Tall poppies and diverse voices
October 28, 2011 § 6 Comments
There’s been so much already said about the 2011 Independent on Sunday Pink List that I’m a little surprised to actually find myself writing this post. So many responses, in fact – so call this a response to the responses.
Revealing my personal bias upfront: I’m friends with a few of the recipients, and one of the judges. And a cautious fan of ‘most influential lists’ in general, as a vague kind of gauge of public mood, and in the hope that someone in distress might find a sense of comfort and/or inspiration in the example of others. Full reveal: I had a pin board covered in pictures of my personal heroes above my desk as a teenager – and it helped. It helped a lot.
The List itself is far from perfect – but how often do we find perfection in a newspaper article, of all places? The LGBT community was asked to send in their recommendations – a step forward. More women in top places, more bi people, more trans people – all steps forward. I don’t believe there’s anyone there who lives openly as neither male nor female, nor anyone who is openly intersex – though the statistically likelihood is that there are intersex people there, and many people push against the barriers of rigid sex and gender roles without using words like ‘genderqueer’ to describe themselves. To my mind it’s a ‘could do better, but look how far we’ve come – congratulations in order – then back to work’.
Most public responses have been, thankfully, both polite and interesting. Some people disagree with any kind of public awards/honours lists. Some people felt that there should have been a separate list for trans people. Focus was turned on racial imbalance. Valuable critique, and considered debate – an ideal way to further discourse around social justice movements. But then that one particular type of response that seems inevitable whenever there’s a public debate in the trans community – overblown expressions of outrage, and a furious desire to pull others down. It seems to erupt whatever the topic of discussion: surgery, media representation, transgender vs. transsexual. It made me wonder what was driving it, and why we seem so resigned to it – and what, if anything, we could do it challenge it, redirect it.
There seems to be an underlying demand for perfection or nothing – a denial of the plain fact that the work for social progress stacks up layer upon layer. Incremental improvement isn’t so exciting to watch – and god knows how frustrating it is to have to repeat a message a thousand times to have it heard once – but there you have it. Tantrums don’t solve anything. And, rather than simply railing against the situation, it’s the insinuation or clear statement that those involved in gradual change, engaging with the cis majority, are traitors or sell-outs – or simply don’t count at all. Some commentators were so desperate to believe there were no trans men on the list that they ignored the really rather fabulous Jay Stewart. It’s easier to distort reality to match a desire.
From people who have, usually, an inside understanding of what it feels to be ‘othered’ and invalidated comes an attitude of belittlement and invalidation. Not only a dismissal of people’s careers, but of their personalities – and judgements pronounced on personal matters the commentator has no knowledge of. Frequently the ‘not the right kind of trans’ or ‘not trans enough’ statements – and, increasingly, the ‘privilege’ arguments. I don’t personally know a single person who has achieved success in their life without also suffering – sometimes suffering quite horrendously. I can only tell my story – so, an example. Among other things, I’m bipolar and have moderate to severe OCD. I had a breakdown at 13, have been in treatment ever since, and will continue to manage my conditions, with help, for the rest of my life. I’ve been open about this ever since I was a teenage. An anonymous trans commentator online accused me of having no understanding of mental illness and long term disabilities – knowing me, or acquainting himself with the facts weren’t as important as finding a focus for his anger. And I wonder if any of these commentators stop to think how it feels – for a rape survivor to be told they must not have suffered, for someone who has lost numerous loved ones to be told they’ve had an easy life, simply because their success has been acknowledged in a newspaper article?
Homogeneity at all costs begins to look very much like bullying. Not surprising, that so many of us would like a close and clear sense of community – not after we’re so frequently told how freakish we are, how there’s nobody else like us, and certainly nobody to love us. But when the only thing we often have in common is struggling against the cis-supremacy of our current society we’re going to be a far from homogenous group, with far from homogenous solutions to our problems. Some of the nastiness around the Pink List reminded me vividly of the abuse heaped on some young trans men who have had/are planning on having phalloplasties/metoidioplasties. Bloggers calling the results of said surgeries disgusting, posting pictures of real people’s genitals and insulting them in detail. Trans men shaming and hurting other trans men who have chosen a different answer to a difficult question with no easy solution. To come back to the article in question – living openly as trans can still be bone-crushingly hard. Every person will have a different way of navigating that path – and some will be lucky, and will be rewarded, in some measure. We cannot make homogenous what is, in essence, diverse. No amount of personal insult and attack will accomplish it.
Oh dear. I started with the clear intention of staying away from ranting, and it looks like I’ve failed. But I do want this to be more than a rant. Sometimes we need to be angry, but more often we need let our anger guide us towards something better. So, what to do?
Well, obviously, there are always going to be trolls on the internet. It sucks. There you go. But I don’t think that this is just about trolling. I think a great deal of it is to do with feelings of despair, hopelessness, conformity, fear and, perhaps, loneliness. And I think it’s always better to get something out in the open, rather than ignoring it.
It doesn’t take any more effort to build something up than it does to pull something down. Critique, debate, challenges – things that spur us on – we need these, desperately. And we need them never to be confused with abuse and blind criticism. I think, also, we need to put out what we’d want to see. So, here you go, lovely readers, a challenge for you between now and Trans Day of Remembrance (if you’ve made it this far): do something amazing for the trans people in your lives. If you know someone whose achievements have been overlooked then ask if you can tell their story – or buy them some damn flowers! Spread the word about trans history. Lend a book/take pictures/make a movie/write an article/write a letter/meet your MP/organise a movie showing/educate your cis friends/educate your trans friends/educate yourself. Whatever it is – make it unique, personal – and kind. We need a multitude of voices in this community – and we can’t let the cruellest ones be the loudest.