This was originally posted here on my Wordpress blog.
I recently talked about how punk rock and sobriety had a big effect on my life, and the appeal that punk had because of its foundational ideals of acceptance of all people. Black, white, gay, straight, fat, skinny – there wasn’t any room for to judge people over such superficial things.
That doesn’t mean people didn’t bring their own prejudices and insecurities into radical or punk communities. It’s easy to say, “We stand for this,” but being ‘not prejudiced’ against a given group or type of person isn’t as simple as saying you aren’t racist/homophobic/transphobic/sexist and then denying all responsibility when you end up doing or saying something which actually happens to be prejudiced.
That’s because not acting or thinking in prejudicial ways is a process that evolves as we erode our own ignorance. You can be well-intentioned in your ideas and words, but that doesn’t always mean you don’t do or say anything that isn’t offensive to someone – particularly something you have zero exposure to or experience with.
This week sees one well-known punk musician coming out in a very public way over a matter which will put a lot of these issues to the test. Tom Gabel of the band Against Me! (yeah, they spell it with an exclamation mark) has a six page interview in this week’s Rolling Stone coming out as transgendered. She (Tom) will be changing her name to Laura Jane Grace and doing hormone therapy. She and her wife will remain together. It’s all over the internet already, so I won’t bother repeating all the same details that are available everywhere else.
What I do want to talk about, though, is the knee-jerk reactions to this news. While I’ve seen more supportive comments and discussion than anything, the general lack of education on trans* issues is apparent by some of the things being said. And, it’s the internet of course, so people often make no effort to hide their ignorance or bias.
First, to get it out of the way, gender dysphoria is a real thing. I can only imagine the personal Hell it must be to truly feel as though the body you have is not reflective of who you actually are. Add on some socially constructed gender norms which forbid certain behaviors or styles of dress, and I bet it can get pretty damned claustrophobic just living in your own skin.
I’ve heard some people insist that people who are transgendered are ‘sick in the head’ or attempt to explain it away with similarly dismissive phrases. Suddenly, we’re all psychologists! The thing is, sometimes the people in our society who actually experience these things find their courage and voices long before we catch up, and find our senses, and learn how to respond to them with the dignity and respect they’ve always deserved.
It’s worth noting that homosexuality used to be listed in the Diagonostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a mental health disorder until research in the 1970’s demonstrated that, aside from their sexual orientation, people who identified as gay were no more or less crazy than anybody else. And, especially in the past ten years, I’ve been pleased to see the growing acceptance of LGBTQ people, something I partially attribute to the way social media and the internet has drastically changed our ability to communicate ideas quickly.
But, there’s just one problem. The conversation seems to usually just be about the L, G, & B, and the T and Q are nowhere to be found. That’s because the idea of gay or lesbian is still stuck in the gender binary which strictly defines gender and strictly defines sexual orientation. Some of the questions and speculation on message boards has involved the implications for Tom’s marriage - does this mean her wife is now gay? No, it just means that the person she loves and is married to happens to be transgendered.
Regardless of whether or not you understand it or like it, there’s a whole segment of the world’s population that don’t feel as though they fit neatly into the sex they were assigned at birth or the expectations placed upon them by society to act, dress, or think a certain way based on their biology, let alone who they’re attracted to or love. I try to avoid discussing things that are overly political on here because I don’t consider eating disorders, body image, or mental health to be partisan issues. However, human rights aren’t partisan issues, either, however politicized they have become. Full equality before the law as citizens and human beings shouldn’t be controversial.
We defend our own intolerance or discomfort with complaints that these issues are ‘weird’ or ‘not normal.’ So what if it seems weird? And when it comes to gender identity or self-expression, the only standard for ‘normal’ is based on a societal majority. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to need some time to absorb information and work towards a real understanding of a particular issue, but at the same time, our own ignorance on a subject doesn’t justify any amount of judgment or disrespect.
I’m writing about this because I think acceptance of people for who they are and how they express themselves is a critical part of working towards an ideal where we have a culture of true body acceptance. I personally don’t see a huge difference between fat shaming, weight stigma, sexism, and transphobia, because they all stem from some a socially constructed bias that demands we all be a certain way.
Furthermore, the idea that someone who happens to be gay or transgendered is perverted or unwell is rooted in patriarchal gender norms – the very same gender norms which establish the mores that dictate how men and women should dress, act, and behave. We can’t have it both ways, to push away from those antiquated gender roles but then place limitations on how a person can define, experience, and express their identity.
Personally, I think it’s fantastic that she’s found the courage to come out in such a public way, and more importantly, she’s doing it with the support and love of her partner, bandmates, and friends. Instead of running our mouths with misinformed opinions, this is an opportunity to educate ourselves on this lesser known and infrequently discussed aspect of the human experience.
“…and the sun’s always rising in the sky somewhere. and if young hearts should explode from all the lies they’ve been told, let the new night bring you peace. and the promise of tomorrow. where can we wake to a new beginning.”
-8 Full Hours of Sleep, off of ‘Reinventing Axl Rose
Putting this here because I might blog about it at a later point, and thought I’d share it for now to see if anyone else had any interesting thoughts. That, and Facebook has a tendency to have things get buried after awhile, and I spent a lot of time writing this, so I’m archiving it on Tumblr.
Today on Facebook, a good friend of mine posted the following:
I’ve been totally caught up lately in examining how feminism has a history of racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, cissexism, etc, and I don’t think that the word “feminism” can’t ever be separated from that history…in other words, I think I’m making a conscious decision to not identify as a feminist anymore. Whoa.
This was my response:
I’d say that it had to start somewhere and it’s ever-evolving, just like any other philosophy or movement. If the ideals and foundation are sound, though, then it’s the job of radical thinkers (like yourself!) to call things out when you see them and help advance the issue towards one that reflects its full potential.
To me, feminism is completely incompatible with all the prejudices you identified, but plenty of people get exposed to mainstream feminism and come from sheltered backgrounds where they just haven’t yet connected the dots on how all the issues are connected, or that they may actually have their own prejudices against things they don’t understand because they haven’t been exposed or educated on the subject.
That absolutely doesn’t excuse someone for doing or saying things that are racist, gender biased, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc, but that doesn’t mean that those people are inherently those things, either. It’s similar to the eating disorder work I do where, before we earn support for our cause to be supported, we have to go in and educate people to understand the seriousness of the issues we want them to support.
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s… frustrating to ask politely for something that is so self-evident like adequate mental health care for a life-threatening illness, but part of it is just meeting people where they are at. If someone has never heard anything about eating disorders except for what they see on the cover of gossip magazines in the grocery store, I can’t expect them to realize that they effect diverse populations, have the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder, etc. and I’m willing to educate on that fact.
Especially in the past year, though, as I’ve examined gender as a social construct with regard to my own eating disorder past and the barriers I encountered in getting help and being taken seriously, I’ve decided feminism is undoubtedly the necessary vehicle to bring about the changes required. At it’s heart, I see a vision where people are seen as people first, absent of any assumptions you might make about their personality, character, or interests based on their biological sex, gender identification, sexual orientation, race, etc.
The problems identified within the feminist movement are rooted in patriarchy, NOT feminism, and we are all inevitably severing our own roots to that patriarchal system because with few exceptions, we were all brought up in it no matter how much we fought it. For some people, those roots run much deeper than others, and I think it would be reactionary to turn your back on the movement which fights against patriarchy just because there are people involved who still haven’t fully realized the level of influence patriarchy has had on their life and worldview.
To me, the real question is what can be done to deal with it in a healthy way that isn’t confrontational or exclusionary (because feminism is for everyone!) but is also uncompromising in its intolerance for the pervasive and oppressing mindsets/attitudes that some people still haven’t broken free of.
Nothing starts out as perfect and you’re essentially working towards an ideal. A good foil to it is the idea that the US was founded on the ideals of a democratically free society, but it was flawed from its inception because it included the social systems of capitalism and puritanism, both of which are by their very nature patriarchal. It’s always been the job of more radical thinkers to call to attention the hypocrisy and injustice of outside ideas that allow prejudice to thrive within a system or philosophy who’s foundation shouldn’t allow for that prejudice in the first place (although someone should explain that to people like Bob McDonnell).
The important difference, of course, is that democracy is a system of government and feminism runs far deeper than that. But similarly, if you live in the US there’s a good chance that you have been exposed to the same capitalistic, puritanical bullshit. Some of us see through it really easily and feminism doesn’t seem so radical. Other people need to be completely re-educated and be exposed to new ways of thinking about the very basic nature of how we regard ourselves, our bodies, and what it means to be a diverse population.
This of course does not excuse prejudice and injustice. It just means we need to shout louder and more often.
“Yes of course, I’m scared of getting hurt, and yes of course I’m scared of being wrong. But at the same time my silence will convict me and the evil will carry on.” -Ian Mackaye, ‘Do Not Consider Yourself Free’