Invisible Women

Visibility matters. To be sure it carries with it various risks; to be known is certainly not always to be loved. For example the type of visibility transsexual women “enjoy” in society is of perhaps the lowest order; stereotyped, parodied, and exploited- this is what our visibility in the mainstream media usually accounts for. Which is why it’s all the more frustrating to take note of where we are not visible. Recently various trans and women’s websites have been blowing the lid off of a particularly egregious episode of appropriation. By now most people have heard of the beleaguered and persecuted “gay couple” in Malawi who have just been sentenced to prison terms in an inhuman miscarriage of justice. What far fewer people know, however, is that they are not quite a gay couple per se. Indeed, one half of that couple understands herself quite firmly as a female.

Questioning Transphobia among others have taken a look at this issue, and as per usual Skip The Makeup has an excellent overview of the problematic media coverage. It is erasure writ large. I will not rehash (much) the details nor the criticism of why so much of the coverage has been, at best, condescending, borderline racist, and erasing when others have done this so well. What’ll concern me this afternoon is responding to the criticisms of people who feel that the trans community is making a mountain out of a molehill. Many, including within the cis LGB community, have suggested that it doesn’t really matter how Tiwonge Chimbalanga identifies or what her life experience is, and that what matters is that folks care about two people being persecuted for loving one another.

It’s a seductive argument, certainly, and adheres to the ever enticing liberal equalism that asserts difference only gets in the way.

The problem is that those same people- especially the cis gays and queers among them- would not let this excuse wash if some other human rights issue that got wide press omitted the fact that one of the people being attacked, maligned or disenfranchised was gay, and this would be a perfectly valid response. Why? Because explicating how various forms of discrimination operate and bear on a case like this is elucidating; it highlights the struggles of groups of people to those who might otherwise be inclined to believe that discrimination is a thing of the past. If something bad happens to a member of your community, wanting to raise hell about it is a natural reaction.

Secondly, it ought to be obvious why it “matters”: because Tiwonge Chimbalanga says she’s a woman and bloody well lives as one. Does it not strike these people, especially the cis LGB folks among them, as more than a little rude and disingenuous to simply ignore that and condescendingly wave her off? That is really what is at issue here with the media coverage, including the New York Times’ cringe inducing speculation that society had repressed Tiwonge into merely being deluded about being a woman. It smacks of the same cis LGB attempt to colonise and claim trans people as merely extremely gay individuals, regardless of what we say about ourselves. Or the attempts by those same people, and some particularly tone-deaf feminists, to cis man’s burden us by asserting that our identification merely marks us as particularly battered victims of the gender binary.

The perpetuation of such beliefs, the privileged right to define us, are the consequences of this kind of erasure.

The other response to this critique- that quibbling over identity is a mug’s game- is twofold.

  • For one, the uncomfortable question has to be asked: Would this case have courted such international outrage had Tiwonge been identified as a transgender or intersex woman from the start?
  • Two, to consider the difference between being publicly regarded as a man as opposed to a woman, a mere ‘quibble’ over labels for transgender people is to display a rather saddening lack of empathy. It is pretty damn important to us.

Another argument I’ve heard floated is from some savvy liberals who say that these distinctions are a western invention and that by imposing the label of trans on Tiwonge, we are the ones erasing her. This is what I call ‘hipster privilege’, left wing constructions of privileged statements that use emancipatory language to express marginalising ideas (you can also file feminist transphobia under this). Everything I’ve read from trans activists and feminists who’ve called out this erasure has been based on Tiwonge Chimbalanga’s own expression of her identity as quoted many times over (and then usually redacted by many mainstream media organisations). I’m not imposing this on her. She, time and again, has called herself a woman.

Now let’s look at a different sort  of erasure for a moment, and how this type of erasure has a very bad habit of silencing women in the most patriarchal ways possible.

In Australia much brouhaha has been ginned up by conservative whites- mostly men- in power and in the media who are seeking to ban the burqa, a ban which mainly targets religious dress like the face-covering niqab. Recently a Sydney talkback radio programme on station 3AW hosted a rather roudy roundtable debate on the matter. Most of the callers were openly hostile, one woman brazenly declaring herself a racist, another bemoaning the loss of “Australian culture,” we’ve been here before, these shades of Islamophobia and racism are nothing new.

What was rather interesting was what happened when a Muslim woman and community representative, Sherene Hassan, who is the VP of the Muslim Council of Victoria, was called in to participate in the debate with three white men in the studio. She would be on the phone, speaking with presenter Darren James, and the two panellists, liberal Nick McCallum, and right winger John Michael Howson. At least that’s what was supposed to happen. After being kept on hold for over twenty minutes Ms. Hassan was finally told that she was not wanted on the show as Mr. Howson refused to speak to her. Whatever perspective she had to offer, as a  Muslim woman professional and community activist, was effectively silenced.

What was Howson’s justification for this?

“Well it was another propagandist coming on. We know what we’re going to get… I’ll tell you what it is Nick. They are well skilled propagandists who come on at a moment’s notice with their rote and we’ll get the same thing.”

You really do have to listen to the recording to hear the sneering behind these words.

And so, there you have it. Three white men hosting a debate to a primarily white audience, ginning up racial resentment, taking calls primarily from said white audience, all about a political issue that surrounds a law which if passed explicitly targets Muslim women. But an actual Muslim woman’s opinion on the matter? Shut down from that discussion. Mr. Howson does not seem to think very highly of his listeners’ ability to take it. An actual Muslim woman becomes a “propagandist” unlike the ostensibly neutral Mr. Howson who knows what’s best for women of colour.

This is the real problem with erasure: it compels people from minority groups to stay out of these debates, even in ostensible democracies and free presses, and to let the dominant group hash out their future. The charity of white liberals like Mr. McCallum must be relied upon and obstacles are thrown in our way if we try to stand up for our own rights.

The erasure of Tiwonge Chimbalanga’s identity has a similar effect in marginalising and silencing trans voices, including that of Ms. Chimbalanga’s herself, despite the pretensions of so many to care about what happens to her.  For the New York Times, BBC, and countless cis LGB activists to say they know her identity better than her (and that’s okay anyway because they’re trying to save her) has particularly colonialist overtones that can’t help but marginalise. Trans people need positive visibility and above all our voices must be heard, not second guessed, buried on page A12 followed by a challenge to our self-knowledge, but heard.

Respect need not be mutually exclusive with advocacy.