It’s 2017! Yay! And what a thrilling year it promises to be! Of all the apocalyptic excitements lined up for the next twelve months, I’m most excited about Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th President of the United States of America, because his first term promises to be absolutely peachy for transsexuals. First, there’s all the brouhaha about which public toilets transgender students are permitted to use, with Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming all looking to control people’s lavatorial access because of what is written on their birth certificates; and refusing to provide alternative provision – even when this is in direct contradiction to national government policy. And then there’s the thorny issue of allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military; the likelihood that transgender people will be denied the right to choose their own gender designation on identity documents; resistance to marriage equality for gay and transgender people; and proposed legislation to prohibit transgender Americans from owning a gun. (I made that last one up, but it would be interesting to see what would happen, wouldn’t it?)
On top of all that are the billionaires Trump is choosing to fill key posts in his cabinet and the supreme court, with Vice President Mike Pence, by way of an example, making no secret of his belief in curative ‘conversion therapy’ for gay and transgender people – even arguing that funding for research into HIV/AIDS should be diverted for the purpose.
But the fun doesn’t stop there! Britain’s departure from the European Union is surely now only three months, two years, two-and-a-half years, four years or six years away, which means I can look forward to a protracted period of uncertainty regarding which legal statutes are safeguarding my right to participate in social and economic life, and protecting me from discrimination on the grounds of my gender. Fingers crossed that, by the time the British government begins drafting the English Bill of Rights that will replace the only specific strictures protecting transgender people from legal, financial, religious, educational or employment prejudice, England will have a Lord Chancellor who does not believe anyone who requires state aid – or who is a little bit different – is vermin.
The legitimisation of a politics that is self-serving, xenophobic, and which breeds suspicion, fear and hatred to serve its own grubby, venal ends, is by no means limited to America and the United Kingdom. 2017 promises to witness the election across the globe of a slew of right-wing extremists to positions of power by a disaffected working class, and a host of countries braced to abandon even the pretence of upholding the rights of minorities to work where they want, get paid what they deserve, marry who they choose, live where they like, and go about their daily life without fear of molestation.
It is not good time to be different: ignorance, nimbyism, selfishness, isolationism and hatred are in the ascendency. The attributes of fitting in, following the herd, making the right connections, and playing the system are now not only prized above all others; they are essential for the successful navigation of twenty-first century life. We are learning to revile anyone who isn’t capable of standing up for themselves, and being educated to make pariahs of any individuals or groups who depend for their wellbeing upon the beneficence of government and the generosity of public funds. We all have the right to be different and be true to ourselves, the modern-day lie maintains, provided the ways in which we want to be different and true to ourselves are in accordance with socially sanctioned ways of thinking and behaving. As the fourth-grade philosophers at South Park Elementary remind us:
’Cause you gotta do what you wanna do!
Don’t let nothin’ get in your way;
Chase your dream every day!
True, girl, you know it’s true,
That if you really wanna be you,
You’ve gotta do what you wanna do!
You gotta do what you wanna do!
Just make sure that what you’re doing
Is what’s cool and popular with everyone!
Do what you want, don’t have restraint;
Don’t stress about it or you just might faint.
(If you wanna get high and jack off, it’s cool.)
Try to do what you wanna do!
As long as what you wanna do
Is what everybody wants you to!
What, then, can you do to defend yourself from hatred and stupidity in the age of ignorance? Not a lot, is the honest answer, but you can at least ensure that you are well-informed. When someone is trying to tell you what you should do, how you should think, where you can go, who you can marry, what you can and cannot do to your own body, and what job you can have, be ready to mount the best intellectual defence that you can of your refusal to conform to convenient social stereotypes. History might not repeat itself exactly, but it does rhyme, and there are a number of historical precedents transgender people can refer to when they must challenge bigotry, educate idiocy, and stand up for their prerogative to be different.
Forewarned is forearmed. Here, therefore, are six common transphobic arguments that are rolled out to justify the unjust and prejudicial treatment of gender nonconforming people, along with a number of telling historical parallels of the use of similar discriminatory nonsense against racial and minority groups. So: if someone tells you can’t take a wizz in a public convenience, or that god made Adam and Eve – not Adam and Steve, be ready to flummox them with a well-aimed political zinger about how their arguments have been tried (and found severely wanting) before, and about how, ultimately, the tide of history is on our side.
One: Transsexuality is just an excuse for being a pervert!
When the American chain of discount stores, Target, unveiled a bathroom and fitting-room policy in April, 2016, that would allow customers and staff to use the facility that felt right for them, nearly one-and-a-half million people signed an online petition calling for a boycott of Target outlets.
The issue was covered by The Washington Post under the headline, “ ‘A Danger to wives and daughters’: Petition to boycott Target over transgender-inclusive bathrooms claims growing support”, which highlighted the belief that the policy of Target stores “could facilitate sexual abuse, particularly against minors.” It is terrifying to belong to a group whose members can be so casually labelled as child abusers and sexual deviants, and it matters very little to the mob that there is no statistical evidence whatsoever to support the assertion that transgender people are more likely than any other citizen to commit sexual assault. Apart from anything else, there are much easier ways to satisfy a fetish for toilet rape than alienating your friends, losing your job, and facing physical and verbal abuse on a daily basis, as a result of coming out as transgender.
The argument that violence or wanton depravity inevitably follows when different groups of people live and work together is a particular favourite of the cretinous racist. During America’s much overdue period of desegregation in the 1950s, reactionary propaganda sought to persuade unwary liberals that forcing people to live in a multicultural society would lead to disorder and conflict. The English politician, Enoch Powell, made a similar assertion in 1968, when he predicted urban neighbourhoods would flow with “rivers of blood” if immigration into the United Kingdom was permitted to go ahead unchecked.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that an irrational fear of integration is a mere comedic anachronism. There are some very powerful people who continue preach that, when people from different genders live and work side-by-side, the temptation to commit sexual assault is irrepressible, and that paedophilia and rape are only a heartbeat away. The only thing scarier than the people spouting such garbage are the folk who are prepared to vote for them.
Two: It is unfair to allow transgender people to participate in mainstream sport.
In January, 2016, the International Olympic Committee announced that it was relaxing its rules on the rights of transgender athletes to participate in international competitions. Under the new regulations, gender reassignment surgery ceased to be a condition to take part in events, although aspiring male-to-female competitors must demonstrate that their testosterone levels are below a given threshold before they can participate (because that’s the only performance-enhancing chemical the IOC needs to be worried about right now…).
Given that caring who wins a sporting competition is absurd anyway, the outcry which followed this announcement was not difficult to predict. Even an organ as sober as The Times newspaper responded with a column unequivocally headlined, “Transgender athletes are unfair to women”; the response on social media to the IOC’s announcement, meanwhile, was positively hysterical.
Competitive sport is such an elitist (and, it seems, permanently and intrinsically corrupt) institution, that it is difficult for rational persons to get worked up about it, but historical parallels to the exclusion of transgender athletes tended be focused on a fear that the purity and ‘tradition’ of sporting activity would be eroded by policies of inclusivity. Discrimination was justified with claims that the integrity of competitions could only be maintained via the preservation of the (white) status quo.
It took until 1946 for Jackie Robinson to ‘break the colour barrier’ in American sport, when he became the first black American to be signed by a professional baseball team. When he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was initially greeted with racial abuse from spectators, teammates refusing to play alongside him, and death threats from fans of both baseball and racism. Sixty-seven years later, the mixed martial artist, Fallon Fox, became the first transgender woman to participate professionally in her sport. In deference to over half a century of human stupidity, Fox was welcomed into the martial arts community with grammatically risible death threats.
Three: Why should precious time and resources be spent pandering to the whims of the tiny minority of transgender people living in this country?
Donald Trump’s position on the rights of transgender people is not easy to pin down precisely, but in May, 2016, he did tell a Fox News interviewer that national government should stay out of transgender politics, and that it should be left to state legislatures to decide how to serve their transgender constituents. When Trump was asked for his opinion on the North Carolina Bathroom Bill, he responded with, “You know, Obama’s getting into very tricky territory. The amazing thing is so many people are talking about this now, and we have to protect everybody even if it’s just one person, but this is such a tiny part of our population.” Did Trump provide gender-neutral bathrooms in his properties? “No, we don’t have that. I hope not, because, frankly, it would be unbelievably expensive, nationwide. It would be hundreds of billions of dollars.”
The argument that the problems of a minority should not be disproportionately elevated above that particular group’s actual cultural significance is, of course, as paradoxical as it is poisonous. Trivialising the needs of a section of the population on the grounds that the numbers affected are small is an effective way of subordinating that group’s rights and entitlements, and of justifying inaction when the groups requires protection. It is precisely because a group is small that it needs powerful advocates to act on its behalf.
Both the Civil Rights movement and the campaign for women’s suffrage were marginalised and ignored because propaganda encouraged them to be seen as fringe groups whose needs would have to wait until more pressing societal problems were resolved; as spurious pseudo-movements dreamt up by lunatic extremists claiming to speak for a non-existent membership; and even as smokescreens for smuggling communist ideas into the United States.
Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter how many people identify as transgender, and how large (or small) a percentage of the population this constitutes. A society which cannot protect the entitlements and freedoms of all its members to live ordinary, decent lives is a society that is failing. There can never a quorum for how large a group needs to be before the safeguarding of its human rights should be enshrined in morality and law: that group simply needs to be human.
Four: Telling me I can’t abuse transgender people is a denial of my right to free speech!
The politicians, media moguls and millionaires who campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in June, 2016, did so by appealing to voters’ base prejudices. The tantalising (and fundamentally dishonest) promise of splendid isolation offered by the emetic triumvirate of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Rupert Murdoch exploited xenophobic anxieties that cut across social strata. Small businessmen were persuaded that Brexit would stop Bogdan and Lukasz from undercutting their nascent painting and decorating businesses, while that the already-rich were encouraged to look forward to an era when they would be even less constrained by equal-opportunities legislation and the requirement to meet minimum standards of decency in the way they treat their workforce. The Daily Mail reading classes, meanwhile, were told they would no longer have a faceless bureaucrat telling them from Brussels that they couldn’t sing ‘Baa-baa Black Sheep’ in schools, buy curved bananas, or refer openly to gollywogs, blackboards, Christmas, jigsaws, Um-Bongo, remedials, fairy-lights, pooftahs, ching-chong Chinamen and fuzzy-wuzzies.
Happily, the lexicon with which gender nonconformity is discussed and described is moving gradually away from conceptions anchored in the clinical and pathological disciplines. The encouraging (but largely forgotten) report on Transgender Equality published by the UK government in January, 2016, argues that the reliance for legal matters on labels derived from surgical procedures – like ‘gender reassignment’ and ‘transsexual’ – to determine gender nonconformity should be replaced with language predicated on the assumption that transgender people have the right to autonomy of self-identification.
Not everyone is equipped for readily adjusting the way they talk and think when the casual cruelty of the vocabulary they use to describe sexuality, race or gender identity becomes socially unacceptable. Consigning certain terminology to the dustbin of history does not come easy to people who have not been helped to understand the damage certain words have the power to do. Letting go is hard to do, and the bigoted have become adept at portraying themselves as the victim when social pressure tells them they need to mind their language. Such thinking linked linguistic change with thought-policing by opponents of the Civil Rights movement (when jettisoning the word ‘negro’ from everyday speech proved challenging for some people), and again by enemies of the campaign for women’s suffrage. As society has grown out of an outmoded vocabulary for talking about race and women’s rights, so too will people cease to feel comfortable insisting on medicalised labels for transgender people. Hopefully, one day, people will even stop denying us the right to choose how we self-identify.
Five: Marriage should be between a man and a woman, not between two women, two men, nor anything in between.
Under UK law, if one of the partners in an existing marriage declares their intention to change gender, the marriage must be dissolved to allow the partner (or partners) in question to obtain legal recognition of their new gender, before the couple can remarry. In the United States, meanwhile, the right of transgender people to condemn themselves to a lifetime of connubial misery is covered by the same laws as same-sex marriage.
The legal precedent that enshrined the right of same-sex couples to marry in American law was established by the June, 2015, ruling of the Supreme Court in the case of Obergefell versus Hodges. This move, of course, has been far from universally popular in the US, and incites particular apoplexy for adherents to America’s unique brand of excitable, evangelising, deep-south Christianity. Nothing upsets the cast of Deliverance quite like gay marriage, with anything outside the absolute, predetermined, cisgender, heterosexual norm equated with devil-worship, paedophilia and bestiality. There is, it is argued, a natural order of things, and if anyone who wasn’t unequivocally born a man or woman seeks to make a public declaration of their love for another human being, then they are committing an act of gross indecency in the eyes of god. Transsexuality’s just not natural, Cletus!
One person’s establishment of legal precedent is another person’s slippery slope to Sodom and Gomorrah, and the argument that allowing one break with tradition will lead inexorably to anarchy, was a popular one to advance when members of the American establishment were just starting to get their old testament heads around the idea that people were capable of falling in love across long-held barriers of race and ethnicity.
Six: Gender Nonconformity has nothing to do with biology or neurology – it’s just a silly lifestyle choice.
We don’t yet know exactly what is at the root of a person’s desire to change the gender they were assigned at birth. On the one hand, the Dutch neuro-scientist Dick Swaab (in his 2014 book, ‘We Are Our Brains’) argues that transsexuality occurs when the gender mapping that takes place during prenatal brain development differs from the sex organs grown by the foetus, and is therefore just as much a product of development in the womb as the colour of our eyes or the shape of our feet. At the opposite end of the nature versus nurture spectrum, meanwhile, proponents of the trans-exclusionary school of radical feminism (most notably, British academic, Julie Bindel, and Maryland lawyer, Cathy Brennan) argue that transgenderism is entirely socially constructed. Specifically, TERF dogma maintains that female-to-male transsexuals are motivated by the desire to experience the power mandated to men by hegemonic processes in patriarchal societies; whilst, for transwomen, the appeal of transition is purely sexual – they just want to get their rocks off by pulling on fishnets and having a taste of being stared at.
Whether gender transition is a compulsion, a conviction, a compunction or a contrivance – or whether it is the result of over-indulgent mothering, childhood trauma, psychosis, psychology, psychiatry, psychopathy or psychometry – the label attached to its origins should never be an excuse for prejudice and discrimination. In January, 2015, I had an article published on a website for American teachers and administrators called ‘Education Week’. In it, I described the effect my transition had had on my teaching career, and how, ultimately, the barriers to employment and advancement I suddenly encountered had convinced me that I no longer wished to be part of such a toxic and reactionary profession.
The comments about my article that were appended to the ‘Education Week’ website proved to be startlingly and overwhelmingly negative. That said, analysis of these responses proved quite interesting, and showed that – however colourfully they expressed their prejudices – American teachers had three interconnected preoccupations when it came to gender nonconformity:
- A need to label transgender people, and to deny them the right to choose how they label themselves (most notably, by prohibiting male-to-female transsexuals from calling themselves women).
- The assertion that gender transition is a choice, the consequence of which should be self-imposed marginalisation (and a change of career).
- Shock at the effrontery shown by transgender people when they expect society to accept difference, safeguard the principle of equality, and accommodate the desire of all its members to live healthy and happy lives, find paid employment, have aspirations commensurate with their skills and qualifications, and walk down the street without being screamed at.
These weren’t the views of cave-dwelling bigots, I forced myself to remember – these were teachers; professionals entrusted with the shaping of young minds. Belonging to a caring, nurturing, selfless profession, however, does not preclude a person from being subject to the same societal forces that influence mainstream opinion. That teachers hold conservative views should not be surprising, but it should remain disappointing: the reasons why people elect to live different lifestyles should not eclipse the defence of their right to live them.
History is littered with examples of pseudo-sciences that have been used to generate typologies that, in turn, have been used condone persecution, tyranny and repression: instances of pure bullshit, which enjoyed brief periods of popularity before being debunked and dismissed as the nonsense they clearly were. Phrenology, and the less snappily named racial-anthropological physiognomy, are no longer used as excuses for racism and eugenics, and monarchs and prime ministers no longer consult astrologers before making strategic military decisions. (Mind you, I would criticise astrology: cynical and suspicious, that’s me – a typical Taurus.)
Societies tend to grow out of mediaeval attachments to faulty scientific reasoning, but not all pseudo-science is easily dismissed, especially when it is used as an instrument of oppression. Neither is specious scientific reasoning the sole recourse of the crackpot or mountebank, and we must all accept our individual and collective responsibility for questioning and rejecting justifications for prejudice and hatred based on false logic, dodgy reasoning, scientific ignorance, or (heaven forbid) the Bible.
A sobering tour of current, attempted and pending transphobic legislation in the United States can be taken here… http://www.transequality.org/action-center
The chilling insight into human nature provided by reactions to the policy of the American cut-price retailer, Target, to allow transgender customers to use all its fitting-rooms and toilet facilities, can be read on the website of The Washington Post, here… https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/04/26/a-danger-to-wives-and-daughters-petition-to-boycott-target-over-transgender-inclusive-bathrooms-claims-growing-support/?utm_term=.2bf316b3044b
More detail about the relaxation of entry requirements for wannabe transgender Olympians can be gleaned here…https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/jan/25/ioc-rules-transgender-athletes-can-take-part-in-olympics-without-surgery
Donald Trump’s opinions on efforts by legislators in a number of American states to stop transgender people going to the toilet can be studied here…http://www.advocate.com/politics/2016/5/24/donald-trump-claims-accommodating-transgender-people-too-expensive
The report into Transgender Equality by the UK Women and Equalities Select Committee (January 2016), can be viewed in full here… http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmwomeq/390/390.pdf
My witty and insightful deconstruction of said white paper can be enjoyed here… https://abigailrobinsonblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/24/overt-and-unchallenged-part-i-what-needs-to-happen-before-governments-can-address-transphobic-prejudice/
For a glimpse at the tenets of trans-exclusionary radical feminism, Cathy Brennan’s 2011 letter to the UN challenging non-biological definitions of gender in law, and calling for the protection of female-only spaces, can be explored here… https://sexnotgender.com/gender-identity-legislation-and-the-erosion-of-sex-based-legal-protections-for-females/
My article about my experiences of gender transition whilst working as a teacher (and the responses it provoked) can be read in its partially denuded state here… http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2016/01/how_i_ruined_my_teaching_career_by_changing_gender.html
…And remember, kids: plagiarism is okay, provided the source you’re stealing from is rubbish. The bare idea for this article (and the bulk of the archival material it contains) were cribbed from an October 2016 submission to the blogging website, ‘Cracked’. However: when the grammar and syntax of the original article have all the grace of a six-year old’s homework, but the point being made is an interesting and a worthy one, it deserves a second draft by a better writer, right? Accordingly, the links to the political landscape of 2017, the placing of the arguments in their wider perspective and broader cultural context, and the eloquent written style, are entirely mine. Have a Very New Year!