Transphobia, Part 4 – Cisgender Privilege

Instead of taking the time to learn about what it is and means to be transgender, many people fall back on prejudiced and/or under-informed thinking. Rather than listen to trans people they shout them down. Rather than defend trans people against transphobia they defend the people making the transphobic comments. Rather than acknowledge that their own views might be transphobic they double down on the same transphobic views. There are many reasons for this including people’s refusal to accept that transgender people exist. A further reason is that the existence of transgender people may challenge the views and beliefs we have around our own gender, not least that we may be cisgender – a term for people whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth.

Many people recoil at the thought of being cisgender and ridicule the concept entirely when actually it is very simple to understand and also very common. Loads of people are cisgender and that’s totally ok! The cisgender identity does not undermine someone’s existence, it simply acknowledges that their gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. Simple. It also makes clear that a person is not transgender and, therefore, does not have to experience the sort of violence and prejudice a transgender person experiences because they are transgender – including verbal abuse, economic disadvantages, ridicule in much cultural media, physical assault and murder. That’s not to say a cisgender person will not suffer from these experiences but it will not be because they are transgender. Nor does it imply that cisgender people have an easy life full of luxury (privilege here doesn’t mean riches), it just means they are not transgender and won’t be faced with the issues transgender people face for being transgender.

However, all of the above depends on our ability to acknowledge that transgender people exist and, therefore, so do cisgender people. A comparison might be white people denying that they are afforded certain privileges because they are white rather than black or brown. Or that black or brown people don’t exist. Another comparison could be men refusing to acknowledge male privilege. Or refusing to acknowledge the existence of women (they might instead see women as objects or lesser forms of men). If any of these possible views strike you as ridiculous, please know that it is just as ridiculous to not believe in transgender people and to deny cisgender privilege. For more information on cisgender privilege take a look at this useful website. To be continued…

The Trouble With Sex Education’s Eric, Part 2

Content note/trigger warning: sexual assault and rape.

There’s a scene in the final episode of Sex Education season 1 (spoilers) which sees Eric, a fabulous, black, gay and queer guy, in detention with Adam, who has been homophobically bullying Eric throughout the series. The bullying continues and Adam shoots mushed up bits of paper through a straw at Eric’s face. They then fight over a music stand and Adam violently shoves Eric. Eric shoves back. The shoving continues until Adam overpowers Eric and pushes him to the ground. Eric, in self-defence, spits in Adam’s face. Adam does it back, asking: “How do you like it?” Eric says, “I don’t” to which Adam replies, “Yeah, didn’t think so.” There’s a pause as the two look one another in the eye and Eric raises his head a fraction (a tiny fraction) and then Adam kisses him before going down on him. You can watch the scene here (but you probably don’t want to) and you can reread a blog post I wrote on this last year. My biggest concern is that we’re being led to believe that violence between men isn’t problematic and that the ending of a storyline of physical and psychological abuse with barely-consented-to sex is somehow a happy ending. As the series creator, Laurie Nunn, said, they were “telling a love story through bullying.”

I want to make it categorically clear that it is impossible to tell a love story through bullying. Bullying and any form of abuse is the opposite of love and if it results in sex the likelihood is that the sex involved is actually rape or sexual assault. Naturally, I was all for not bothering with series 2 given I’d felt so let down but after a number of friends started singing its praises I decided to watch some of the episodes. Regarding the Eric and Adam plotline, Adam has been shipped off to military school and Eric begins a relationship with the epic and loving Rahim who is kind, compassionate, loving and all the things someone might want in a partner. But. Adam returns and surprise, surprise, Eric starts to fall for him again. Otis, Eric’s best friend, has a go at Eric for wanting to return to Adam: “…this is about you being so self-hating that you’d let yourself fall for someone who literally treats you like shit.” But Eric fights back, defending Adam and saying that he’s changed. We do witness a little of this change as Adam struggles with a lack of friends and his bisexuality but as for how he treated Eric, while he claims to now realise that he treated him very badly he doesn’t ever say sorry. Come the final episode and Adam interrupts the school play and makes a grant gesture to Eric, asking to hold his hand. Eric consents. It’s not long before he dumps Rahim and Eric’s family are delighted because apparently being with an emotionally sensitive man who didn’t attack and abuse him was a bad thing but getting with one’s aggressor is to be celebrated.

There are many things that Sex Education gets right but I don’t think this storyline is one of them. It glamourises and romanticises abuse and violence between men encouraging us to champion the dysfunctional and previously violent relationship between Eric and Adam. The sexual assault of series 1 gets zilch reference precisely because we’re not supposed to see it as sexual assault (likewise in real life) and men attacking men and finding romance through bullying is supposed to be sexy and the stuff of happy endings. The issue is infantilised and treated as a will-they-won’t-they sort of tease rather than a nuanced story exploring shame, self-loathing, violence and sexual violence between men within and without the LGBTQ+ community.

The Inheritance

Imagine your friendship group, y’know, those people you care about and love spending time with. The people who know you and help you deal with life’s problems. Now imagine being told that one by one they are dying. They’re dying because of a disease called GRID, gay-related immune deficiency. That’s right, gay men are spreading diseases. GRID is deadly. You can get it through physical contact, sharing food, sharing a drinking fountain and even through sneezes. A phone call, another one of your friends has died. Meanwhile, GRID gets a new name, AIDS. The public is outraged and not because people are dying but because gays are spreading diseases. People are calling for AIDS patients to be quarantined, to be tattooed and to be forced to carry identity cards. Another phone call, another death, it’s your best friend this time – if only he’d said something. You worry you’ve got the disease but you don’t know who to talk to. Your family is homophobic, your local bishop is urging the parishioners to stop drinking from the communion cup and, now, your boyfriend has been diagnosed with the disease.

This was the reality for many gay men living through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and was vividly realised onstage by The Inheritance – a new duo of plays that recently finished showing at the Young Vic. The plays explore the trauma and the stigma that typified so much of the crisis and how both impact on the lives of gay men living today. I am a gay man living today and I often think of what I have inherited from the AIDS crisis. As well as the ability to live positively with HIV, something denied to my forebears, I have also inherited a gaping hole in my history. Not just a lack of knowledge and education but also a lack of people. As the script says, people who could be mentors, friends, lovers, teachers and elders but cannot because they have died.

I have often been told how disappointing gay men are – we spread diseases, we’re narcissists, we’re too irresponsible to be allowed to have sex at the same age as heterosexuals, and other such criticisms. But I wonder if the people who criticise me and my community have spent much time actually thinking about my community and its history. I doubt it. This is why plays such as The Inheritance (and Angels In America) are a vital weave in the fabric of the gay and queer community, a stitch in time to save lives and ensure our future can be better than our past. Fortunately, the show will be transferring to the West End to ensure more folks can enjoy such a smörgåsbord of acting, directing, teching, writing and staging talent. And for those of you who don’t want to spend six hours in an auditorium but do want to know more about the AIDS crisis and its legacies why not click here.

Andrew Burnap and Samuel H. Leving in The Inheritance

Why Do Fairy Tales End In Weddings?

And it all ends happily ever after – the dragon slain, the terrible King overthrown, the witch thwarted, the wolf outrun, the villagers saved, the damsel rescued and…wedding bells. In old folktales, in Disney cartoons, in far too many movies and, of course, all over real life. Many people spend a lot of time, pain and money trying to craft that perfect day – the white dress, the giant cake, the big guest list. Sometimes they’re lucky and the only problem is the slightly leery uncle and other times it’s a disaster of catering, drained alcohol supplies and family feuds. Either way it seems we’ve taken the concept of a fairy tale wedding very seriously and tried to recreate it in real life. But I think we’ve slightly missed the point.

I do love a good fairy tale but I get pretty bored when it’s all about cisgendered, white, straight guys rescuing helpless damsels and marrying them, yawn. But the tradition was somewhat reclaimed for me when someone explained why fairy tales have a habit of ending in weddings. It’s not because the tale is literally a how-to manual for planning the big day, no, it’s a little more subtle than that. One way to interpret a traditional fairy tale is to see the characters in the story as facets of our personality (or psyche). We all have a questing hero in us and sometimes we can be a bit of a tyrant as well. There’s a wild wolf in us too, a wise sage, a jokey trickster, a helpless victim, a cunning witch and even a terrifying dragon (metaphorically speaking). We’re not just supposed to identify with the hero (y’know, that dull straight, white guy), instead all the characters represent different aspects of who we are. Many of us might play the part of the fool more often than the wise one, or the tyrant than the victim, but the point is the potential is there and our psyche is multi-faceted (whatever those dull personality tests tell us, give me dragons and witches over ENTJ any time). Basically, folktales are a form of psychology and therapy developed hundreds of years ago, pretty cool huh.

So why the wedding? Well, it’s not just some random straight folks tying the knot, it’s the marriage of your psyche. Say what? It’s when all of you, all of you, is invited back home to one giant party – it’s when you finally come to terms with being you. In many traditional tales the wedding won’t just include the in-laws but the tyrant king will be there (and he may well ceremoniously die as metaphor for you conquering your inner b*stard), the annoying brother, the sage, the mentor, the dragon’s head maybe, the witch (providing she survived and promised to be a little less wicked) and even the wild wolf might be seen flitting around in the garden. The guest list is vast and the catering cost astronomical but the point is all of you has been welcomed back home. It’s not about white dresses and multi-tiered cakes, it’s about inner healing and empowerment. So, as symbolism for inner transformation goes I think fairy tales are pretty ace. However, if like me you’re not such a fan of heteronormative ceremonies traditionally based on the buying and selling of woman, you’ll agree that the tales need a bit of a 21st century makeover. No more weddings for me, just one giant queer house party. All welcome.

A reflection on leg hair

This! An amazing post from fellow blogger Nettles and Webs on her recent trip to the beach. If you find yourself reading this and thinking women should shave their legs, then please think again. What a shame that diversity in bodies can yield derision, scorn and mockery. But I reckon my friend is hotter, freer and happier than so many of us. Here’s to hairy legs!

Nettles and Webs

I am sat on a beach in the south of France in a little town called Collioure. I came here a lot when I was younger and it is around 17 years since I was here first. The sea is perfectly clear and many shades of blue, the sun is shining and beach is stony. I am surrounded by people from many countries and of all shapes and sizes and shades. Some people are covered up a lot, others have just tiny speedos or bikini bottoms on. Toplessness for all is happily embraced here, which feels liberating. The big difference I am noticing of myself is that so far I am the only woman on this beach – or any beach I have been to so far – who has chosen to have hairy legs. Now some women have fair hair on their legs and I may not have noticed…

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David Mitchell Misses The Point

It’s alright, I never really liked Peepshow anyway, the humour is so predictably cynical and masculinist that it just gets boring. The best thing about it was Olivia Colman, I’m very glad her career has gone stellar, whilst her co-stars just sit on comedy panels with other white, self-congratulatory men. Talking of whom, David Mitchell just missed the point in a recent piece on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford University (my previous post explains what the campaign is all about). Like many privileged white men before him he thinks it’s alright to make trivialising jokes about racism without actually adding anything of substance to the debate. Nevertheless, here’s another post to reiterate why racism is bad.

There are an awful lot of arguments to keep the statue up. Some are openly racist – there are still people who venerate Cecil Rhodes and don’t like black people (for example, the many alumni of Oriel College who threatened to take the college out of their will if the statue was removed). Some are ignorantly racist – some don’t really know who he was but think it’s all a bit too much and impolite to ask for a statue to be removed, especially to ask in a forthright matter (the sort of people who’ve never been part of a racial minority). Then there are the likes of David Mitchell, again, just racist, somewhat apologetic about it but certainly not ignorant.

His argument rests on the familiar case that removing the statue is tantamount to “erasing history”. It’s a sensationalist argument that purposefully misses the point and makes it all sound far simpler than it actually is. But he’s wrong. Removing a statue isn’t erasing history, it’s one small act of recognition of the UK’s oppressive and violent legacies. We are not removing books on Cecil Rhodes, nor his Wikipedia page, nor all sites about him that would come up on a google search. If David Mitchell really wants to learn about Rhodes he can use the internet. He even admits to never having seen the statue which implies he’s not that interested, he just wanted an excuse to write a ranty, cynical article. I very much doubt he’ll make the effort to walk down the Oxford high street, look at the statue and think: “gosh, this is a potent reminder of how terrible imperialism is and was, and how we shouldn’t venerate racists”. The reason I think this is because his article, like so many others, is void of any history. He glibly refers to Cecil Rhodes being a “shit” and follows the line, “other than all the racism in history which, it goes without saying, doesn’t go without saying”, with no account of racism in history. So, actually, it does go without saying then? He ignores the history and present realities of racism because it suits him to and he’s too lazy to try to identify with oppressed groups he is not part of.

Mitchell also compares the “unwavering moral self-confidence” of the colonial Victorians who thought Rhodes was “right and good” with the students protesting as part of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Yup, he’s comparing nationalistic racists with anti-racism activists. It’s a lazy comparison but maybe he’s just stating that these groups of people have points of view, unlike Mitchell who seems happy to repeat what others have already said. Of course, if he can find an activist who is actively calling for every trace of Rhodes to be removed (this would include the burning of books, the deleting of websites etc) then that would be a problem but he hasn’t and I doubt he will because the RMF campaign is far more nuanced and progressive.

“Do they [the RMF campaigners] think that we can have the debate about colonialism, about racism, once and for all now, and then just move on, having wiped away all offensive traces of our former ills? Do they really believe that they are simply correct about everything now – that, after millions of years, humanity has cracked it, that the truth about how to be has been discovered and must be propagated and enforced? History warns us that terrible things are done by people who think like that.” The answer to both his questions is No and I’m not sure he’s given any examples of people ‘who think like that’ (has he even talked to one of the campaigners?). Why? Because he’s lazy and couldn’t be bothered to do much research for his article and because he’s white and privileged and lacks empathy. There are lots of people like Mitchell – scared individuals who hide their insecurities and vulnerabilities behind acerbic repartee and cynical jokes, who lack the compassion and empathy to identify with others. But rather than dig his heels in and continue to speak from a place of fear and ignorance why doesn’t he step up as a privileged, white guy and do what he can to redistribute that privilege? He’ll probably make lots of new friends in the process as well. So here’s an amazing TED talk by Vernā Myers to kickstart that process.

All I Want For Christmas Is…A Dress

About a month ago I was in a shop with a friend waiting for her to return a dress. Somewhat curious I asked one of the staff what dress size they thought I might be. A 10 as it turns out. Still curious I thought, sod it, I’ll just try one on. So I did and I liked it and so did my friend. Then a little while after that I found myself trying another dress on and this time I shared the picture on Facebook and it went down well – y’know, plenty of likes and comments (the real stuff of self-affirmation). And now all I want from Father Christmas is a dress.

So why do I, as a guy, want to get a dress? Predominantly because I think life is too short not to. Dresses are brilliant and far more interesting than the often monochrome array of clothes on offer for men. I wore dresses when I little, as part of dressing up, and back then no one batted an eyelid. But then there came an age when I stopped wearing dresses and stuck to trousers and grey t-shirts  – in other words I adopted normalised masculinity and the idea of breaking this norm became increasingly hard to imagine. At school it didn’t even occur to me to wear a dress and if I had, imagine the ridicule, bullying and how stupid I’d look. Someone born with a penis, testicles and presumably a Y chromosome isn’t supposed to wear skirts after all.

But is that really it? A doctor saw my penis at birth and designated me a man and because of that I was put in certain clothes, certain schools and granted certain privileges. So many expectations and assumptions were attached to me just because I was a boy, including what clothes I should and should not wear. But I’m a little older now and less fearful of bullies (because I actually get to choose who I hang out with) and better at interrogating the expectations that others have of me, so maybe I can finally get that dress. Add to this what the sales assistant said to me as I asked for their opinion on the second dress I tried on – they said there are more important things to be worrying about at the moment than whether some random guy is wearing a dress. And I agreed. Even if other people do find it weird, if I look good in it, then why not!

And that’s really the main reason I want to get a dress for Christmas, because it suits me. I’m not making a comment about my gender (that’s for a different blog post) and I’m not trying to parody what it means to be a woman by wearing clothes that are typically sold to women. No. I just want to wear clothes that I like and it’s a sad state of affairs if other people have a problem with that. But it’s their problem, not mine. What we wear is a big deal and we express ourselves through our fashion but that still doesn’t mean we can be reduced to our clothes, there’s so much more to people than that, and nor should it mean that little boys who like to wear dresses should stop having to wear them because others can be too close-minded. Of course, there’s more to this than style, there are bigger questions to be asked of gender identities, roles and norms; the gender binary itself and what biological sex really is. But for now all I want is for Father Christmas to give me that dress and not another lump of coal.

Another COP Out: Have We Run Out of Time?

The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) happened in Paris last week as representatives from all the countries of the world came together to try and save it (y’know, climate change, carbon emissions etc). The results were predictably disappointing especially as the deal that 195 countries negotiated was voluntary – so, each country can say it will reduce emissions but there are no legal mechanisms in place to actually make them do it. An incentive to cut emissions? Cut corners more like. Now, before I bore you with another blog on why COP21 was such a cop-out I thought I’d get a little philosophical and write about time instead (that’s right, the stuff on clocks).

Back in 1992 the Rio Earth Summit (which got the COPs rolling) set out “to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. 20 years later, the clock’s still ticking, and what with another warmest year on record and a booming fossil fuel industry it kinda looks like we’ve failed. Or maybe some good will come out of the COP21 deal (or should that be “deal”) and there might be just enough time to change things. Or maybe it really is too late and all the deadlines have passed (goodbye Arctic, hello defrosting methane).

Well, I don’t like deadlines. Not only is the word ‘dead’ in them but they’re so pressureful – all that rushing about having to appear busy and that false sense of achievement once I’ve reached one only for another to appear. All that time slipping through my fingers. And maybe it’s not just deadlines that I don’t like but time itself. All those little lines etched on a clock face passing swiftly by, those digits on my Apple watch silently ticking, serving only to remind me that time doesn’t stand still for anyone, not even me (the cheek!). And when it comes to saving the planet, is it too late, have we run out of time?

Or maybe one could argue that we’ve never had enough time anyway – from the moment we set foot on the planet humans have gone about thinking up increasingly inventive ways to inflict violence on each other culminating in a war that will take down our planet as well as our enemies. Maybe our minutes were always numbered from the get go. Or maybe the time we tell is arbitrary – who gets to decide the time when something becomes a problem (why did it take until 1992 to start talking about climate change?), who sets the deadline, who watches the clock and who, if anyone, actually holds anyone to account if nothing has been done by zero hour? Is it a wealthy Western nation that hasn’t really had to experience the brunt of climate change or is it a small island state that faces submergence or someone who has struggled through desertification, increasingly extreme weather patterns and dislocation? Sure, some of us still have time but for many people it ran out long ago. Perhaps all this time telling is just arbitrary anyway.

But if you’re one of those people who really needs a deadline otherwise you won’t even get out of bed in the morning then you can have one, if you must, but not for me. I think caring for others and the planet makes sense without a ticking clock, it’s just a shame it doesn’t make sense to globalised business, the arms trade and belligerent nation states (and belligerent, aspiring nation states). We either ran out of time a long time ago or maybe we never had enough in the first place or maybe time is just a number, a number invented by humans to help us navigate the spaces in between day and night. Either way it’s still a great idea to be nice to one another, to cut down on meat consumption and start sticking it to the globalised military-industrial complex. We can be 100% renewably powered, we can keep fossil fuels in the ground and we can all get on. And there’s no time to waste because there’s no time anyway, so game on. Meanwhile, here’s Brandalism making poster-based mischief in Paris the other week as they brew up a mug of ‘say-it-like-it-is’…

Jurassic Out-Of-This World

All willing disbelief suspended, all fond memories of the original shelved and all expenses paid for an average seat at the Odeon – yup, time for Jurassic World. And my Gobisaurus, there was not a lot that film didn’t do – a blazing example of anti-capitalist, Marxist, feminist critique. Here are a few of the highlights.

Jurassic World

Consumerism Will Destroy Us: So, the two young white male protagonists arrive at Jurassic World, twenty-two years after lots of people got killed at Jurassic Park, and it’s basically a giant zoo. Screaming kids are riding baby Triceratops, screaming crowds are watching great white sharks being fed to Mosasaurus and profits are screaming (in delight) as the park rolls out its latest asset – a genetically engineered new dinosaur, the Indominus Rex. The film paints a pretty grim picture of humans as greedy, selfish consumers. Meanwhile, it swiftly becomes apparent that the money behind the park is corporate, so much so that the companies want their brands to form part of the dinosaurs’ names – the Nokiasaurus, iRex etc. The dinosaurs are also referred to as ‘assets’ and seen as profit-making objects rather than real living creatures. Put this alongside the film’s own product placement, what with Mercedes, Coca-Cola and Samsung all getting an appearance, and there’s a pretty strong anti-consumer capitalism message going on here. Not to mention that the entire park actually forms part of an elaborate military project to breed dinosaurs as weapons – so it’s not just the greedy business types pulling the strings it’s also the war generals, quite the military-industrial complex going on here.

Of course, this would not be part of the Jurassic Park franchise if the dinosaurs did not escape and kill lots of people – which they do. We see one woman get chomped by the Mosasaurus, multiple people get flayed by Pterodactyls and the Indominus Rex goes on a feeding frenzy.  The moral of this story: consumerism will destroy us – in a wonderful irony, befitting of even the most esoteric of French philosophers, the very products of consumerism (namely, genetically modified dinos) will turn on those that consume them by…consuming them. Ouch.

Nature Does Not Exist: First there was the earth – a barren lump of rock, then there was nature – trees, rivers, animals etc, then there were humans. We labour under the belief that humans are not part of nature, hence our endless quest to reveal nature’s secrets and dominate it. Simultaneously, we idolise the time of pre-human nature and in Jurassic World they try to recreate it by breeding extinct dinosaurs. However, as one of the chief scientists in the film reminds us, “nothing in this park is natural” because the humans have been tinkering with the dino DNA right from the start. But that still begs the question “what is natural?”

That’s an incredibly difficult question to answer if we still believe in the binary of pristine, nonhuman nature versus dirty, human artifice. We can never win if humans are the ones that render everything unnatural simply by existing. So, I suggest we give up this confused notion of nature and accept that that sort of nature never existed. Instead we can place humans alongside animals, rivers, plants etc, in a broader understanding of the natural world. This can also include all the mechanical and technological contraptions that humans like to create. Thus, rather than having degrees of ‘natural’ we could have degrees of ‘engineered-by-humans’ – i.e. a rock-as-hammer being a less engineered human technology than, say, a car. Of course, this says nothing for how humans treat the world they form part of, pretty badly basically.

White Men And Families Will Save Us: Jurassic World is a 12A, it’s a film for all the family. Thus, it’s only right that Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Claire Dearing – the park’s white, single, overly organised, female stereotype operations manager, ends up with Owen Grady (played by Chris Pratt), the white, rugged, dino fighting, sexist, male stereotype Indiana Jones knock off. Meanwhile, Zach and Gray (yes, he is called a colour) the two white, siblings who start the film squabbling end up fulfilling male and fraternal stereotypes thanks to numerous near death experiences with dinosaurs. Also, the implication at the end of the film is that their possibly-divorcing parents will stay together now the dinosauar attacks have put everything in perspective.

Indeed, the majority of characters that do positive things in this film are white, whilst the evil scientist is of Chinese descent and the dubious billionaire that owns the park is Indian. However, there is one white baddy – a gun-toting  military man who wants to use the dinosaurs as weapons, he ends up getting eaten by a Velociraptor. At least the film passes the Bechdel test as Claire talks with her sister, Karen (the mum of Zach and Gray), about something other than men…how to raise children.

In brief, the moral of this story is that it helps to be white, male, heterosexual and part of an atomic family, or planning to start one. That’s how to survive the dinosaur apocalypse.

Redemption: Just when we thought all was lost and the Indominus Rex was about to eat everyone the T-Rex, Velociraptor and Mosasaurus all come to the rescue and render the Indominus Rex very much dead. So, there is a happy ending of sorts as the friendly dinosaurs  help the white, heteronormative humans restore some form of order. It’s a confused message perhaps but it does imply globalised consumer capitalism does not have to spell the end of humankind. There may well be hope for us yet, thank you dinosaurs.