All Things to All People: Some Brief Notes on Solidarity and Free Speech

Pictured: the idea so often lacking from non-debates about free speech.
The idea so often lacking from non-debates about free speech.

If transgender people have a “superpower” it is our remarkable ability to stand for anything:  living, breathing “floating signifiers.” Our meaning d’jour is, for some on Fleet Street, “a professionally offended, Left wing lobby group” that is now the latest “post-Leveson” threat to free speech and a free press. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of things—fleeting as these meanings are, such that we can even speak of stable oppositions—Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill had accused trans people of dividing and distracting the Left from its “important” goals and its “true” cause.

If this seems exasperating and contradictory, you ain’t seen nothing yet, as they say.

But for now, it is enough to deal with these two absurdities one at a time and bring a bit of light to a decidedly un-illuminating heat.

Free Speech: From Posturing to Substance

Toby Young and all the other vacuous, fly-by-night defenders of “free speech” filch lovely rhetoric that whistle stops past all manner of liberal democratic tropes while failing to specify the connection between, say, hate speech and liberty. They use language meant to bypass both the intellect and one’s reason, while subtly refusing any attempt at being substantive. To do so would be to pull back the curtain at Oz and reveal the great democratic wizard to be nothing more than a petty would-be tyrant in disguise. In his entire blog post, Young does not mention the content of Burchill’s article once, instead gesturing to the void indirectly by casting trans people as some monolithic left lobby opposed to free speech.

He has archived Burchill’s piece for the world to see, so readers can judge for themselves, but it is a curious choice—to say the very least—to use an article that was almost entirely vapid schoolyard bullying and name-calling as some kind of heroic exemplar of courageous speech. He takes this to a laughable pinnacle by comparing Burchill’s screed to The Observer’s opposition to Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his 1956 invasion of the Suez Canal, now widely regarded by historians as the last gasp of the British Empire. Clearly these were equal acts of great courage.

Yet, if one refuses Young’s attempts to cut their intellectual brake lines, it’s plain to see that Burchill’s article was no Watergate, no “Pentagon Papers.” To compare Burchill’s privileged tantrum to great acts of journalism is offensive to the profession (and if one wants to read incisive feminist journalism, I cannot recommend Ms. Magazine more strongly—their investigations into the plague of rape in the US Military, and the anti-abortion lobby’s links to terrorism are, alone, reminders of what truly courageous pens might write).

Instead of asking substantive questions about Burchill’s writing, Young thoughtlessly defends it without any regard for its content, nor any attempt to engage with it meaningfully. This is profoundly anti-democratic. We do not, in a truly free society, throw our hands up in childlike awe and say “Oooh, there are so many ideas out there, that’s nice!”—ideally, we engage with them, we debate, and we argue; we consider them on their merits, weigh them, and are fully allowed to find them woefully wanting.

Pictured: Something exactly like Julie Burchill's Observer article.
According to Toby Young, the Observer’s willingness to oppose this historical event is the moral equivalent to publishing Julie Burchill’s piece. As you can see, they’re exactly the same thing.

That is precisely what trans women, our loved ones, and allies did with Julie Burchill’s codswollop. And it is here that we come to what else is so utterly pernicious about Young’s unthinking editorialising: he has completely misrepresented and lied about the motivations of Burchill’s critics. Many of us, myself included, did not want the Observer article taken down. What we wanted was to be heard, and to counter the spreading of hate. Some of us wanted Burchill to apologise, and some wanted the piece taken down, yes, but I’d not say the latter was a widespread, agreed-upon, much promoted goal. It is certainly fair to say that few of us are mourning the piece’s loss. It is no Vindication of the Rights of Woman (quite the opposite, in fact), nor is it Candide. It was gutter trash of the lowest order, and even if you don’t give a toss about transphobia, one would have to concede it was tenth-rate writing. Its deletion from the Observer’s website is no loss to anyone.

And yet, while Mr. Young may think himself a dutiful democrat for preserving and republishing the piece, he might be surprised that he was beaten to the punch by many of the same trans activists he was attacking. Most of us had a problem with the article being used as “link bait” for the Observer, driving up their ad costs with every click. This shock and awe tactic is, tragically, a commonplace in online news websites. Many of us, who wanted to preserve the public record of Burchill’s hate, have reposted the piece elsewhere—both to ensure that it was not flushed down the memory hole, and to ensure that people could read and judge for themselves, while denying The Observer profit-from-hate. If Mr. Young had bothered to talk to any of those faceless and nameless activists he decries, he might have seen that our motivation was not to punish “political incorrectness” but to add to the discourse, with the urgency that hate speech always demands.

That is democracy.

Speech Acts

It is also worth remembering that if one wishes to defend free speech, one must know what they are defending and why. More of those nattering specifics that tend to deflate gassy rhetoric, yes.

Speech does something. That is why it’s so powerful, cherished, and defended as a fundamental right. But like any right, it can be abused, used to the detriment of others, and cause great harm. Citizenship, by contrast, is the craft of using rights and liberties to further the cause of freedom. Burchill’s piece, on the other hand, was both puerile and dangerous in the most vulgar way. Words like hers are hurled along with glass bottles at trans women fleeing for their lives from angry, hateful cisgender men. Ideas like hers fuel housing discrimination, see trans people excommunicated from their families, usher us with sibilant urgings to suicide, and are deployed by people who need to justify violence against trans people.

Burchill’s words and ideas, to the extent they have any substance at all, are simply the anima of hatred; hatred that revokes trans women’s rights. It sees our free speech muzzled, lest we be attacked for naming our experience and concerns. It sees our right to life snuffed out and declared conditional—less important than a privileged journalist’s right to lose her intellectual lunch in a national newspaper. It sees our right to free movement drastically curtailed, our right to healthcare passively but firmly denied.

None of this has a whit to do with “being offended.” It has everything to do with survival.

Our speaking up—as feminists, LGBTQ activists, and concerned citizens—was an attempt to ensure that Burchill’s article, which ended with an unambiguous threat and was essentially one long piece telling us to “shut up” (where was Mr. Young then?), did not have its intended silencing effect. If Mr. Young seeks enemies of free speech, instead of rudely stereotyping trans women he might well simply look in the mirror.

Solidarity and the “Real Issues”

Only a briefer note is necessary to deal with the odious counterpart to Young’s Left-baiting, and that is Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill’s snide suggestion that we are a single issue group devoted to a myopic cause at the expense of wider solidarity. Never mind that this exact argument has been used against feminists since the 19th Century and is a common silencing tactic.

I am proud to work for an organisation that is devoted to precisely the kind of solidarity that Burchill so disingenuously “defended.” The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is concerned with those wider economic issues that structurally oppress so many in our society—the austerity and cuts crusades now being trumpeted from Whitehall to Washington. We’ve been on the front lines trying to fight the manifestations of that malignancy as they particularly affect low income trans people of colour, and do so in solidarity with organisations and nonprofits serving different communities. Our goal is to not only provide our clients with basic legal needs and representation, but also to help them join activist communities of their fellows, educating them about often opaque and esoteric rights they may have (in the social services system, for instance), and enjoining them to take part in discourse, education, protests, and the fight for justice.

This is not done through an artificial focus on trans issues, as if they can they be neatly and discretely parcelled away from all others, but through recognising that whatever “trans issues” are, they are made up of class politics, immigration politics, racial inequality, social-structural sexism, a culture of policing and incarceration, and so on. These are inseparable from each other, and necessarily inform our response to the issues of our time.

It was one of many reasons that I found Moore and Burchill’s claims to be both divisive and fatuous. So many trans people learn the true meaning of solidarity the hard way, and many of us who are feminists and rights activists are part of organisations that—far from being ‘single issue distractions’—are deeply embedded in broader struggles against austerity, sexism, racism, and the ever widening wealth gap in the West; others fight with a tighter focus on neo-colonialism and foreign policy. But we are all immensely concerned with the battle for wider, meaningful liberty, and it is nothing more than a hateful lie to suggest that we are not, simply because we have the audacity to defend ourselves when attacked so viciously by name.

Unguarded and Poorly Observed: A Response to Julie Burchill

Grauniad Offices; photo by Bryantbob.
Grauniad Offices; photo by Bryantbob.

It is altogether fitting that on a day when my own father yelled at me for being a feminist, and got angry at me for introducing my brother to novels by women, about women, that I should come across Julie Burchill raging against “shemales” in the Guardian. It was very much in the spirit of an evening where I was told to my face that I’d do more good for feminism if I’d “been a man” and not a woman; it was a day where I had to listen to a man witheringly declaim literature about “women’s stuff,” and a day where I was attacked for my anger and verve in defending our right to write and speak as women.

So in that spirit, I shall continue to write, and to speak.

I shall continue to write in spite of having been threatened with rape, in spite of having been told that I’m a “shemale feminazi with too much sand in her fake vagina,” in spite of having been called every misogynist, transmisogynist, and transphobic slur in the book many times over, and in spite of having been accused of “man-hating, race-baiting, white-hating,” and the utterly unreal crime of “misandry.” In spite of being called too loud, too shrill, too whiny, too sexist (against men, of course), and “heterophobic.” In spite of being told I should avoid graduate school unless I had a “rich boyfriend.” In spite of all that, I speak.

The path I’ve walked is littered with those fell arrows, spread behind me like a sinister field of bent and blackened straw. So when I see something like this:

“Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully us lowly natural-born women, I warn you. We may not have as many lovely big swinging Phds as you, but we’ve experienced a lifetime of PMT and sexual harassment and many of us are now staring HRT and the menopause straight in the face – and still not flinching. Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You really won’t like us when we’re angry.”

I can only shake my head. Not so much at the transmisogyny that runs through Burchill’s article like streaks of blood, but at the failure of empathy and sisterhood such a paragraph entails. After everything I’ve put up with hearing in my life, after all the sexual harassment and moments where I’ve feared for my life and safety—moments any woman, trans or cis[1], would know all too well—after everything I’ve listed above, Burchill still sees trans women as so inscrutably and ineluctably ‘other’ that we are incapable of even being on the same side of the great political divide. It seems impossible, in Burchill’s world, that I exist—as a woman and a radical feminist—because I can only ever be a “shim” in a “bad wig” and a dress. More than anything else, I think, what saddens me are the profound and abiding consequences of failing to see trans women as women, and as sisters in struggle.

Our Old Friend “Authenticity”

Throughout the piece, she excoriates trans activists (most of whom are likely feminists, and many of whom may also be cisgender) for essentially being overeducated toffs who do not know the meaning of suffering, depravation, and struggle. “To be fair, after having one’s nuts taken off (see what I did there?) by endless decades in academia, it’s all most of them are fit to do. Educated beyond all common sense and honesty, it was a hoot to see the screaming mimis accuse Suze of white feminist privilege.”

I’m not British. But I am a Puerto Rican American who both grew up in and still lives in “the ghetto” and my struggle with class in this country is as much a part of my life, my experience, and my activism as gender and its manifold vicissitudes. Further, it is still a matter of routine for feminists in general to be slapped by accusations of overeducation and ivory tower moralising: jeremiads against “the sanctimonious women’s studies set” are a staple of populist editorialising these days and have been for a generation now. I have not the slightest quarrel with Burchill’s working class background– to hate her for that would be to hate myself. I’m merely baffled at the fact that she antagonises women like me for speaking by suggesting that our attempts to get an education are a bad thing.

It never fails to surprise me to see women like Burchill and Bindel resort to the tics of patriarchs when defending their own bigotries, just as it surprises me to hear her extol her working class roots while mocking “wretched inner city kids” in another breath, rolling a horrifically complex social problem and the people who live it into a neatly poor analogy that insults with stunning economy but does nothing useful.

Indeed, going beyond the misogyny, classism, and transmisogyny that is this article’s raison d’etre[2] I would say that what is most disturbing about it is how stunningly and embarrassingly petty it is. It is more or less in the same category as a bullish op-ed by a cis male misogynist that was 50% “bitch, cunt, whore, slapper, slag, cow” and 50% bad clam jokes. Genitals and transphobic insults are the vast bulk of this article. The rest is comprised of invidious distinctions, such as the disgusting attempt to assert that trans feminists are opposed to Julie Bindel’s properly feminist work, and not just her transphobia, or to claim that trans women think their issues are the most important at all times.

The final dollop of a column centimetre that remains is, perhaps, her sole argument: that her friend, Suzanne Moore, should not have been called out for transphobia because she was doing something much more important with her article—the noble work of criticising the Coalition government’s oppressive and often misogynist social policies. But this is a weak argument, no more acceptable than a male socialist seeking forbearance for a rape joke used in an editorial about saving the NHS. Important work does not justify prejudice, even as a “joking” aside. Least of all prejudicial articles where women are objectified and find their appearances to be the subject of uncouth navel-gazing (see: all the remarks about wigs, dresses, cocks, etc.).

An Ironically Missed Opportunity

What is especially irritating about all of this is that feminists have the tools to understand why all of this is problematic: why “it’s just a joke” is not an excuse, why slurs are hate speech, why and how language constructs prejudicial realities (just as “mankind” biases us to thinking of men as more human than women, calling trans women “men” biases us to discriminating against them), and so on. Feminists, more than most people, have the tools to understand all of this.

But what troubles me even more is the attempt to put feminists on one side and trans women on the other. As if trans women cannot be feminists, or as if cis feminists could not be deeply troubled by the implications of Burchill’s piece. This is what is most potentially destructive here: the neat, artificial distinction that keeps trans women away from that great sisterhood of feminism, and from the healing and empowerment it can engender. And for what? For the sake of a cheap thrill in the Guardian?

Oddly enough, the innocuous subtitle of her article is “It’s never a good idea for those who feel oppressed to start bullying others in turn,” a point I fully agree with. We do have a problem with “call-out culture” in our feminist and queer communities, we do have a problem with unchecked egos and with activist-cum-academic aesthetics becoming more important than material results. There is a real, meaningful discussion to be had about whether the Tumblr-isation of activism has been a wholly good thing, or whether it breeds reflexive semantic policing at the expense of necessary work.

But Burchill forewent that entirely, instead launching into an article where she failed to take her own advice and did so with an ineloquent flamboyance that betrayed little besides prejudice and lack of self-awareness. Instead of possibly seeing trans women as sisters and allies in both forming a more perfect activist culture and in fighting patriarchy, she—who by her own admission knows nothing of the trans community save through Julie Bindel and this recent episode with Ms. Moore—simply writes an article groaning under the weight of its slurs and insults.

That saddens me more than anything else. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Sisterhood Unbroken

The other sad thing is, I completely get why she’s doing this. From her perspective, trans women are not women. We’re overeducated fops who are whinging about getting our feelings hurt and throwing male privilege around, so far as she is concerned. She could not be more violently wrong, but that fundamental belief animates everything else she says. I would like to think that if she actually, sincerely knew us—that if she were the godmother of some of our daughters as well—she might think very differently, and that she might be confronted with the mountains of empirical evidence that we’re really not so different from her.

She might see that, in the spirited words of Eowyn, I am no man. That her words have profoundly deleterious effects for very real (not imagined) women.

But what also troubles me is that she suggests that women should prove that they can be hurt by patriarchy by showing how they have. Why? Why must I strip off and reveal my scars to prove myself? Why must I revisit traumas to satisfy her and earn my place? Why must I always return to those places and times where I felt death gather around me in order to prove that I “know the meaning of suffering”?

My feminism is defined by what I do—by what I write, by what I orate, by what organisations I work for, by the research I do, by how I confront a patriarchal world and try to change it. It is not defined by my many wounds. Neither, for that matter, is my womanhood.

To be honest, I do not want Burchill to apologise. I do not dream of apologies. Rather, I wish Burchill could see what I see. That she could see the indefatigable sisterhood of women, trans and cis, working side by side to shatter each other’s chains, that she could see my friends and loved ones who I keep in mind every working day. I wish she could see, through their eyes, why words like hers can feel so profoundly dehumanising.

I wish that she could see the evil that trans women have had to face—the same violent deaths that befall too many women in our world—the same objectification, rape culture, risk, and quotidian hatreds, and see how it can shatter us in our fragile moments of being all too human, while also seeing how we manage to rise above it at our very best. I wish she could see us as the very human women that feminism has always striven to empower and render visible in a sightlessly woman-hating world.

I wish she could see me.

In that moment, I’d like to think, we could be sisters.


[1] It should go without saying that in an article which Burchill seemed to assemble from a transphobia Bingo sheet, she—in a particularly bizarre aside—treated the word ‘cis’ as an insult of some kind, and in a cunning rhetorical move decided to call us trannies as a result—because after all, that would be the mature and erudite thing to do. Perhaps she thinks the word “heterosexual” is an insult, too, that merits a rejoinder of “faggot”?

[2] Wait, I’m a poor Puerto Rican trans girl, maybe I shouldn’t use hoity toity phrases so I can prove I’m totally authentic? Oh crap, I use international English spelling too!

My Transsexual Menace: A Response to Riki Wilchins

An adorbs green dinosaur.  Courtesy of sweetclipart.com
This dinosaur might be transgender. I can’t tell, however, because she looks too normative.

If I were to give a measured reaction to Riki Wilchins now infamous “Transgender Dinosaurs” editorial in The Advocate, it would amount to this: it is yet another example of hierarchal inversion where we assign a moral-political value to genders and then exile the ones we disapprove of. The kind of visibility Wilchins writes about is based on a trendy ethic that suggests if you aren’t visibly out of the mainstream, then you’re The Man, and part of The Problem. This, however, neglects the fact that ‘standing out’ in that way carried unacceptable risks for most trans women, historically. It also ignores, from a moral perspective, that if we attach moral value only to accoutrement—or suggest that the latter is indispensable to moral behaviour—then we are creating an exclusionary, even bankrupt political ethic that is based simply on what is fashionable, not what is politically necessary.

We begin with this quote which, in a way, neatly sums up everything that is wrong with Wilchins’ ideas:

“Never having passed as female as I’d grown older I’d finally given up trying. Besides, it seemed somehow counter-revolutionary…”

A revolution is about a substantive change in material relations of power and ruling; it is about making the world less violent, less oppressive, more equitable and just. It is not about whatever Wilchins is suggesting is revolutionary here, which seems to be little more than “women should dress and look the way I want them to look” and “trans people should express their gender in the way I want them to.” Do I even have to say something to the effect of “As a feminist, I think that’s sickening”?

But Wilchins’ transmisogyny goes beyond that. The entire story, an efficient distillation of radical transphobia, pivots around a woman with no voice, a girl that Wilchins renders a mute doll in order to make her trendsetting point that trans girls and women are now insufficiently transgressive, beginning immediately with the kind of objectification that characterises most mainstream media coverage of those same women. Continue reading

Belated Nuclear Unicorn Presidential Endorsement

I haven’t written much about mainstream politics here since that’s done to death in a variety of outlets all over the place– from private blogs to every news agency the world over, the US Presidential election has enough people saying almost everything under the sun about it. But a few nights ago I was moved to comment on the matter via Facebook; at length. I felt I’d be remiss if I did not, with some editing and additions, republish those thoughts since they speak to an often ignored debate on electoral politics. On the political left there is intense discussion about the value of the presidency and voting, and whether radical change can truly come through morally compromised candidates. What follows is a qualified discussion of the stakes, and why I stuck with this president. The first section was composed on election night. The second was composed early the next morning.

 

Why I Voted for President Obama

My choice this year should surprise no one. The reasons should be clear. The purpose obvious. Obama’s has not been a perfect presidency, and it was stained before its time by profound moral failure– Guantanamo, drone warfare, illegal arrests here in the US. But the reality, and the choice, we face is this: we will get all of the above with a Romney administration, and with none of the benefits of the current government.

I will vote, not for the lesser of two evils, but for the government that secures healthcare for all Americans and begins the long and difficult road to full-insurance, for a president that supports women’s right to choose– and has a holistic vision of bodily autonomy, for a government that passed legislation requiring health insurers to take trans people on board, for a government that fought tooth and nail for increased Pell Grants, for a government that allowed me to change my passport to reflect my gender, for a government that rolled back elements of the draconian REAL ID programme and made life that much more liveable for trans workers, for a government that supports an inclusive ENDA,  for a government that changed INS policy to allow trans immigrants to more easily change gender markers on their IDs, for a vice president who called transgender rights “the civil rights issue of our time,” for the president whose first signed bill was a gender pay equity act, for a president who puts women with progressive views on the Supreme Court.

This endorsement should not be construed to view the victims of American foreign policy as an acceptable margin of error. On their backs, and with their blood, was Obama’s posturing in the third debate made possible- and that is a moral crime that must give us pause. We must never, ever be silent about this administrations failings here and abroad. However we vote tomorrow, that ballot is a beginning and not an end. A vote for Obama will not solve our woes. Every single issue that I mentioned above came to the bright lights of federal politics because of the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears of honoured foremothers who fought and died for that recognition. My vote honours their sacrifice with one small vigil– but it is our life’s work that truly carries on their legacy, and that work neither begins nor ends at the polls tomorrow.

For us, Obama’s triumphs and failures are part of a complex web to navigate. I’ve found my way, and I begrudge no one who finds Jill Stein preferable. But I also implore you to reconsider the role of government in this. Keeping Obama in office is an exercise in harm reduction. We will keep fighting as activists one way or another. But we do still have a president to elect– and the choice is clear. Which ever man wins on Tuesday, we will still see drone planes terrorising people abroad, and that is a towering tragedy of this election. But Obama can be worked with– and the domestic stakes are too high to give the race to a man who will not only continue an aggressive foreign policy, but also retrench terror here at home. I will not allow that to happen.

Thus it is that I do not vote for the lesser of two evils, but see myself as voting affirmatively for the immense good this administration has done.

For all the people here that I have met through my work these last couple of years, it would not have been possible had this administration’s policy changes not enabled me to get travel ID that matched my gender. Loved ones abroad would have been much harder to visit if the Obama/Clinton State Department didn’t give me the opportunity to cross the border with dignity. In turn, this has bettered my ability to do radical work and support the organisation I work for. It is this small but potent facilitation effect that Obama’s iterative policy changes have had.

It is up to us to use these opportunities and continue the hard work of making real change happen in our communities– and a vote for this president does not undermine or compromise with that. The rights that my sisters and I have won these last four years will not be crushed beneath the weight of cynicism nor snarky leftist memes about the ‘lesser of two evils.’ I see no contradiction between my work and my impending vote.

In refuting the idea that there is a contradiction between electoral participation and radical black feminism, C. Riley Snorton and Mecca Jamilah Sullivan persuasively argue the following:

  1. We do not need to agree with everything a political candidate espouses to cast a vote in her favor. Voting is not an unequivocal endorsement—of a particular candidate or of the systems that structure our participation as “citizens.”
  2. Voting is participating in a process that allows us to select figures with whom we would prefer to engage.  That is to say, voting allows us to have some say in the parameters of future political struggle.  It lets us decide with whom we want to struggle. And struggle we must.
  3. Voting is not an end, or even a means to an end. Black feminist politics are far more expansive than electoral politics. They’ve had to be. Black feminist politics are what allows us— as young black queer and trans feminists—to fight to have liveable lives, to cherish our own survival and delight in the miracles of making it to the next year, day, hour. Voting does not interrupt our black feminist politics any more than it vanquishes the myriad structural and sociohistorical inequities that make those politics necessary.

I would argue that this is a good rejoinder to all cynical radicals on the question of voting and mainstream political participation.

 

The Morning After

In his victory speech President Obama echoed an idea I’ve long championed: that the exercise of citizenship does not end at the voting booth. Who do you think President Obama was talking to when he said that? There are many issues that matter to us as individuals, especially on the left where we have given voice to the voiceless for generations, where we have counted the last to be counted. There’s so much more work to be done– on voting rights, on incarceration, on trans rights, on immigration, on foreign policy. That’s where we come in over these next four years.

It is us, the new radicals who must carry the torch and do the hard work. As I said, tonight is a beginning, and not and end.

But it is also not an hour for despondency. Wall Street did not win tonight, any more than war crimes or terrorism. We must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and we must remember that the ‘lesser of two evils’ is not only a tired line devoid of content and meaning, but an aphorism that surely brings a smile to the faces of lobbyists, corporate plunderers, the far right, avaricious elites and so on. Why? Because when we give up on this process, the great levers of institutional power that are this state do not go away. When we cynically concede to the idea of the lesser of two evils we concede a field that our foremothers fought and died for the right to occupy. Yes, occupy. Occupy your government, and your electoral process.

When we withdraw from electoral politics and we grouse about there being only two evils from which to choose, that suits the suits just fine. They’re happy for you to think that. They want you to go away, and leave the politicos entirely in their hands, leave the process entirely in their hands. Cynicism is their friend. Why do you think it’s so popular? Why is anti-politician rhetoric so mainstream that Leno and Letterman bathe in it nightly? It hardly seems radical when “politicians are all selfish, lying egomaniacs” is practically a consensus view. Even the Tea Party is premised on this ‘politics of anti-politics.’ Thus it is that I’ve come to the conclusion that the real radical politics is whatever cuts through the pea soup haze of cynicism that cedes the colonnaded political realm to apparatchiks who will fulfil every dark prophecy made about politics.

When this president appointed a Latina from the Bronx– like me– to our Supreme Court, that was a proud hour for us that political abstinence would have denied us. Amid the arcane shadow theatre of Supreme Court politics, that moment has always stayed with me. Just as my joy at the appointment of Amanda Simpson was a watershed moment for trans women– it seemed not a little strange that for all the professed radicalism of the queer left, a feminine trans woman made it in the Commerce Department, while it can still be a struggle to see any trans women at queer events or in Gender Studies Departments across the nation.

For that reason and others, I find radical mockery of ‘inclusion’ to be harder than ever to take seriously. It remains the same arrogance that saw Judith Butler mock Venus Xtravaganza (from the pages of an academic tome read primarily by the educated middle class) for her seemingly bourgeois aspirations; this curiously hypocritical politics of perfection that has come to define certain sectors of radicalism is also at the heart of some of its anti-Obama sentiment.

And so we come to Election Night– my mother, for whom I fight, and to whom I’ve dedicated so much of my work, was crying tears of joy. She took my hand and squeezed tight, thanking me for the days and weeks I spent reassuring her that the president was going to win. Is she a dupe? She, who’d given up on voting for decades but went back to the polls in 2008 with genuine hope that four long, hard years, have yet to snuff out? She whose current interest in feminism and LGBT activism has been fuelled by the innervation of the Obama years? She does not castigate my more radical work but wholly encourages it. And she is a proud Obama voter.

I voted because I must; I voted in part because there are people trying to stop us, and with good reason. “Us” refers to a whole swathe of people: transgender people, people of colour, women, queer folk. Even from the narrowly circumscribed field of choices in this election, our likely choice frightens many of our political enemies. I still believe in our political process, and I still believe that activism must march with it, as well as lead it. I refuse to give that up.

A Troublesome Occurrence: Postmodern Investments in Trans Women

[11:59] john: so u r a natural woman?

[12:00] sarahlizzy: Like the song?

[12:00] sarahlizzy: Or do you mean, do I occur in the universe?

[12:00] sarahlizzy: Because I like to think so.

~Activist Sarah Brown having a bit of fun with a “tranny chaser”

 

As a trans woman, one sees herself reflected in academic texts as if peering into a cursed mirror; the woman, if she is allowed to be called such at all, stares back with a postmodern face.

It is a thought that has struck me as I have made my rounds through journal articles and discussions about trans women—written by or conducted by cisgender people, and occasionally by trans-masculine folks—when I am left wondering where precisely I am meant to stand in this increasingly fragmented movement of ours. What seems to arrest the academic luminaries most concerned with transgender people are questions of identity and transgression, of political meaning neatly cleaved from political reality.

In characteristically gentle and cautious prose, Raewyn Connell makes this point well in her recent paper “Transsexual Women and Feminist Thought: Toward New Understanding and New Politics” :

“The first is that major issues in transsexual women’s lives, especially social issues, are not well represented by identity discourses of any kind. These issues include the nature of transition, the laboring transsexual body, workplace relations, poverty, and the functioning of state organizations including police, health policy, family services, education, and child care.

The second difficulty is a powerful tendency in transgender literature to degender the groups spoken of, whether by emphasizing only their nonnormative or transgressive status; by claiming that gender identity is fluid, plastic, malleable, shifting, unstable, mobile, and so on; or by simply ignoring gender location. A great deal of recent research and writing, while acknowledging diversity at an individual level, lumps women and men into a common “transgender” story (e.g., Couch et al. 2007; Hines 2007; Girshick 2008). It is difficult to find in any of this the intransigence of gender actually experienced in transsexual women’s lives.”

The emphasis here draws deeply on the work of Viviane K. Namaste, who Connell repeatedly cites approvingly, and on Connell’s own avowedly structure-conscious perspective. For Namaste trans people are more than the sum of their identities, but people with complex relationships to institutions, the state, citizenship, rights, and politics more widely. We have something to do with both bread and roses. There is a practical dimension to trans lives as lived that the unsubtle instruments of abstraction-for-the-sake-of-abstraction cannot possibly comprehend.

Namaste and Connell both see trans women’s interactions with the neoliberal state, to give one example, as being of considerably greater importance than our “transgressive” value; the obsession of a philosophy that sometimes seems to forget what it is transgressing against in the first place.

None of this should be quite so controversial. After all, social science makes a none too subtle demand that our theorising should arise from the practise of everyday lives. Yet it is precisely this issue which remains very controversial in academia—in the social sciences and elsewhere—and trans women’s bodies are one of several battlefields on which this battle is being fought. Time and again we are talked about as if we are unreal; simulacra of ourselves floating context-free among great minds unmoored by the trivialities of social practise.

Put more concretely, postmodern thinking on trans women seems to argue that because something can mean anything in theory, it actually does mean everything in practise. The word “tranny” is a perfect example. This past year, friends of mine had to listen to a cis queer male professor piously intone about the infinite variability of “tranny’s”  meanings, and why the word was not in any “real” sense offensive or prejudicial. It was “just a word,” after all, and words can mean anything. Therefore they mean everything.

Therefore they mean nothing.

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“It’s Just a Game”—The Discursive Construction of the Virtual

Visual metaphors! M.C. Esher! Giant ants! This picture has it all! (Giant ants– at least I like to pretend they’re huge– walking around a wire-mesh mobius strip).

It’s been quite a while since I updated here. I’ve been exceedingly busy working on a research project in my sociology department and with some of my other commitments as well as a few personal problems I had to overcome. But, I’m back, and I thought that in the wake of Anita Sarkeesian’s struggle with a cavalcade of trolls over her proposed webseries it’s worth digging up a recent piece of writing I submitted as a final paper in one of my classes (Gender and Geography). This paper sought to chart out the geographic dimensions of cyberspace, particularly gamer subculture, through the lens of “the space of exception”.

I’ve excerpted a part of the paper that I think is quite relevant to what had just transpired with Feminist Frequency. In a section entitled “It’s Just a Game” I describe how the “unreal” nature often imputed to gaming space gives licence to abuse that would be intolerable outside of it. This “unreality,” I argue, is on the flip-side of a pleasurable “reality” that also manifests in gaming culture. It feels like the real world, and yet isn’t; because of this, many  gamers feel able to express themselves in a deeply violent and prejudicial way. It feels like reality, and thus being a bigot provides all the perverse pleasure that asserting dominance over another person often provides, but the “unreal”/”fake” virtuality of the space provides moral and ideological cover for this behaviour. What follows is my attempt to draw together various sociological, geographic, and philosophical ideas to provide a thumbnail sketch of how all that works.

Enjoy!

Gaming cyberspace provides a virtual refuge for a certain kind of masculinity, and one that is consciously constructed in defensive opposition to a rapidly changing world. Sociologist Michael Kimmel argues that for modern young heterosexual men “the fantasy world of media is both an escape from reality and an escape to reality,” capturing the dualism that defines a space of exception. He goes on to point out that this “reality” is one that “many of these guys secretly would like to inhabit” and that video games “provide a way for guys to feel empowered,” (Kimmel 2008: 150). His analysis of men’s relationship to virtual space concludes that these men feel “it’s nice to turn back the clock and return to a time when men ruled—and no one questioned it” (156).

It is hardly surprising that some men wish to perceive this as a “virtual men’s locker room” threatened by the presence of women. It is often constructed as a refuge for hegemonic masculinity, particularly as expressed through technological mastery. Connell identifies two hegemonic masculinities that she argues have diverged and are sometimes in tension with one another: dominance-based masculinity, and expertise-based masculinity (Connell 2000: 194-195). It can be theorised that gaming in cyberspace folds these two back together with a violent world of hierarchical rankings, which allows for the virtual embodiment of conquistador-style masculinity through the mastery of technology, thus reuniting two patriarchal symbolic universes. The conflict between these two masculinities may play out more widely in the physical world, but in the space of exception furnished by cyberspace they combine to form a unique but also familiar expression of gender

But it is here that we come to a very critical distinction between the space of exception constituted by, say, the [internment or prison] camp, and the space of exception the virtual world represents. The marked difference between “exception” and “normal” is important for all such spaces, but only in the virtual world is there an equally clear, aggressively policed, distinction between “real” and “unreal” that constitutes both cyberspace and its social practises. This is a nontrivial distinction, but also a connection between the two– cyberspace and social practise therein. The purported exceptionality of time and place surrounding the internet as a whole gives licence to the abuses within, and the ostensible unreality of gaming, more specifically, licences abuse within its boundaries.

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Immoral Women: Why We Need More of Them

This article is due to be published on Border House this coming Tuesday. In case its raging nerdular nerdence doesn’t give it away, it’s about video games specifically. Enjoy!

One of the most irksome things I hear when I make arguments for ‘good/positive portrayals’ of characters from traditionally marginalised backgrounds is that my interlocutors immediately assume I’m calling for portrayals of moral paragons. They seem to think I’m saying “if you write a gay male character, he must be the most righteous dude ever.”

In a word, no. That’s what today’s article is about, particularly with regards to women characters.

The reality of the situation is that the portrayal of women as pure, stainless alabaster icons of virtue is a huge problem that arises from cultural stereotypes of women. The notion that women are inherently more virtuous, kinder, and so on is part of the limiting and fetishising pedestalisation that serves to fence us off from being thought of as persons. Human beings are flawed characters with failings and weaknesses; angels are not.

When I call for ‘good portrayals’ I do not mean that all women should be virtuous. On the contrary, I actually want to see more women as villains, or as morally grey/dubious characters. The simple reason for this is that such figures can be fascinating, merit much discussion, and are  fully human. Think of your own interests in fiction: what characters do you love to hate? Who is your favourite villain? What character could keep you up for hours at night as you discuss their philosophy and the writing behind them? Which characters have you debating their morality: good, evil, anti-hero? We all have answers to these questions, and that alone tells us why ‘good portrayals’ include morally flawed/villainous characters by necessity.

My objection to femme fatale villains is not that they are villains, but that women’s agency is always reduced to sexuality in such portrayals. Consider the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons, for instance. The women are defined by rampant, unchained sexuality that is used to literally dominate men. There’s nothing interesting in this, save as a rather specific form of pornography perhaps. Moral weakness, failure, compromise, and villainy are about much more complicated motivations than luring men to their dooms with T&A.

Kreia Being Awesome. (Older woman in Jedi robes, pallid with long pigtails, and three purple lightsabres orbiting her).

My favourite character of all time is a woman who is widely considered a villain: Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. My love letter about this character can be found here, but for the purposes of this article the main points to raise about are these: her character is defined by a philosophy, she is not reduced to sex, she is an agent whose motivations are complicated, her morality shades into a good deal of grey.

It’s hard to peg Kreia as pure evil. She isn’t. Her overarching, long-term goal is ultimately a positive one: she wants to eliminate the new Sith threat as much as you do (if you’re a light-side character), but for her the ends justify the means. Throughout the story you’re treated to many examples of Kreia’s richly self-justified taint manifesting itself in odious actions that service the greater good she has in mind. She is utterly driven by hard-won truths in a life that has been struck by torture, betrayal, and the harshest kind of learning. It produces a figure who is conscious of how far she has fallen, but will use her last gasps of energy to train someone who “may yet be saved.”

If you are a moral idealist, as I try to be, her incredibly well-written dialogue will force you to account in detail for why you believe what you believe. You may disagree strongly with what Kreia does, but you cannot deny she has her reasons—reasons she’ll talk about at length which define her character.

This is far more interesting than what we usually get.

Another example of such a character comes to us in the form of Dragon Age 2’s Knight Commander Meredith. She is horribly undermined by an ending that, in my view, reflects lazy writing and was perhaps the game’s worst moment, but you are otherwise shown an equally morally compromised woman who struggles mightily to do what she feels is right. Machiavellian evil is fascinating because it most closely imitates the evil we see in the real world. Most people are not Snidely Whiplash-esque moustache twirling sociopaths who do evil because it’s funny to them. Evil manifests itself in our world mainly in the form of people who are utterly convinced they are doing the right thing. Morality is rather tricky like that.

"Do not brand me a tyrant!" What I also find interesting about some of these characters is that they are portrayed as being older-- lines of middle age are visible on Meredith's face, for example, and Kreia is older still. It's a positive image for older women, to say the very least.

Knight-Commander Meredith is one such person. She is introduced to you quite forthrightly, her sword running through a powerful Mage on the verge of killing you. But she quickly evolves into an adversarial force. Meredith is a holy Templar commander driven by her desire to ensure that the Circle Mages under her command in Kirkwall are kept under control and do not become blood mages or abominations. With this in mind, she justifies increasingly onerous restrictions on their freedom. A literal red scare takes hold of her city as she sees the dreaded “blood mages” around every corner, purges becoming a regular feature of life in the city of Kirkwall. But through it all it’s impossible to walk away feeling Meredith has not thought this through. She commits moral wrongs in the name of moral rectitude; her convictions are deeply held and premised on fear of Mages with freedom causing widespread destruction. Meredith has considered all the arguments against her ideology. She is, you learn, painfully aware of the hurt she causes but believes strongly that she is resolutely holding back the tide of a greater evil.

To challenge her is to only compel her to stand her ground, and in a stentorian voice that feels like living scripture, she enjoins you to give her a better solution to this Gordian knot of a crisis between Templars and Mages. If you cannot—and indeed your character cannot—“then do not brand me a tyrant!” she thunders.

This is how you write a villain, and this is how you portray a woman as a human.

The most compelling characters make you think, and sometimes the most intriguing villains are those who are not outright evil, but who are morally compromised. Good people corrupted by the difficulties they confront, who convince themselves that the ends they envision are worth wicked means.

Other examples include Mother Petrice from Dragon Age 2, a quietly zealous manipulator who, again, is committed to doing what she sees as right. In a beautiful moral contest, Grand Cleric Elthina—her superior— can be shown chastising her for her radicalism, telling her “Eternity is long enough that we do not need to rush to meet it.” Elthina’s moderation contrasts with Petrice’s blossoming zeal. The struggle here is not one of cattiness, nor does it revolve around a man, but around a profound theological rift that each woman has her own struggles with.

Lord Zash, forcing someone to pay the price for their lack of vision. (Red robed, light skinned woman shooting lightning out of her hands.)

Moral complexity is wonderful, but you can also write complicated, interesting out-and-out evil. The Old Republic has a woman villain who, in an MMO with an enormous cast, manages to stand out: Lord Zash. While her physical beauty is occasionally remarked upon, what drives the story of the Sith Inquisitor class are Lord Zash’s manipulations and a carefully planned game of chess that testifies to a truly devious and thoughtful mind. A scholarly genius and an intelligent (rather than brash, impulsive, and childish) Sith Lord, she plays a long game leaving you to wonder if you’ll be ensnared next. Her evil is not the showy, infantile evil of your usual hyper-macho scarred Sith Lord (with the way some talk, it’s not hard to imagine some go out of their way to kick puppies and steal candy from babies). It is, instead, the evil of careful, strategic planning born of a true intellect. Each strike is the solution of an equation, a carefully calculated blow rather than an impulsive iota of violence-for-the-sake-of-violence.

Speaking of such, I’m making a note here to say that GLaDOS was a triumph (if ever there was one).

There are many ways to write such characters, of course, but careful attention given to motivation ensures that a character’s humanity—rather than a fetishised gender/race/sexuality—is what defines them as a narrative figure. Kreia is motivated by a drive to stop the Sith from using an ancient evil to consume all life in the galaxy, and by a long nursed hatred of the Force itself, as well as a desire for her as a teacher to have a successful student. Knight-Commander Meredith sees herself as the woman who must make painful choices to ensure peace and order in Kirkwall, and to stop Mages from becoming abominations that threaten the lives of all. In the name of all the above, they will commit to doing repulsive things.

At no point do we find ourselves harping on their looks, their sexuality, any femininity they may possess, or any other fetishised quality. Neither is turned into a man-hating caricature. And neither is a fundamentally morally righteous person; instead, they are human beings whose profound flaws are a part of their characters. What constitutes their “immorality” is also, crucially, not at all related to their sexualities.

Consider my title here: “Immoral Women.” Even now it conjures images of promiscuous, ‘loose’, or otherwise proudly sexual women, which is a testament to the suffocating and dehumanisingly limited framework with which women are saddled. I want that notion of immorality to be expanded to be something more fully human.

Speaking of fuller humanity there is another note that must be made, one of great importance when it comes to conceptualising “women”– it is a reminder that the category “woman” includes women of colour. I adore all of these characters, and am always grateful I have all these examples of great morally compromised women to choose from… and yet also dismayed that they all are, or appear white. Everything I’ve said hitherto applies just as much if not more to the lack of morally compromised, strong women of colour in games. Isabela from Dragon Age 2 is not a villain but as a rogue/pirate/renegade, definitely skirts the outer limits of ethics– and her struggles therewith define her character well. But it’s hard to think of many other women of colour with Kreia-level thought invested in their characters, regardless of whether they’re heroes, villains, or anything in between.

This brings us back to the beginning: the role of moral diversity in character portrayals and my sincere desire to see more women (all-inclusive) as villains and compromised figures. Perhaps part of the communication problem I have is that I use the word “good” when I say “good portrayals,” which leads people to think of it as a moral proposition. What I really mean is “well-written.” This includes the full spectrum of morality, it includes amorality, it includes immorality, and everything in between and beyond. Humans are flawed, and humans are capable of that full range of emotion, motivation, and morality.

No human is a true moral paragon of perfect righteousness. This is not a pessimistic statement about human nature, far from it. It is merely recognition that many people have intricate characters to some degree, and that because women are human, we can commit great wrongs as well as do good. What influences our sense of ethics is a complicated melange that no Madonna/Whore dichotomy can ever hope to capture.

The key to getting past stereotypes is recognising this.

Once as Tragedy, Again as Farce

Speaking truth to power. This description is almost cliched by now; indeed, it gave its name to Prof. Hill’s autobiography. But like the best cliches it derives its overuse from its utterly trenchant accuracy.

Not long ago I attended a conference at New York City’s Hunter College commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings where Professor Hill, in damning detail, publicly testified to her experience at the hands of now-Justice Thomas which included sustained sexual harassment. Her courage caused open discussion of sexual harassment to burst violently onto the national scene, unapologetically breaking the silence felt by millions of women who had been shamed, threatened, and cajoled into pretending what had happened to them was business as usual. The conference sought to honour Professor Hill and featured a variety of speakers, activists old and new, commentators, reporters, academics and friends who all offered their perspective on the matter. It was elucidating and, to turn that blessed cliché, empowering.

The volunteers at the university all wore T-shirts that read “I Believe Anita Hill.” It was a powerful and dangerous message,as much now as it was then: to suggest that one accepts a woman’s reality as real.

It is a cosmic irony that just a little over two weeks after this conference, one which at first felt like it was summoning up something confined to the misty history of the early 1990s, I should discover that Politico posted a special report about how Republican presidential nominee Herman Cain had sexual harassment allegations levelled at him by at least two women some fifteen years ago.

It is as if I attended a special seminar on handling emergency situations and then, practically upon leaving, I find myself having to use all of the tools given to me therein with the utmost urgency. Within the last 48 hours events in the commentariat have spiralled out of control and old revenants that haunt American politics now shriek with window-shattering violence. Clarence Thomas’ sins have been resurrected, countless commentators on the right have resumed bashing Anita Hill, the words ‘hi-tech lynching’ took less than a day to appear at the very cusp of the breaking news froth (on the BBC, no less), and a cavalcade of racism and racist appropriations have gushed forth from the mouths of every white talking head within shouting distance of a satellite link-up.

Yet what is of special interest to me, and what prompted me to say something, are the particulars of what a well-known white conservative woman has been saying about this scandal:

Ann Coulter, a right-wing commentator, called the claims “another high-tech lynching”, saying liberals couldn’t stand strong black conservatives.

She has quite a lot to say about Clarence Thomas, up to and including her beliefs about where accusations like this originate from:

 “If you are a conservative black, they will believe the most horrible sexualized fantasies of these uptight white feminists,”

I’ve just returned from the washroom and after careful examination I have concluded I’m not white. But, moving on:

“Our blacks are so much better than their blacks,” she said, speaking of Democrats. (Source.)

I could just end the article right here as this, in some ways, can say everything that needs to be said about how white conservatives have handled this latest issue with Herman Cain. But much more should be said.

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I’m Being So Sincere Right Now: Gaming as Hyperreality

Sisters of Janus: Therese and Jeanette Voerman from Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Both blonde haired, pallid women, one wearing a dark grey business suit and black rimmed glasses, the other wearing a stylised schoolgirl's outfit, bra and thong visible, and a blood red choker. She also wears deep makeup.

When I play certain video games I get the strange feeling of wandering through the weird and lurid landscape of a Dali painting; beholding the familiar, albeit distorted in the strangest of ways.

One might expect this. After all, video games are not supposed to be realistic by default. They operate on their own internal logic, their worlds hewn out of something called ‘game design needs’ rather than say billions of years of geology and thousands of years of culture and history, for instance. But I came to realise it was something beyond that point which I could comfortably suspend my disbelief and immerse. What jarred me out of, almost consistently, was the fact that many games have had the pretension of being representations of the real.

A artificially warped landscape is a good and interesting thing so long as one does not purport that it is, in fact, akin to a photograph.

Rated M for Misconception

Whenever one hears the word “gritty” or “grimdark” appended to other adjectives used to describe a video game, you’ve likely stumbled on a game that does what I’m going to discuss in this article: promote a rather cliched perspective as ‘real’. Various other euphemisms for this include ‘adult’, ‘mature’, and the like. Let’s take Kieron Gillen’s review of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines for Eurogamer and allow it to speak for itself:

“Bloodlines has the best script I’ve seen in a videogame since… well, since ever. In recent times, Planescape is probably hits the same peaks that Bloodlines does, and has the advantage of mass of words, but in terms of writing a modern, adult videogame, no-one’s come near. No-one’s even tried.

It makes cultural references with the casualness of someone who actually knows what they’re talking about – there’s a particularly memorable off-hand gag about fetish slang which dazzled me with the skill, audacity and comfort it showed. Where most games that try something similar come across as callow posturing, this was done as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It deals with the big adult topics – sex, death, whatever – in truthful and honest ways. It has characters who swear as much as anyone out of Kingpin – but they’re characters who swear rather than an attempt to turn the game into a noir thriller by lobbing a few four-letter words into the mix. Conversely, there are characters who have perfectly civil aspects. Troika has done the writerly thing – that is attempt to write people rather than ciphers. I can only applaud.

So ‘truth and honesty’ are themes in this game, apparently, of a rather dramatic sort. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is a roleplaying game set in a deeply noir Los Angeles, replete with weakly flickering neon, smoky back rooms, and the thrumming bass of rebellious club music set to the jingling chains of the mosh pit dancers. This game is nothing if not deeply possessed of atmosphere. You wander about as a newly initiated vampire in this world, a creature of the night learning the true meaning thereof in a fast-paced auto da fe of supernatural life. Aside from the cool colours of night and the chiaroscuro template of Gothy dusk that define the game’s palette, the other is of course red. A crimson that splatters many a wall.

VtM:B is a passionately violent game complete with murder, dismemberment, exploding bodies, torture, flesh eating, and, of course, rape. For how could one find true verisimilitude without sexual violation?

All of this begins to dissolve into the usual narrative that can be reduced to the following equation: “There will be blood, there will be tits; therefore there is maturity and realism.”

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In Faith, I do not Know Thee by Thy Name

In my recent article for The Border House I took on a number of the arguments made by a few starry eyed technophiles in favour of ending the practise of online anonymity. This is a significant issue for me that, in its many facets, presents me with the ultimate intersectional landscape on which to grow my ideas about interpersonal politics. In other words, it is very easy to talk about sex, race, power, class, and a range of issues surrounding both individual and group behaviour (group psychology and sociology), identity, and just plain old techno-geekery. It touches on a myriad of issues that are important to me.

What follows is a refinement of what I wrote for The Border House and an expansion of it.

I.- Setting Information Free(?)

It is very much worth mentioning that the central idea behind the anti-anonymity advocate’s vision is the firm belief that the death of anonymity will allow information to flow more freely. The reality, however, is that the end of anonymity means a significant lever of personal control will be wrenched away.

To explain what I mean by this I should go into greater detail about the nature of the information being hotly debated at the moment. Invariably the two pieces of information most prized by the Zuckerbergs and their ideological fellow travellers are, in order of importance: legal names and recent, tasteful photographs. This is what I’ve long referred to as “driver’s licence info” and it is information of a very particular and discrete (if not discreet) type. Driver’s licence information actually has very little to do with your personality and who you are as a person. Such information can, in the case of some, affirm who they are (such as in the case of us trans folk) but even that is only the result of the primacy placed on this otherwise relatively un-telling data.

The reason it is so vitally important, the reason it is fought over like the bloodied scrap of earth it is, is because people in power have made that information a matter of life and death.

A name is what you decide to call yourself, and secondarily what others agree to call you. The ‘legal’ codification of it was merely a forerunner to the 20th century invention of serial numbers which are used to ‘identify’ us ever more finely as the owner of a legally sanctioned identity. Legal names are the foundation of this particular form of identification and are the essence of it. Their legality arises from governmental sanction, but it says nothing immediately genuine about who you are. The reason my own name speaks so powerfully to me is because I chose it. I sought to have it legally recognised because in our society where legal names are gold standards and wherein we must all have one, I felt the most self-empowering thing I could do would be to choose it. So indeed I have and my name is now recognised at various levels of officialdom.

But it was no less mine and no less true to me when it lacked legal recognition. It was my name from the moment I chose it in the company of a dear friend as I tepidly set out to claim a name as my own for the first time in my life. If anything my old legal name actually signal-jammed a good deal of truth that may have eminated from me years sooner, and equally blocked a lot that I might have otherwise taught myself. Obviously my old name was not solely responsible for this– a welter of other social conditions played their parts– but it had a starring role to play. We can discuss and debate the particulars but the fundaments of the matter are these:

My old legal name hid far more than it revealed, hindered more than it helped, and stifled far more than it liberated.

In other words it was actually an impediment to the free flow of information for it to be known and in the public record. It was an obstacle to me forging my own identity, right up to the multiple legal rigamaroles I had to endure in order to change it publicly.

Forcing me into a particular ‘legal identity’ closed doors, it did not open them. Who, precisely, is Mark Zuckerberg to adjudicate on which name is a person’s true name? These legal names are important, yes, but only for the same reason that, say, the institution of marriage is important: so many unjust privileges are bound up in it that we cannot help but pay close attention to its use. For precisely that same reason control of that information must remain in the hands of those with the least power. More broadly, it should remain in the hands of those who are the rightful adjudicators of such information: the people themselves.

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