accept the fact that they are not so absolute after all. It is easier and more satisfying to believe your opponents are “illiberal” vandals on the “reactionary left” who want to destroy the beautiful marble colonnades of “the free exchange of ideas” and “a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”

By design, these are abstract “principles” with positive-sounding words that few could disagree with. Yet in reality, these would-be absolutists are no different from me.

What we actually disagree about is where lines should be drawn, not whether they should be drawn at all. In a rousing debate with Mounk, The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu made this abundantly clear as he criticised the signatories for being mysteriously silent about Fox News firing Tucker Carlson’s racist writer, Blake Neff, for a slew of bigoted posts he made on a private forum:

“Now, the response to people who bring this up has generally been, well look you shouldn’t lump this in with other cases, because Blake Neff is a racist. And this is where it gets sticky. Once you say it’s OK for somebody to lose their job because they’re a racist, the question then becomes, OK what is racism? What is sexism; what is transphobia? It becomes not a question of speech and liberalism in the abstract, with one side supporting liberalism and free discourse and the other side not supporting liberalism and free discourse. It’s a question of where the lines are. And people are functionally going to disagree about that.”

Mounk’s response was to essentially dodge that point. Who could be surprised, however? It forces the pseudo-absolutist onto messier terrain, denying them the “I know it when I see it” consensus they share with their fellow travellers. To actually specify what limits should be imposed where would lead to a breakdown among their number, dissolving into a bitter debate that denial has rendered them ill-equipped to have.

***

There’s a recursive quality to the arguments about cancel culture that never gets addressed. Who is the biggest canceller? The canceller or the one who cancels them for cancelling? It’s not just that the term “cancel culture” is meaningless in much the same way that “political correctness” is; it’s that it’s meaningless for the same reason. It describes behaviours everyone participates in to one degree or another, setting informal boundaries for what can and ought not be said.

The Unheard

The Harper’s open letter was defended by many people who claimed that criticism of the signatories’ privilege—and the fact that several are fabulously wealthy, famous, and do not want for platforms—missed the point. The letter was written on behalf of the voiceless, you see. The main textual evidence for this was the following line: “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.”

The more notable thing about that sentence, however, is that it disappears, well, the people being disappeared in Portland right now. It suggests a false equivalence between the machinery of an oppressive state and its monopoly on mortal violence with Twitter toxicity.

This is further belied by the letter’s own examples of cancel culture gone amok: “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces,” (i.e. Bennet) or “the heads of organizations” who are “ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.” Not exactly “those who lack power,” is it?

What of those who do genuinely lack power, though? Do they run afoul of “progressive orthodoxy”? That is an inapt framing because it locates the problem almost entirely in left-wing political identification, but the short answer is: yes. The problem for many of the signatories isthat these are the same people they want to exclude from discourse and decisionmaking, so it would be inconvenient to mention them.

Trans women of colour, for instance, especially those of us with working class backgrounds who were not raised by parents who hosted dinner parties have sometimes chafed against the in-group/out-group dynamics of some activist groups, especially those dominated by well-educated middle class white people; crucially, however, this often happens because of latent transmisogyny or misogynoir or classism.

Meanwhile, I’ve also seen cis Black women targeted by white women who weaponise “safe space” discourse against them, transmuting their fear of Blackness into rhetoric more palatable to social justice oriented spaces. “I feel threatened,” so easily recognised as racist when, say, a white police officer or Amy Cooper uttered it, is alchemised into victimhood intelligible to progressive rhetoric: “this is supposed to be a safe space.”

This is why I have, for years, cautioned against treating activist insights—for instance, the fact that “tone policing” is a thing—as inflexible rules. Particularly in the hands of young white activists who are coming into their own, it can be too easy to slot these “rules” into a system of informal power that they just so happen to already dominate. But again, such insights would not really interest most of the letter’s signatories unless they can be twisted to reinforce their own power. For instance, Times columnist Michelle Goldberg (who signed the open letter) took a shine to my 2014 essay on this topic and interviewed me for a piece in the Nation about call-out culture. What I didn’t realise was that she had cast writer and activist Mikki Kendall as the piece’s villain, for allegedly being rude to too many white women on Twitter.

Looking back on those pieces of mine from 2014, I realise that I was still rather naïve, myself. At the time I wrote things like “There are some people whose records are such that they could indeed be justly called ‘an unrepentant racist’ or ‘pathological transphobe,’ but there are many more whose mistakes deserve far, far less fire in response. Some may not have made prejudicial mistakes at all.”—such notions are not far afield of the Harper’s letter, especially in isolation. There is much I would write differently today, and I still tried to have it both ways about the Nation article, still trying to claim there was room for us somewhere in an enterprise that was specifically about erasing us. I regret that deeply.

Thus, I can empathise with people of colour who saw something like justice in the open letter’s Rorschach inkblot, like The Nation’s Jeet Heer who signed on behalf of silenced Palestinian activists, or Reed College professor Lucía Martínez Valdivia who was horrified to find the space she shared with transphobes (she has since had her name removed from the letter). But when vague statements of principle are put into the public sphere, the interpretation that favours those with the most power will win out.

Back in 2014, though, I at least made a point of highlighting the fact that when marginalised people talked about callout culture we were referring to how the experiences of Black and brown trans women were colonised into mute rules by white queer activists, or how multiply marginalised people in activist communities fear making a mistake, or how “calling in” might be a more productive way of hashing out pain and disagreement.

Notably, in all of that discourse (some of which is now a decade old), there was discussion of “disposability,” a term that almost never appears in mainstream free speech jeremiads against what is now called “cancel culture.” We fear our energy, power, vulnerability, and pain being bled from us to fuel the personal or political power of more privileged activists or scholars or journalists who would then simply get rid of us when we had nothing left to give. We also feared the horizontal hostility that comes from hurt people hurting people, which meant we often feared each other. Indeed, I was nearly driven away from speaking publicly about trans politics by another translatina back when I was a baby tran, for instance.

Over the years I’ve seen how brutal we as trans women can be to each other because so few of us achieve anything like mainstream visibility, each bearing the unenviable weight of a diverse community’s expectations. Either we somehow manage to be all things to all trans people or we implode. Invariably, we fail, or just distance ourselves from the community.

Yet whenever these stories are picked up by mainstream sources they are invariably positioned as cautionary tales about how “the left,” writ large, eats its own, as the cancel culture reaching its logical conclusion, rather than what it’s always been: marginalised people being held hostage in their own spaces to white supremacy and other forms of structural prejudice.

If you can find any of that complexity in the Harper’s letter, anywhere other than a gloss that massively over-interprets a single line, do let me know.

***

There are, of course, many texts in the open letter’s genre; several are already going up on Persuasion. But the letter remains a useful touchstone because it so perfectly distils everything wrong with that way of thinking. The free speech defender genre is, here, distilled down to its essence as a bundle of clichés in search of a principle. I am far from alone in criticising its lack of specificity. But I had hoped to add these two larger points: recognising that speech debates are about values rather than whether speech should be curbed, and recognising that the bitter debate about callout culture/cancel culture on the left has a much more complicated discourse among the very people the Harper’s letter claims to protect.

We’re not stupid. We know that when the “free speech defenders” criticise the hypocrisy of white social justice activists they are doing so to silence them, not elevate our voices, our expertise, our theory. That is both the truth about both our victimisation by callouts and why some of us are “toxic” as a matter of survival (I strongly recommend Sydette Harry’s thoughts on Crash Override here).

What I despair about is how little we have been able to advance this conversation, especially in public. It’s not a coincidence that whatever language we use to describe anti-social behaviour in activist circles is very quickly seized on by those with real power as a shield, but I wish I knew how to circumvent this.

Can we do better? Perhaps, but not by pretending that it is actually possible to be a free speech absolutist; aside from a few people who are perfectly consistent in opposing any state intervention upon speech, there are no true absolutists. What is at stake is what has always been at stake: our values. The debate about intra-left speech is often parallel to the wider debate about speech in our society as a whole, but these things are conflated to the detriment of the whole conversation.

“The School of Athens,” meanwhile, does not depict a real place, nor even an ideal that is frequently achieved by its loudest proponents. It does not depict the progress of democracy, nor how societies decide which debates have had their day. Dealing with speech and association as a society has never been particularly easy or fun, but we are doing it right now through speech. Perhaps it is worth listening to what the unheard have to say.

***

Influences on this piece include Julia Serano’s “Excluded,” which is a thoughtful discussion of exclusionary dynamics in queer communities, and this excellent recent thread by writer Kai Cheng Thom.

This post was made possible by my wonderful Patreon supporters. Want to see more from me? Join them and support Cross With You today!

Nuclear Unicorn: Now on Patreon!

Hey there Nuclear Unicorners,

As you’re probably all well aware, the vast bulk of my work has since moved to a variety of other websites and publications. But given that freelancing doesn’t always pay the bills, and the fact that I would like to put some of my essay work back here, I thought it was time for me to start my own Patreon (only, of course, after the bludgeoning love of many friends and colleagues who encouraged me to do so).

If you notice, the stretch goals involve funding more writing here and over the long term I would, like many of my colleagues in gaming criticism, like to have a healthy personal blogging presence as well as a presence in the wider gaming press. If you like what you’ve seen here and elsewhere, please feel free to donate, and thank you so much in advance. Click below to donate!

kaGh5_patreon_name_and_message

State of the ‘Corn: My 2014 in Review

A drawing of me by the wonderful AppleCiderMage of the Justice Points podcast (where I appeared this year for a chat). The background of my hometown was added by one of my partners, Rachel.

For regular readers of this blog it has doubtlessly not escaped your notice that I’ve been a rather infrequent presence here this past year. Much of my writing lives elsewhere these days; I’ve been a frequent contributor to RH Reality Check, I have a regular column at Feministing, and I have contributed features to Bitch Magazine. 2014 has been one hell of year and, especially in light of the hells and furies wrought by its final quarter, it’s quite fashionable now to, Festivus-style, air one’s grievances in any attempt to look back on the year.

Having stood in the midst of GamerGate I certainly have plenty of cause to want to turn the book on this year and be done with it. But the year does not belong to them, and if I were to look back on 2014 I would say that on the whole, what will endure for me is the fact that this year has been tremendously good for my growth as a writer and scholar, and that it was the first year that I have truly been able to live the professional life I want to.

While it is popular these days to, for one reason or another, lament the state of the video gaming world, I remain very optimistic. Although a number of challenges remain, the recent backlash has a lot more to do with the fact that the changes made in the world of gaming are here to stay, as are the people who are the faces of that change.

The wider world of politics is something I’m a good deal more concerned about for reasons that should be obvious to anyone following the news. I’ve written extensively this year about different manifestations of racism and police brutality.

Without further ado, however, here are some of my favourite pieces of my own writing from this past year:

Video/Gaming

Perhaps the most cited piece of writing I’ve done this year about games has been “We Will Force Gaming to be Free,” a lengthy and unexpectedly popular essay I wrote for First Person Scholar about how GamerGate quickly came to resemble classic examples of out-of-control revolutionary movements and had fully given itself to violent, “ends justify the means” thinking.

I’ve written a lot for Bitch Magazine this year, but the most fun I had writing for them was this feature on erotic roleplaying subcultures in the world of gaming, both video and pen-and-paper. The artwork they commissioned is also my favourite.

Amy Martin's incredible depiction of ERP is both artful *and* accurate.
Amy Martin’s incredible depiction of ERP is both artful *and* accurate.

Another widely read piece was this (now tragically prescient) editorial I wrote for Polygon about how a “terror dream,” spawned by past censorship battles, wracks the gaming community, making it vulnerable to perceiving any criticism as an attempt to “take our games away.” Also in Polygon, I wrote about the tragedy of how violence is the “idiom of progress” in too many games and that developing gaming as a medium requires coming up with new ways to win (and with thinking beyond the idea of “winning” in the first place).

I wrote extensively about GamerGate as many know. I was one of the first to cover it for a non-gaming news outlet, writing an editorial essay for RH Reality Check about what it revealed about the silencing of critical women (many commenters rushed to buttress my point). My writing on the matter mostly lived on Feministing: I took on the (thankfully rescinded) decision by Intel to pull advertising from Gamasutra, how GamerGate polices the meaning of “gamer” in a deeply exclusionary way, and interviewed Revolution 60 game developer Brianna Wu.

But thankfully I got to write a bit about games themselves as well. Here, for Polygon, I compare Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri to Civilisation: Beyond Earth and find the latter wanting due to its inability to tie its mechanics into a wider narrative. Meanwhile, in one of my very few blog posts here this year, I wrote an essay about Hate Plus’ stealth villain, Oh Eun-a, and what she reveals about the impossibilities of womanhood amidst the stalled gender revolution of the modern world. I also wrote for Feministing about how fantasy RPG religions make for interesting moral exploratory tools and how newer games like Pathfinder are taking this to the next level.

Also, the delightful Jonathan Mann of Song-a-Day fame actually wrote a song inspired by my Polygon “terror dream” essay that distilled its message into a catchy diddy:

Everything Else Political

Since so much of my writing is about day-to-day gender politics, I’ll be a little bit more parsimonious with which essays I put here. I’ll be celebrating my first anniversary as a Feministing columnist very soon, so you can simply see my year in letters at my page on the site, as well as everything I wrote at RH Reality Check this year.

Online Toxicity

If you heard of me prior to GamerGate it was as the author of Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism, the unfortunately named essay that helped frame a larger discussion among feminists about whether we were being too extreme, aggressive, and, yes, toxic in our interactions with one another. I added a postscript to address common criticisms of the argument I advanced.

In the wake of this, Nation writer Michelle Goldberg wrote a feature in that magazine about toxicity in online activism that featured quotes from me and my essay. Regrettably, however, she used the feature to frame the discussion almost entirely in terms that scapegoated black women for said toxicity and racialised the issue in a way that dramatically oversimplified (and dare I say, toxified) the points I and others were making. My response to that, and to the ensuing activist furore (which did little to help matters), can be found here in another unfortunately titled piece (I like to think I’ve gotten better with those!)

On Violence, Racism, and Masculinity

This has been a terrifying year in a number of ways. I wrote here about the oft overlooked misogyny of the far right, including neo-Nazis and white nationalists. Here, at RH Reality Check, I responded to the horrifying misogynist mass shooting committed by Eliot Rodger. I also wrote extensively about how police violence against black communities is a reproductive justice issue, and how the violence of our society grows out of an alarming veneration of violence as the solution to all our problems, which I argued leads to the “militarised mind.” I wrote several articles about the tragic case of Jane Doe, an incarcerated trans girl who was failed by child protective services, in Connecticut, but one of the better essays I wrote on the subject can be found here.

Transfeminism

The Jane Doe essays could easily fit here as well. But I will just highlight the writing I did about the Grantland feature early this year that exploited the death of Dr. V, a trans woman who committed suicide as a result of the author proposing to out her in the piece. I also replied to the apology by Grantland’s EIC Bill Simmons.

On a happier note, I wrote a feature for this season’s Bitch Magazine that took a broad survey of the recent efflorescence of trans women’s literature in recent years. This has been an unparalleled time of growth for independent writing by, for, and about trans women that transcends traditional narratives.

Hope

It’s been an indisputably hard year, so much so that there are Fuck 2014 shirts that one can buy to express their middle-fingered displeasure with it. There’s good reason to be outraged at this year’s events– another futuristic sounding year chock full of terrifyingly retrograde happenings. But there is always reason to be optimistic about what lies beyond tomorrow’s veil, and I think that one of the best things I wrote this year was a gentle reminder to others, especially my fellow feminists, that all is not lost. Cynicism remains our worst enemy, and we cannot let the perfect haunt the good we do at every step.

And I think that’s a good way to wind up this increasingly prodigious overview. In conclusion, I wrote far too much. Happy 2015 to all!

The Politics of Small Things

A mockup of the cover of Richard Dawkins' autobiography, its title and subtitle edited to read "An Appetite for Honey: The Making of White Male Sadness" and the black and white photo of Mr. Dawkins edited to show him scrutinising a small jar of honey.
This delectable (one might even say ‘sweet’) work of satire is the doing of Heina Dadabhoy (@futilityfiles)

There is a familiar cadence to the bursts of Twitter mobbing that have become the defining spasms of cyber-politics these days.

Someone in a position of privilege says something mildly foolish, they are called out on it, and then the privileged individual’s response rises to the level of something genuinely concerning and worth talking about.

It is as if some activists excel at chipping away at the wafer-thin façade of public personas to reveal the monsters beneath. While I sometimes find the methods dubious, the unmasking is often as not a public service. We should be made aware of the latent prejudices or hidden failings of many in our commentariat and we’re the better for it.

So what did we learn from the now hilariously infamous Honeygate, the latest Richard Dawkins micro-scandal to rock social media and set virtual tongues awag? Someone close to me described the reaction to the initial Dawkins honey tweet as “tilting at windmills,” and I admit I’m actually inclined to agree with them. It is hardly the worst thing Richard Dawkins has ever said, and had the words been uttered by anyone else they would hardly have occasioned such an outcry. Had my father said it, I might have even agreed with him (while of course privately snickering about honey-based whinging). But what made Dawkins’ tweet so irritating to those of us who’ve had to field his barrage of pop-sociological ignorance for so long has been drawn into stark relief by his response to the, in his words, “puerile display of sniggering frivolity” that occurred on social media. As ever, the response of a man like Dawkins to public criticism is considerably more revealing than the initial “offence” that occasioned the criticism.

The title of his piece says it all: “My Honey Trap: Why Doesn’t Anyone Believe in Public-Spirited Concern?”

And it is, at last, here that the hypocrisies of Dawkins’ belief system become gobsmackingly offensive. It is not because anything he says in the article is strictly wrong, it’s that it reveals Richard Dawkins to be a man whose “public concern” is limited to the petty, stopping well short of things that actually matter. His myopia blinkers him to the myriad ways in which he takes a sledgehammer to civil society and the dignity of its citizens.

On Missing the Forest for the Trees

The example with which he opens the article—his ill fated attempt to get a financial institution to make a minor convenience change to its website—seems representative of those things that animate Richard Dawkins-as-citizen. For him, public service means gently easing the lives of the comfortable in small ways. Occasionally, this will rise to the level of more noteworthy, practical significance, such as his lament for the family whose child was forced by airport security to go without necessary eczema cream. Strictly speaking, these are fine things to be concerned about; I too would like certain frequently-used websites to be updated with certain convenient modifications, and I too applaud those who send kind and informative feedback to institutions to make that happen.

But Dawkins seems to ennoble this with elegant laurels that are woefully oversized considering the trivial situations he lists, and smug condescension lies murmuring just beneath it all. Consider how he economically describes the exchange between himself and that customer service representative:

She thought I wanted satisfaction for myself in particular. It appeared to be outside her comprehension that somebody might take the time to make a public-spirited suggestion to help other people.

“Well, I’ve been on your website trying to get a bank statement, and I’d filled in the whole form before I was told that the system was down anyway. Could I suggest … ”

“My apologies for that, Richard, let me help you now. What exactly is it you require?”

“Er, no, I don’t think you understand. I’ve already got what I personally needed. I want to report the difficulty I had, so that you can make sure other people don’t suffer the same inconvenience in future.”

“Richard, please tell me what is the date of the bank statement you need, and I’ll have it sent to you.”

“No, I already have the bank statement I need. I’m trying to help other people in my situation … ”

I might have been speaking Volapük. She simply didn’t understand a word of Voluntary-Public-Spirit.

I suspect that the problem here has less to do with her and more with the narrow suite of options for helping customers that she was given by her company. It isn’t that she cannot comprehend the idea of helping others or that she is an insensible spectre to the light of public spirit, it’s simply that her company likely does not allow her to accept that kind of feedback and perhaps she was not used to hearing it via that particular channel. Dawkins isn’t wrong to wonder at why things are structured this way—but if he were to truly get to the bottom of it he might be forced to confront the idea that the entire private sector is built on an individualist myth that rewards self-interest and selfishness, an ideology mirrored in its vision of customer service, and epitomised by the classic slogans “the customer is always right” and “the consumer is king.” I suspect that confronting those challenging notions would be a lot less comfortable for Professor Dawkins than upbraiding a poor customer service rep in the pages of The Guardian for being resistant to his civic-mindedness.

This is, in many ways, Dawkins’ biggest problem: he addresses social problems in painfully narrow fashion and is utterly blind to social structure. He would rather blame faulty individuals (or even  a mass of them) than think about truly social questions—and yes, society is more than merely a collection of individual foibles.

To put an even finer point on it, it is why Dawkins is able to write an article like this without a scintilla of irony or self-awareness, after many years of ranting at the barricades of public discourse in an especially racist, sexist register, and doing far more violence to our polity than a thousand confiscated honey jars or scores of broken bank websites. By being deliberately inflammatory and disingenuous about ethnic minorities in Britain—such as blatantly race baiting through his odious tweet mocking Muslims for not having more Nobel prizes to their name—he is rusting the radiant copper statues of civic virtue and corroding our discourse. He cheapens debate by fully adopting Twitter’s pithy idiom in his pop-sociologising about religion and its adherents, breathelessly pearl-clutching at “puerile” social media one moment, and dismissing a population of billions as idiots the next.

A Matter of “Principle”

Throughout this tempest in a honeypot Dawkins asseverated that the material loss of his honey was not at issue, it was the principle of the matter; security theatre and its pointless quotidian humiliations, he seemed to say, was what he was really complaining about. In this way “Bin Laden won,” by ensuring the death of civic trust and freedom through the thousand cuts of doffed shoes, belts, and zipped plastic bags of not more than a quart in capacity.

Principle is beautiful. It is the marble colonnade of democracy, the elegant flourish of calligraphy on parchment that spells out our rights and duties as citizens. But principle must animate something, some substance, some material reality in order to be worth the parchment upon which it was so lovingly written.

Dawkins must complain about principle here because indeed that is all that is at stake for him. For a woman thought to be Muslim, by contrast, who must endure sexual humiliation every time she passes through an airport checkpoint, the distinction dissolves painfully into the irrelevance of immediate bodily harm. It is indistinct for her precisely because the principle is the harm that was caused to her, it is the loss of her dignity, it is the human right absconded with by that selfsame security theatre. And her condition is one that is constructed and buttressed by the words of men like Dawkins who conveniently forget their pretensions to civic-mindedness when opining in grand forums about the supposed backwardness and inherent threat posed by people who are perceived to be of the Muslim faith.

When Dawkins appropriates that Muslim woman’s putative life experience and perverts it into a simulacrum that enables him to tut-tut activist and thinker Rebecca Watson who complained, rather politely, that it was unwise and unkind for male strangers to proposition women in a hotel lift at 3AM, he forgot the language of “Voluntary Public Spirit.” Indeed, one wonders if Watson was speaking Volapük.

By mocking women, including atheist and sceptic women who are part of Dawkins’ own political stratum, simply because they try to convey the unique social realities of an experience Mr. Dawkins himself does not, and cannot share, he lets loose a rather generous, malodorous pile of leavings upon the very idea of civic spirit. A glitchy bank website isn’t worth an atom of a fig when compared to the fact that we, Dawkins’ female fellow citizens, have a profoundly different relationship to the world of night, to dark alleys, lonely streets, and 3AM lifts. Yet which does he ennoble with the flowering garlands of “public spiritedness”? That says something in and of itself.

Where was he, one wonders, when his fellow “Horseman” Sam Harris called for Muslims to be “racially profiled”? If ever there was an hour for our civic minded superman to duck into a phone box and emerge to reveal his colourful, democratic tunic, it was surely then.

Or perhaps he could have found that beautiful language of civic virtue when that same woman he attacked reminded us of why those very institutions Dawkins takes for granted fail her, and why her free speech remains a right she has to fight for on a daily basis, often athwart hordes of Dawkins’ own fans emboldened by the imprimatur he lent to their hatred by dismissing Watson so sneeringly. He might wonder at the civic mindedness of the men who send her things that are far worse than “puerile sniggering” as well.

Yet it is, in the final analysis, the fact that honey is ineluctably a liquid that sees Dawkins gesturing to those great marble columns and that calligraphy on parchment, and that is worth getting one’s back up.

We all have a lot to learn about citizenship and building a more perfect union of sovereignly equal peoples and individuals; we will not learn it from a man who uses mighty rhetoric to cover up his perennial failure to accept any responsibility for the things he says. There is, Mr. Dawkins, such a thing as duty—and I would much rather you used it to combat institutional prejudice that makes me fear for my life and bodily integrity than to help make my bank website run a little more smoothly.

Enough

My approach to Cathy Brennan has long mirrored my approach to Ann Coulter; I generally refuse to dignify their deliberate attempts to cruelly incite. Rising to meet their hate, which is deliberately designed to provoke outrage, feels like a vindication of their strategy; what they desire most is attention, and giving it to them hardly feels like a victory for those on the side of the angels. However, after seeing a relatively sympathetic article about Brennan in the online magazine Bustle— which apparently misgenders a trans woman and which some of my friends have fairly derided as a “puff piece”– I felt there are some matters which merit clarification.

During the interview she clearly set aside the instruments of her usual rhetoric and put on her most reasonable mien. Unsurprisingly, nothing she says justifies her behaviour, and much of what she does say is premised on assumptions that have no basis in our shared reality as women.

It is that latter point that Brennan struggles with and the primary reason that reconciliation between those like her and the rest of the feminist movement is likely impossible; she simply refuses to believe that trans women are women, and structures everything she believes around that misapprehension. This keystone holds up everything she and her fellow travellers believe about trans politics. I have no illusions about convincing Brennan, but for the sake of anyone who might have been persuaded that Brennan’s contribution to this debate arises from something other than a particularly heartless form of prejudice I would submit the following in response to some of her points in this interview.

Notes on an Avant-Garde Definition of “Conservative”

First and foremost is this particular argument which lies at the heart of much “feminist” transphobia:

“The laws also codify the idea of innate gender identity, Brennan said. In pushing the idea that whatever gender a person identifies as overrides their biological sex, it “enshrines into law the idea that gender is innate.” This is an essentially conservative idea, and “it’s not advancing the cause of women’s liberation, which is what I’m interested in as a feminist. This ideology — I understand that it’s rooted in equality, but it has the effect of marginalizing women.””

This is breathtaking. It is especially gobsmacking for a feminist to argue something so painfully opposed to most feminist understandings of patriarchy and biological essentialism.

Let us be clear about what is being argued here: Brennan’s suggestion is that if one is assigned a sex at birth, forcibly, by doctors and parents on the basis of nothing more than a cursory glance at a biological fact, and then one is forcibly raised to live up to that role, backed by the full faith and violent credit of patriarchy, it is essentially conservative to then reach a point of consciousness that says “no, I am not a prisoner of my birth biology,” and identify differently from a gender that everyone around you says is “innate,” “biological,” “ordained by God,” et cetera. This courageous act is what she deems conservative, not the chorus of voices in patriarchal institutions that have long tried to pathologise and marginalise us for our asseverations of self.

Indeed, this is what transphobic feminism never seems to grapple with: how do they theorise patriarchy’s long, abiding legacy of discrimination against trans people? How do they reconcile their assertions with the fact that trans women are victims of the same types of harassment, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, street violence, exploitation, and objectification that cisgender women are? How is it that after being condemned by conservative, patriarchal religion, (lest we forget, the erstwhile Pope Benedict once likened us to climate change), the patriarchal nuclear family, and patriarchy on the street, does one come to the conclusion that what trans women are is “essentially conservative”?

Far from being “innate,” most trans people argue that gender is the very opposite, with our lives and our numbers as empirical proof of the same. Whether one likes it or not, we defied our assigned sex at birth, and we exist. Rather insistently, at that. It is certainly true that some trans people redound to reductive arguments about innate brain sex or genetics, but I and many others have argued that this should not be the basis for our claims to rights and justice.

We should not be held hostage to what some of us say when trying to win some measure of reprieve from a violent system: sometimes mouthing the words “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” or “I have a woman’s brain in a man’s body” is what one needs to access healthcare, a place to live, or the support of parents who would otherwise turn you out of your home. When every other door is slammed in your face, what would you do? We as feminists have ample analysis to understand this; why is that analysis always shut off when trans women enter the frame, and why do a minority of cisgender feminists suddenly and naively take what they see at face value, in a manner redolent of the crypto-misogynist who says that women make less money because we choose to spend more time with our children?

I must confess, I have never been able to follow the logic of those who argue that trans people are inherently conservative or biologically essentialist in our essence. Consider Brennan who argues:

“Our whole lives we are raised very much aware of our vulnerability as women, so I don’t understand why when a man says he’s a woman, all of a sudden the penis is no longer (an issue) … Men rape women and girls in bathrooms all the time, so it’s not like women’s concerns about that aren’t reasonable. And these laws are broadly enough written to justify the entry of anyone into a (women-only) space.

If they’re excluding you because you’re male, well, I’m sorry, but you are male. Deal with your reality. We didn’t create that reality, that reality exists.”

In other words, if you have a penis at birth and it leads to you being assigned “M,” then there is no way to escape that; you are a man for life, irrespective of any number of possible social interventions, with one’s penis being the all determining truth of the matter. (The reverse being true for those assigned “F,” presumably).  Is this the grand argument against biological essentialism? How is this view, that one’s physiology at birth is the all determining truth, the full “reality” of one’s gender, not what is inherently conservative?

Our Lives, Our Truth, Our Womanhood

What is “reality” is the brutality of patriarchy for many women—for when it comes to that fist in women’s faces, patriarchy makes no distinction between cis and trans women. The other key fact ignored by Brennan in the foregoing is that trans women are raped too.

Theoretical debates about trans women prevail in some spaces, but the reality of our existence prevails in the real world of the street, the late night bus, the dark alley, the bedroom. No amount of Brennan’s averring that we are men would have spared CeCe MacDonald, Islan Nettles, Erycka Morgan, and countless other women who have suffered or died at the hands of men. It does not spare trans women of colour from being stopped and frisked by police officers who use condoms as “evidence” of prostitution. It does not spare those same trans women from being raped by cisgender men in holding cells and prisons. It does not spare trans women from being murdered by boyfriends who demonstrate the same entitlement they would over the life and body of a cisgender woman—taking it to an especially vicious extreme because transgender women are, in too many cases, even more disposable. It does not spare us from being the target of internet harassment campaigns designed to silence women—much of my own work has centered around this, and the recent hate campaigns directed at Carloyn Petit and Laura Kate Dale remind us that feminist trans women incur just as much hate for speaking out as cisgender feminists do. I myself was run off of moderating a community forum because of stalking, misogynist threats, and the odd rape threat.

Patriarchy makes no mistakes about us, even if our individual tormentors may deride us as “men” or fixate luridly upon our anatomy by calling us “chicks with dicks” (merely repeating the objectifying gestures extended to all women), they will unequivocally treat us as women.

Thus, asking us to use men’s accommodations is the equivalent of saying that it is acceptable for us to go somewhere we’ll be beaten up, sexually harassed, and possibly raped. Whatever inconvenience this poses to Brennan’s ideology, trans women are not treated as men by patriarchy.

That reality exists.

It is, in a sense, degrading that I must even write this– an article that lays bare scars, bruises, bodies, and wounded hearts– is this lurid pornography of the spirit what it takes for someone like this to accept, however grudgingly, that in spite of her hailstorm of arrows we are inexorably sisters in this struggle? Why must I even be placed in the position of proving our womanhood by proving that patriarchy has hurt us through delineating how it hasIt is beyond lamentable that this has become necessary.

***

Finally, a brief word must spared for Brennan’s suggestion that her lawsuits and stalking are reserved only for those who go out of their way to harass her. As her recent suit against Jacobin magazine makes abundantly clear, Ms. Brennan will use legal instruments to attack anyone who merely disagrees with her. Jacobin’s crime was to publish a critical article by transfeminist Samantha Leigh Allen which picked apart the fundamentals of Brennan’s beliefs as I have done here. Like me, she did not attack Brennan but criticised her ideas and, yes, labelled them “transphobic.” This, apparently, counts as slander.

Meanwhile, a cis friend of my partner and myself is being hauled to court for mildly criticising Brennan on Twitter. Another friend, whose work centres around bringing gender equity to the internet, has been attacked by Brennan and her allies for being a trans woman.

Furthermore, as I write this, radical feminist journalist Laurie Penny has had to put an article about Brennan’s politics on ice because of a possible lawsuit, after a day of enduring her attempts to get her fired.

Concluding Thoughts

I want to make myself absolutely, unequivocally clear: no one, whether trans or cis, woman or allied with women, should harass those whose transphobically harass us. There is no place for threats or hateful words directed at Brennan or any of her fellow travellers. I do not condone such behaviour. We accomplish nothing by merely summoning more cruelty and indignity into the world, whatever power differences may prevail amongst the participants.

But I am speaking up now against Ms. Brennan’s ideas because her work seems to chiefly consist in stopping other feminists from doing theirs. She is harassing our community and trying her hardest to silence women—every person in my professional circle that has faced some sort of action from Brennan is a woman, whether cis or trans, and we can now add one of our most prominent young feminist writers to that list, apparently. Every single one of these people, myself included, has important feminist projects that we are working on and constitute our life’s work—any criticism of Brennan is incidental. But it would appear that she makes it her full time job to harass us and anyone who might speak on our behalf against her, which invariably means that most of her work involves attacking and silencing women and girls, most of whom are feminists.

The culture of fear thus created where nearly everyone I know who puts pen to paper is afraid of even mentioning Brennan’s name is anathema to any ethical democratic discourse, and given the disproportionate silencing of women at work here it is a culture that is misogynist in its dimensions. This is not debate, this is not evenhanded or balanced; this is a brutal campaign that is making the life of people I love harder, and is, in some cases, putting trans people in serious danger.

How else could I describe her very public and (in the true sense of this word) slanderous campaign against an innocent trans girl being led by the right wing “Pacific Justice Institute”? Without a shred of evidence, she is attempting to gin up a national campaign to harass and exclude a young girl, going so far as outing her, for no reason other than her gender and the fact that Brennan does not approve of every place she exists as that gender.  For her to ally with powerful, monied forces in the harassment of a child, is without excuse and it is persecution.

That is reality. And this must stop. As feminists we have enough to deal with without constantly dodging this decidedly unfriendly fire, especially when it targets our young.

And if My Life Is Like the Dust…

Trans100 LogoMuch to my great shock I was nominated and added to the Trans100 List, a curated, non-ranked list of US trans activists working intersectionally to improve conditions for the community—I accepted with profound gratitude, and I feel humbled to know that I’ve been added to a list that includes some truly astounding people, considering I’ve only done a fraction of what some of them have. I can only hope to live up to the very high bar that my sisters, brothers, and siblings have set.

The Trans100 list is a project that I didn’t even know about until a week ago. But it grew up from We Happy Trans*, This is HOW, and other projects dedicated to the proposition of trans visibility, and the idea that the lives we live—even in the midst of a stricken world like ours—are worth celebrating. That’s an idea I can get behind, to say the least, and coincidentally I wrote something this past week that gets at why I think we need things like the Trans100. I was expressing my discomfort with the often Manichean tone of the same-sex marriage debate on my Facebook feed. Oh no no, not between liberals and conservatives, but between radicals and liberals. I was very uneasy with the simple, dyadic terms of a discussion where marriage was posited either as a capitalist-cum-patriarchal evil, or a completely unproblematic institution that merited no critical analysis. Adding to the complexity was the fact that the HRC, with its awful history, was squatting on the whole discussion like a dreadfully white elephant.

In many cases, trans people and POC were political footballs: “same-sex marriage is a nonissue because trans POC have totally different issues!” – partially true, of course, but it also misses some complexities. In particular, I grew weary of how we were being talked about mostly in absentia and mostly in terms of tragedy. What follows began as a lengthy Facebook post and has now been edited and remixed for you, Nuclear Unicorners (I’ve officially named you, revel in my originality). Enjoy.

***

I’ve noticed a trend amongst certain people in the queer community where white/male/masculine/cis people/who-don’t-live-in-my-hood are telling me what my issues are, and that does make me more than a little uncomfortable. The majority of people I know who’ve recently been married thanks to same sex marriage law changes are folks of colour and trans people, for one. It did matter to them, and that needs to be factored into our consideration here—that we may be standing in a more complex place than reductive ‘lived politics’ may permit.

But it’s more than just that. Allow me to explain.

What defines recent media coverage and liberal discussions of presumptively-cis gays and lesbians? Normativity? ‘They’re just like us!’-ism? Yes, in no small measure; but go deeper than that. What is that pointing to? In what substantial ways, beyond the white picket fence, beyond 2.3 kids and a dog, are they just like (some) cis heteros?

They’re shown to be having lives. Increasingly, cis gays and lesbians are at last being recognised as people who are everything from activists to artists, journalists to teachers, scientists to non-profit organisers, parents and family; people with dreams and aspirations. In particular, it is once the latter are accorded an equal place in the firmament of human yearning that we come one step closer to substantive justice.

This is not just about normativity, it’s a question of living and thriving. Of humanising. Many of the same radical queers may critique that, but they want to live those same lives– as activists, artists, academics, poets, writers, community organisers, queer polyfamily members, and so on.

That’s a life. A real life-as-lived that can be a source of inspiring pride.

Yet every time I see a Facebook post from someone about us, usually an ally of trans women who’s either a cis man/woman, or a queer trans man or trans masculine person, do you know what I hear?

About how dead we are.

Stab wounds, immolation, genital mutilation. We’re heels pointed up out of a dumpster, we’re arrest and incarceration statistics, and we’re “bodies” (oh how I loathe how that term has replaced “person” in so much discourse). We’re dead, voiceless names and brief stories read at TDOR. And when our issues are talked about and screamed about from the top of a cis man’s lungs, that’s mainly what we are. Dead and dying. Unable to speak for ourselves as trans women of colour.

It’s why I cheered when I saw Janet Mock on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show because holy mother of Goddess, when’s the last time the mainstream media heard from someone with her life and perspective? I finally saw a living, thriving sister talking about the need for justice, not a cis person speaking for us as so many bodies, but a real trans woman of colour. My sister.

My living sister.

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project—the non-profit where I’m a proud collective member—takes on the hard jobs, the cases no one else will. We do the hard work of responding as a collective and a community to the hell imposed on us by the state, by the police, by uncaring institutions and the violence of a society that hates us, but especially hates trans women. We do that, and we do it gladly. But you know who “we” are? Trans folk and people of colour. We’re not just victims, we’re doing. We’re lawyers, social scientists, activists, artists, and beautiful living, thriving people who are doing great work and striving to make our own issues and lives visible.

Our Prisoner Advisory Committee is comprised of incarcerated trans folk who are now fighting for meaningful lives– both during and after incarceration. They’re trying to thrive and do work; budding jailhouse lawyers who refuse to be “bodies.” (I encourage you to check out PAC’s newsletter, In Solidaritywhere PAC members submit editorials, art, and poetry to be shared with the wider community– in and outside of prison.)

The people we serve aren’t just “clients”– they’re neighbours, friends and loved ones with vibrant communities too often ignored by both the gazes of mainstream media lenses and trendy radical indie film lenses. Instead we’re “bodies”– victims and statistics.

That half-truth is how we are seen by all. Even by our ‘allies.’ Through it all we hear next to nothing of these women’s lives and loves. We learn not of how trans women live, only how we may die.

Now we return to the beginning: this is why I get uncomfortable when white masculine queers angrily talk about how dead we are. We’re not all dead, and those of us who live have real, lived lives just as valid, beautiful, and dreamy as those of my queer sisters and brothers who get to have the house with the white picket fence. Even as we struggle—and every day it feels like I hear another story about how someone was shitty to a sister, abused or harassed her—and even as I still fight dysphoria, there are beautiful lives and stories and dreams there.

Talk about them.

I’m not dead yet, my queer family.

Trendy as a Tote Bag: Part II

Times are very hard, to be sure, and as I am now working in the fundraising department of a radical transgender rights oriented organisation I’m seeing yet another dimension to the endless Great Recession unfolding before me. Simultaneously, what I am constantly astonished by is how people in the most economically disadvantaged communities always manage to find a penny here and a penny there to help their sisters, brothers, and siblings in need. We’re out there looking out for each other and that never fails to give me hope.

It sounds a tad bit cheesy, yes, but for all of my snarky sarcasm and the like, I’ve always put a lot of stock in that gift from Pandora’s Box. It’s a precious resource in the trans community. So, what am I waxing all poetic about and what not? Well, this time around I’d like to solicit you all to fundraise for a charity near and dear to my heart– so much so that I’m actually working for them. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organisation for low income trans people of colour, has radical aims that dovetail with the themes I often speak of on this blog. It is hard to imagine a better organisation for me to devote my time and energy to. Indeed, it’s part of why I’ve been a tadbit too busy to write these days. But it is the Goddess’s work and it feels decidedly good.

On that note, this is our latest fundraising project:

I’ve been pretty busy helping with the organising and the fundraising that an event like this requires but for the moment I’ve been given a pet project and if any of my readers are interested in doing a spot of good then you can hop on over to Indie GoGo and check out our online fundraiser leading up to this gala. Please feel free to contribute, but if you don’t want to or are unable to, then I encourage you to pass the link along to any friends, colleagues, allies, and so on who may be interested. With initiatives like this every dollar helps.

My work here has been, in no small measure, interesting and a crash course in many things. But it has, above all, been a beautiful insight into the community that my sisters, brothers, and siblings have forged and of which I am proud to be a part. I’m not the kind of woman who is easily persuaded into advocacy and I would have never offered my blog as a place to help our fundraising efforts if I couldn’t say the word “our” with confidence apropos SRLP; if I didn’t feel a sense of ownership, a sense of community, I’d have never mentioned my blog. But I did so eagerly because SRLP isn’t just where I work. It’s a workplace where I can be out as a trans woman without the slightest second thought, and it’s a place where all of the markers of isolating distinction and discrimination do not count against you. A place where I could seek support from everyone on staff when I experienced a transphobic incident a couple of weeks ago.

In sum, I do believe in SRLP and what they do; they practise what they preach and I love them to bits. They are that rarest of organisations that will make my usually cold onyx heart melt and go all mooshy.

This is one of only a few nonprofit organisations that reflects the radical vision I have; radically gender equal and positive, feminist/anti-patriarchal, and as much as possible a non-hierarchical organisation that constantly militates against forces compelling them to sell out. As much as possible, I can say with confidence having seen things from the inside, we really do try to ensure that the trans community has ownership of this non profit and that we are never beholden to the powerful or the “great and good.” Small donations from (yes I’m using the PBS phrase here) people like you make that radical goal possible.

Okay I’m done being all sappy. If y’all are generous I may throw a slug comic up here soon when I get home. Thanks in advance.

~Quinnae

State of the Corn: Frostbitten Edition

Pictured: Nuclear Winter Unicorn

Howdy, everyone! Things have been rather busy of late, class is taking off again and I’m having a grand old time. I’ve gotten out my bullwhip and leather hat since I’m taking a course in the archaeology of ancient women, and I am also taking a transgender studies independent research course with a good friend of mine which, as part of our grade, we will be liveblogging. More information on that will come as soon as it is available.

For those of you who enjoy my writing, enjoy my latest work from The Border House:

  • Cyberfucking While Feminist: Here I publish the first of several interviews with women and feministy people who erotically roleplay online. Their experiences have proven to be quite interesting. The first interview, published here, as well as the yet-to-be-published ones to follow are interesting tales of both empowerment and struggle with misogyny.
  • Characters done Right: Kreia from KotOR2: This loveletter for my favourite character ever was a long time coming. Kreia, the shadowy and dark mentor Jedi from Knights of the Old Republic 2, is analysed by yours truly in loving detail.
  • It’s Not a Dress! It’s Transphobia!: This article briefly examines one of the more aggravating tics of speech I’ve found in online gaming- the defensiveness and mockery on the part of cis male gamers about the fact that spellcasters wear robes that sometimes (*gasp*) have bright colours.

As always, enjoy! I’ll be back with more updates soon.

It’s Time I Said Something

Trigger Warning: Explicit discussion of rape and rape apologism follows.

Often is the time that I wish I could update this space every day with thoughts on every topic under the sun, a constant celebration of what is good in the world, and tireless fusillades against what is not. For reasons of both self-care and lack of energy, I simply cannot, however. Yet my silence on one issue is glaring and it is time I said something, regardless of how exhausted I may be feeling right now and how ever much I may just be feeling a burning drive to forget the world exists for a while.

This is not a post about Julian Assange. It is a post that was inspired by Sady Doyle’s bone-shaking message of defiance on her blog yesterday pertaining to her ongoing quest to wrest apologies from two rich white cis men in the media who see fit to tweet personal information about potential rape victims, Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore. This relates to the Assange case, yes, but the reason this case has become such a line in the sand for many feminists is because of the broader social issues that this case touches on, and which, for all the media hullabaloo about Assange and his accusers, has not been discussed substantively by most mainstream outlets.

Doyle’s post is worth reading, to say the very least. The anodyne, lifeless words I just spoke will not do justice to what I am about to quote:

“I WILL NOT GO AWAY. WE WILL NOT GO AWAY. Because all of those women, all of those GODDAMNED WOMEN, all of those GODDAMNED RAPE VICTIMS and people who file rape allegations, they ALL got scared away in EXACTLY THIS MANNER. Using these SAME GODDAMNED TACTICS. They all had to go away, no matter what happened to them, they all just got scared until they went away, and for them, for their sake, because of everything they suffered, I am going to stand outside of Michael Moore’s tower with my megaphone until he comes. Somebody has to stand out here, somebody has to be the one that just won’t go away. Somebody fucking has to do it. Because those women matter.”

Thus I’m going to set those words aside tonight. Because what she has said is fucking true, and it needs to be shouted from the rooftops, the parapets, the mountains, foothills, hillocks, and goddess-damned anthills.

One of my closest and dearest friends, a woman to whom I owe my life, and indeed many aspects of the woman I became were cultivated by her, was raped by someone she trusted. The consent she gave was abused far beyond the limits she set out and she endured having things done to her that she did not ask for her, hearing poisonous words that haunt her to this day as the man who violated her flaunted what he was doing. She hasn’t reported this because of the institutional prejudices that would shoot down any attempt at prosecution, both because of what kind of woman she is, and the kind of sex she consented to have with this man.

So many forces in this world tell women like her, bright Polarises of humanity, that they stopped mattering the moment they were raped. Powerful people think nothing of using and dismissing her, dismissing what happened, hoping she’ll shut up and go away. This man told her she didn’t matter; the police would very likely tell her the same thing.

In the spirit of Sady Doyle’s words, Ms. T, you matter. You matter so goddamn much, you mean the world to me, you illuminated my life and you continue to do so to this very day. I cannot repay, ever, what you have given to me. This green Earth would be a lesser place without you.

These are words that I have told her in snippets, scattered puzzle pieces of the total whole of my love for her and who she is. She likely cannot read this post because of the PTSD that this bastard left her with, and I’d never ask her to revisit this tragedy- so she’ll hear my words in private and in person. But this proclamation of mattering, of love, deserves to be up in lights as well because we still lack the sheer number of outlets telling survivors of rape that they matter, enough to counteract the many forces tacitly and explicitly telling them that they do not.

Those four horrible letters, PTSD, cannot begin to encompass the enormity of life changes that rape visits upon someone. Read through the comments on Sady Doyle’s post as well, many survivors came forward, and their stories are moving. One woman who said she had to live an altered life while her rapist walked free as if nothing happened perfectly echoed a lament from my friend. A lament I have heard too many times from her, when the pain becomes too much to bear. The agony that she fights with every day because of the sense of worthlessness imposed upon her, both by the rape, and by broader social discourses that impose themselves on women is something I cannot put into mere words.

The pain I feel when she is triggered, when she’s crying out to the universe begging for the hurt to stop, for things to go back to the way they were… it’s a fraction of what she endures every day as a survivor. What this man did to her was to make her life such that it’s become an act of courage for her to go out and buy snacks for herself. She cannot forget what happened to her, she cannot enjoy crowds the way she used to, cannot enjoy touch. This happened because she was a woman in a society like ours, and a woman of trans experience; the sense of emptiness rape heaps on you is unbearable, the shame, the agony. I had to tell her, as my own body quaked with a fear that filled my voice, that her life was still worth living as she held a kitchen knife in her hand, teetering on the edge of snuffing that bright spark she embodies forever.

I say all of this because what has been lost in discussions about Assange’s accusers is any real discussion about rape and how women, cis and trans, experience it in our society. The shame and the silence it inculcates keeps the volume of such discussion somewhere slightly above mute and ensures that people think it’s perfectly fine to have a jolly good debate about whether or not doing something sexual to a woman without her consent is rape. While cadres of men wring their hands about withdrawing consent after its given, I have a friend who is still picking up the pieces of her life- and she’s succeeding, damnit, she’s making something of herself every passing day. But no thanks to them, no thanks to the Keith Olbermanns of the world, nor the other so-called progressive men who become Sir Robin and bravely turn tail when challenging social issues of gender arise.

This is not truly about Assange at the end of the day, and fools who think that the unique circumstances of his spearheading of Wikileaks are enough to ring-fence this and say nothing whatsoever at any time to do with sexism has entered the discussion about his accusers and the rape-accusations against him are people I have next to no patience for. I remained silent on this in part because many people were saying what I have tried to say here better than I could. But what Doyle reminded me of was precisely what I have just said, this is not about Julian Assange nor specifically about his accusers: it’s about a society where women who have been raped, or who even dare to use the criminal justice system to get justice after they have been raped, are automatically slandered and disbelieved. The first thought is about how they might be fucking some man over, rather than ever considering the possibility that they are telling the truth. How these women have been treated is how the vast majority of women, especially those who are fully divested of personhood by the state like trans women, sex workers, and immigrant women, are treated when they stand up and grant utterance to their experience with an eye towards justice.

For my friend, Ms. T, for everyone Sady mentioned on her blog, for everyone who responded their with their own tales, and for the armies of survivors around the world who cannot speak, I stand up and say enough is enough.

  • I am sick to death of men coming into every public discussion about rape and putting the words “Duke” and “Lacrosse” together in his post explaining why he’s entitled to shame and mistrust survivors.
  • I am tired of folks quoting a long refuted study about how supposedly 50% of all women lie about rape.
  • I am beyond tired of hearing “innocent until proven guilty” when I never said anything about presuming guilt, only about understanding and putting a premium on the victim’s pain and experience and the fact that she wants to kill herself, because it fucking matters.
  • I am sick to death of men talking about how women get a kick out of getting ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ in a courtroom, as if accusing someone of rape, especially someone who is well liked, is the easiest goddamn thing in the world to do for which there are no emotional and physical consequences.
  • I am tired of people getting on my ass about how I think all men are rapists when I never once in my life have said that.
  • I am sick to death of people making extremely pathetic and tired excuses for anything bad that happens to a transsexual or transgender woman.
  • I am tired beyond words of arguing against people who try to find some way to prove that a woman brought a rape on herself by doing or not doing x, y, and z.
  • I utterly despise and am sick of men who say that talking about rape culture is ‘misandrist’ or man-hating in any context.
  • For that matter I’ve just about had it with people who say there’s no such thing as rape culture despite the fact that we see its workings laid bare Oz-style in every high profile drama about rape, or despite the fact that people like Sady Doyle have to endure high velocity shit sprayed at her in the windtunnel of Twitter threatening her with rape and other harm for speaking out.
  • I’m sick and tired of people who think trigger warnings are hi-larious and represent “political correctness gone mad.”
  • I’m sick of people who believe there is such a thing as “political correctness” and that it protects people like rape victims andor PTSD-suffers when it seems the only ‘correct’ thing to do in these peoples’ minds is mock them.
  • I’m sick and tired of comic artists who make fun of rape survivors.
  • I’m sick and tired of men who heap nothing but scorn on survivors and people who try to help them, then compare paying alimony to being raped in a disgusting bid for sympathy for their right wing agenda.
  • Indeed, I’m sick of anyone who gets very squeamish talking about actual fucking rape but liberally compares anything they don’t like to rape to drive home how much they think being overcharged 50 cents at Pizza Hut or getting sniped in TF2 by a hacking player sucks.
  • I’m tired of people who think prison rape is little more than risque humour.
  • I’m tired of people who forget that both trans and cis women are raped in prison too.
  • I’m *really* tired of people who think prison rape is a ‘just punishment.
  • I’m bloody well tired of people who think sex workers can’t be raped.
  • I want to scream at people who think sex workers being raped is funny, cause to make a shitty pun, or is somehow ‘to be expected.’ As if rape just happens, you know?
  • I’m very peeved with people who think that feminists want to take all the ‘spontaneity’ out of sex by calling for people to be more certain about consent.
  • I’m tired of people who say “Yeah rape is a horrible thing, but…” and then proceed to say something that entirely minimises and/or erases why rape is so horrible.
  • I’m tired of people assuming that if a man is found not guilty of a rape that it must mean the accusing woman lied maliciously in some golddigging effort to extract revenge of some kind. Rather than, say, the fact that the police may have picked up the wrong man.

The fact that I can make this list go on and on is troubling to me on a very deep level. I was not my usual eloquent self tonight, but this post is a cry of outrage, of anger, and a firmly pronounced willingness to permanently commit to this space the fact that I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. All rape victims deserve better than the very abridged foregoing list of bullshit rape apologism I’ve laid out just now. They deserve to have more people speaking out and proclaiming loudly that the way we as a society deal with rape is deeply flawed and perpetuates oppression. People who say that rape culture doesn’t exist because we criminalise rape clearly have not bothered to listen much when a woman does try to make use of such laws to have her assailant face justice.

Ms. Doyle’s words could very well be my own:

“You all matter to me. I don’t care if they say you don’t matter. I don’t care if they act like you don’t matter. I don’t care what they do to us, to all of us, all of the shit they do to make it possible to discredit and bully us and make us too scared to report, all of the misinformation they spread — it’s not rape if it started out consensual, it’s not rape if it happened while you were unconscious, it’s not rape if you’ve had sex with him before, it’s not rape if you hang out with the guy later, it’s not rape if you love him, it’s not rape if you like him, it’s not rape if it happens to you because you’re worthless, these are all lies – because it doesn’t change the fact that you matter.”

Rock on, sister.

Lost in Trans-Lation II: This Time It’s Personal…er

So begins Episode II of the Lost in Trans-Lation saga. I realise this is, in many ways, a terrible title whose badness is compounded by the fact that it’s yet another bad ‘trans’ pun (and don’t worry, there’s more where that come from) but it’s grown on me and I’m going to keep it around for its humour value. I’m in a new Women and Gender Studies class with the same professor giving the same weekly journal writing assignments, and so I felt that like any badly named movie it needed a sequel. The sequel no one was waiting for. (Rejected titles include Lost in Trans-Lation II: The Two Ivory Towers; Lost in Trans-Lation II: Revenge of the Poststructuralists; Lost in Trans-Lation II: Return of Marilyn Frye. Lost in Trans-Lation II: The Identitarian Menace. Look, do you know how hard it is to make jokes out of words like ‘ethnomethodology’? Give me a break!)

Onto more serious things. In this space I clearly devote an extensive amount of energy to trans issues. In the near future I will write my thoughts on the etiology of transgender and I think that this journal entry I’d written that reviews Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body is a very good place to start that might give my readers some insight into the intellectual underpinnings of the opinions I’ll soon be expressing. Dr. Fausto-Sterling presents a very compelling view of biology, its relation to politics, and the project of sexual dimorphism, with profound implications for how we understand transgender and transsexual people.

It would be difficult to overstate just how vital Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work should be to any discussion of sex and gender, particularly in its ponderous neurological and biological contexts. Her earlier book, Myths of Gender, explored the myriad of problems with simplistic biological explanations for gendered phenomena in society, but Sexing the Body’s implications reach further. She proposes a radically new means of understanding sex and gender. I would not simply say she has proposed a new ‘system’- rather she challenges the need for a system at all, and trading heavily on the examples of intersex people demonstrates the radical implications of it and the need for a vision of sex and gender the centralises the individual rather than privileges the preservation of already-existing groups. In the opening chapter, Duelling Dualisms, she uses illuminating examples that highlight the seemingly arbitrary nature of our present ‘two party system’ as she wryly calls it later in the book, focusing on the topic of Olympic sex testing. While this work was penned in 2000, the very contemporary example of Caster Semenya demonstrates the ongoing, painful relevance of the Olympic examples and the absurdities contained in its assumptions. From a Nazi athlete who disguised himself as a woman in the Olympics for easy gold medals, and then lost to three actual women, to a Spanish runner who found herself under vicious attack after an Olympics sex test identified her as “male” Sterling brings to life a complex issue that we do not often think about. What does it say about our world when we have powerful people sitting in a “femininity control head office”?

Sterling paints a picture of a gender system that is as much enforced as it is naturally occurring, and one that treats exceptions to it not only as curiosities, but even as things to be utterly annihilated, denied, and erased. Such language may seem extreme, but it is hard to look at the surgical alteration of intersex infants in any other way. Her chapter Should There Be Only Two Sexes? demonstrates powerfully why these surgeries appear to be more in the interest of preserving a social ideal than in the welfare of any given child. She demonstrates that while intersex people without surgically altered bodies lead productive lives, including lives that are active sexually, those who undergo the surgery face mixed results and the doctors themselves admit that the goal of such surgeries is merely a cosmetic effect. Virtually no attention is paid to the psychological health of the child or to their future sexuality, which is often irretrievably harmed by the surgery.

I have often said that this failure to treat intersex children properly is best described by one of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s best turns of phrase wherein she says such surgeries constitute “the literal social construction of sex”; contained in those words is the essence of the very problem that intersex people and transgender people are confronted with. Sterling points out that many of our sexual woes are essentially conceptual problems. We find ourselves unable to break out of dualistic thinking on the subject: sex and gender, male and female, nature and nurture. She argues convincingly for a vision that regards the connections between mind and body, as well as body and society, as a Mobius strip where there is a simple but elegant continuity between the two ‘sides.’ This stands in a long line of feminist thinking that has sought to challenge dualism as a destructive idea that necessarily flows from (and thereby reinforces in dialectic fashion) systems of domination and subordination. Starhawk spends much time challenging dualistic thinking in both religious and secular life, arguing that it promotes the idea that one end of the polar split is good and the other evil, a metaphor that plays out on countless aspects of ordinary life with disastrous consequences. Sterling takes this conceptual vision and suggests that we reunite concepts previously held to be opposites, echoing my own long standing injunction “can’t it be both?”

Another problem, as I already alluded to, is that such dualistic cleavages invariably create hierarchies. Quoting Judith Butler, Sterling asks “Why […] has the idea of materiality come to signify that which is irreducible, that which can support construction but cannot be itself constructed?” This echoes my past thoughts about the long shadow Karl Marx’s base/superstructure paradigm has cast on the sciences. Even feminists would come to see it as salvation, allowing them to argue that yes, while biological sex is natural, real, and unchangeable, gender was constructed and malleable, thus social change was possible. It is a compromise argument that has left feminism the poorer and painted it into a corner as it still fights on numerous fronts against biological determinism. Sex is accorded the status of timeless reality, that which simply is, while gender is conceptually granted the possibility of some flexibility but is still seen as an outgrowth of sex’s foundation.

In addition to this, however, she proposes an equally interesting idea that has much merit as well. She holds that homosexuality and heterosexuality are themselves constructed and are predicated on a reinforced binary sex/gender system that only came into full force with the rationalisation of the 19th Century.  She argues that our culture presumes that when a middle aged person comes out as gay that they are revealing something that has been cosmically true all along and invalidates years of prior heterosexual activity. The truth, she says, is more complex and the idea that one is exclusively hetero or exclusively straight (and sometimes bi) is a scientific fabrication enforced by powerful social norms that ensure a general degree of conformity and compliance. Certainly this is true to a great extent. Many gay/queer people who come out later in life feel as if they have been living a lie. It is not to say, however, that heterosexual acts might never have occurred to them in a more tolerant society, only that the stifling burden of compulsory heteronormativity limited their options to a ‘straight’ presentation. That is most certainly living a lie. But does it mean that there is a “gay gene”? Both Fausto-Sterling and I are sceptical.

In Should There Be Only Two Sexes? Sterling makes a brief reference to transsexual and transgender history that is interesting and does ring of some accuracy, but suffers enormously from its brevity. My concern is that readers new to the subject may walk away with a somewhat skewed view of this history. She briefly mentions but does not go into detail about just how powerful medical and psychiatric professionals were in determining the gender presentations of trans people. There can and should be no mistake: trans people, women especially, were a highly vulnerable population that many psychiatrists took advantage of to enforce the most rigid gender norms possible. To the extent many such trans people enacted, and perhaps even internalised, this performance it is assuredly the fault of the psychiatric establishment, not of transgender women, that there was a “reinforcement of a two gender system.” She does also muddy the streams when it comes to the transsexual/transgender distinction, incorrectly making transsexuals seem conservative, and transgender people more inherently liberal or gender fluid. I identify as transsexual but I am certainly no gender conservative, and may even fall into the category of people she says do not surgically alter their bodies but identify as women. She also says something that I agree with, when she says “permanently assuming a transsexual identity that is neither male nor female in the traditional sense.” She is correct, certainly. I identify as a trans woman, maintaining the firm double-thought of that identity and resisting any artificial bifurcation of it. I am not a broken woman in need of correction or fixing. Sterling touches on a debate in the transgender community: some feel comfortable referring to being trans as a “birth defect” or saying “I’m just a woman, not trans-anything” while others like myself consider her transness to be an inextricable part of her identity that cannot be excised and should instead be a matter of pride. I distinctly remember when I first read this book my great disappointment that Sterling did not spend more time on trans people as we are- and I do not think she’d deny this for a second- quite helpful to her general argument. But as I have just pointed out, it is very difficult to summarise the complex politics of identity in the trans community. Perhaps she was avoiding a minefield after all?

Sterling’s photo of a much younger version of herself still makes me smile very broadly. It reminds me quite a bit of myself at her age, endlessly fascinated with test tubes and the other trappings of the great scientist, saving the world through mixing brightly coloured chemicals. I imagine that had I been raised as a cis girl I might’ve been given a similar epitaph “In memory of Katie, who liked space rocks better than boys.” The point she makes about innate inclination versus environment, and how it cannot be resolved or intuited as being convincingly one or the other is a good one. There may well be no way of knowing for sure if she truly was born to be a scientist. After all, the science I decided to pursue after many years of faithfully stealing my mother’s food colouring to better enhance the sciencey look of my fake chemistry sets was, of course, social science. How did she end up a biologist and me an aspiring sociologist? The resolution that she proposes for understanding how these things happen is a sound one, and her flair for apt visual metaphors continues into the final words of the book: a matryoshka doll. For her the famous Russian nesting doll symbolises the various layers of sex and gender, interconnected, each interesting by itself, but only fully intelligible and complete as part of a larger, continuous whole. Each layer- history, society and culture, the mind’s psyche, the physiological organism and so on- shapes gender. How much? That depends on the individual. Individual body, personal history, personal relationship with significant others and society, personal biology. It all adds up to a unique individual. This is the frightening answer that many people do not want to face up to- it fails to offer the silver bullet much desired of those who want an easy and simple gender order.

But it does have the benefit of being correct.