stand by your trans: the ‘they is’ argument

Tomorrow I am going away to meditate in the woods for a while and won’t be posting here until the third week of February. But no fear, here is plenty of reading to mull over in the meantime. You can also check out my links sidebar (on the right) and find other awesome feminist and queer blogs. I’m just sayin’…

“A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a young woman, a college student, who claimed that her professor had assigned her entire class a special little assignment, for extra credits, for students who could track down my legal name and bring it to class. This young woman had tried and tried, she said, to find it online, but couldn’t, and she really wanted those extra marks. Would I be so kind as to just tell her?” 

Ivan Coyote, “They is me”

Reading this opening of Ivan Coyote’s latest story, I was pretty – well, not shocked, I guess, because I wasn’t surprised. But I was upset. Sometimes I forget what it must be like living on the borders of gender, carving your own path. As I said in my previous post, reminders like these make me want to be a better trans ally. To do my little bit. And then I got to thinking about the whole grammar thing of using “they” as a singular third-person pronoun, and I got a little bit obsessed. It turns out, there is a lot of historical precedent to using gender neutral pronouns in English and a tonne of research on the subject.

Although Ivan Coyote’s wife (jealous much? hell yes!), Zena Sharman, has already compiled an amazing ‘they’ as singular pronoun reading list, I wanted to share my own (far inferior) findings on the subject. So, here you go:

A Lipstick Terrorist’s Guide to Beating the ‘they’ Doubters:

1. First of all, If you are looking for a 2-minute ‘I told-you-so’ to show the ‘they’ doubters before you move onto reading about another subject, this is the place for you. As it is made by a dictionary, any grammar snobs will be super impressed by its air of authority. I can’t embed it here because WordPress is being stupid.

2. Historical usage. Did you know that Chaucer used they as a singular pronoun in the 16th century? Did you know that Shakespeare did it too? Hell, even Jane Austen and the King James Bible did it! Who was it that said God’s word was law? I have happily plagiarised most of this information from the following website. Please go check it out for extra geek points.

3. There’s also of course the ‘accepted usage’ argument. The Oxford Dictionary itself argues that the singular they is now common in English and “widely accepted both in speech and writing”. There, go stick that up your pipe and smoke it (oh idioms, how I love you).

4. And then there’s the fact that you’re being a big transphobic plonker if you don’t use the pronouns your friends and peers ask you to. For anyone who feels that they (yes, that’s the singular they in action folks! See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?) could learn more about trans etiquette and manners, go here. I know I certainly could. And this is another really helpful resource for people who are new to having trans folks in their life.

Lastly, for a little fun, here’s a little song the Canadian singer Rae Spoon wrote that we can all sing together:

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The Oppression Games

While searching for an appropriate title for this post, I spent some time looking in my thesaurus. I like thesauri. They truly are books of wonders. These are some of the meanings I found. I think they all apply to this essay:

game [noun]

1. entertainment, diversion, distraction

2. match, contest or play-off

game [adjective]

1. brave, gutsy

2.willing, prepared

For some time now, I have been pondering whether or not to post here about sexism in the queer community. I have spent a lot of time on this blog writing about my frustrations with the queer communities of Europe and North America and the gaping holes I see in simplistic political theories. I am always trying to follow my nose. To trust my bitch’s instinct to sniff out sexism wherever I find it, and report on it with a resounding, wolf-like howl. Yet, I don’t want my energies to be destructive. I don’t want to provide harsh critiques of queer communities because, after all, we are just a conglomerate of individuals trying to find our way in the dark. We hold each other’s hands as we wander, lost, through the dark alleyways of gender and sexuality. Sometimes we follow fun, sexy detours. Sometimes we stumble, like Alice, into new and wonderful lands. Sometimes we end up where we started, no matter how far we have walked, or feel we have travelled.

I have, so far, restrained from writing about this topic here for three reasons. Firstly, I feel that I have started the ball rolling on the subject, at least in Berlin, by creating my zine on sexism against queer femininities. My second reason is that my thoughts on the subject are not 100% formed and I am afraid I will make a huge fucking mistake. Lastly, I am worried that I will come across as a transphobic asshole and may even be one, too. Transphobic, you ask? Why, in particular? Because if I talk about the sexist dynamics of my queer community in Berlin I will have to say this: there is a hierarchy in the queer community, with some kinds of transmasculinity at the top of the pile of all things queer and unholy, which leaves transfemininities at the bottom. The dynamics of the scenes I move in say, both explicitly and implicitly, that transmasculine folks are more queer than transfeminine folks.

Cue: one big fucking political(ly incorrect) mess.

How can I distinguish my experiences of sexism as a queer cis femme from my own cissexism? Is there a point at which discussion of this traditionally sexist dynamic (masculinity is good, femininity is bad), which definitely exists in our community, by the way, will tip into transphobia? Anyway, isn’t my fierce energy better spent elsewhere? Shouldn’t we all just shut the hell up, stop fighting and just get on with it?

The wonderful butch transmasculine activist and writer S. Bear Bergman has this to say about infighting in the queer community:

“I think that all of these concerns and fears and angers and loves and all are completely valid and utterly understandable. And I think that if we don’t quit spending so much energy on fighting amongst ourselves, we are going to look up one day soon and find the Department of Homeland Security on our collective doorstep, confiscating our banners and banning us from travel or work for being security risks by virtue of being too confusing, one and all. Then we’ll realise what a privilege it was to engage in border wars, when we had the leisure time for that. Before we ended up spending every scrap of energy on survival. That’s what I think.”

– from Butch is a Noun

Yeah, Bear, you are so right. It isn’t productive to say, well my oppression is worse than your oppression because of this and this and that.

There is also my raging anger, however. There is also the feeling that, yeah, I have privileges because I am white and cis and pass as straight to a lot of onlookers (which can sometimes be a real bummer – for instance, when I want to get laid, or to be recognised by a fellow queer I spot while out and about), but I also experience sexism on a daily basis: in the world at large, in all my relationships and in my community. There’s no such thing as a queer bubble, right? And do I have the right to speak about my experiences of sexism? Of course I do!

And then, this complicated feeling leads me onto what I call the ‘Colonial Chicken and Egg’ argument of social justice theory. It’s the kind of argument you hear when governments justify their sexist development policies for undeveloped countries. The argument goes something like this: “Well, of course women’s rights are important and we will get onto them as soon as we can, but can’t you see that what this [insert group of people here] really needs right now is [insert human right here, such as access to medical care and food]?” It’s pretty colonial because it assumes that [insert all-knowing patriarchal authority here] knows what is best for said underprivileged group.  The struggle against sexism just ain’t as important as the struggle for medical care. But, to extend the analogy to breaking point, when sexism leads to women being systematically raped and murdered, where can the boundary between women’s rights and access to medical care be drawn?

And, aren’t I being racist right now by using a Third-World analogy to illuminate Western social dynamics?

How can I complain that transmasculine folks are benefitting from some kind of privilege in the queer community when transmen are only just starting to get access to the medical care they may (or may not) want and which they undeniably have a right to? Whose fundamental human right is more important? My right to not experience prejudice as a feminine woman, or a transman’s right to claim and inhabit his gender? The answer is, of course, no one’s. We both have these rights and these rights are equally important. But tell that to a community of 1000 screaming individuals, each with their own needs and own experiences of oppression owing to dis/ability, race, religion, class, gender (and more). Tell them that each of their needs are equally important and what happens? None of them can be met. Political theory collapses. Go directly to Jail, do not pass Go, do not collect your activist points. This kind of shit requires one to spend several reincarnations studying the philosophy of ethics. And even then we’ll make mistakes. Because, after all, we’re only human.

We prioritise needs in our activism in order to get stuff done. You have to make a choice, right? Right?

My experience of being a political activist is a balancing act. Sometimes I have to hold my body on the fine edge of a knife and make this painful, dangerous terrain my home.

Reading the writing of artists like Ivan E. Coyote and S. Bear Bergman reminds me not only what I desperately, hopelessly love about transmasculine folks, but also encourages me to be the best ally, the best person I possibly can. But, sometimes, I get lost. Sometimes I am not sure where I am going, and I can’t see whether the path I am following will lead to a dead end or take me forward. I get distracted and I have blindspots, like anyone else. Sometimes, all I need is a little help. A friend to gently take my hand and help me find the way.

After all, I am only human.

shit people say to femmes

Hey there! I know, I know, it’s been ages since I last posted for, like, realz. But don’t worry, I have some amazing pieces coming up for you at the beginning of this week. In the meaning, let’s celebrate Sunday with a video made by Alexander Alvina Chamberland and friends, who is one of the contributors to my zine.

All I can say is y’know, all the time you spend looking in the mirror, I spend planning the revolution.       Ba ha ha haa!

Goldie Dartmouth, Lipstick Terrorist, Svetlana MC…and you?

Hold onto yer knickers (or boxers), the Berlin Femme Show 2012 is now confirmed! The amazing Emma Corbett-Ashby and I are organising this party in the spirit of the Berlin Femme Mafia Show in 2010. While we owe big big kudos and love to the femme mafia for all they have done over the past 2 years, this is an independent event. We prefer to think of ourselves as the Berlin Femme Mafia’s naughty little sister who has stolen big sis’ favourite Barbie and is currently giving her a ‘punk’ haircut in the bathroom with Mum’s nail scissors. All proceeds will go towards the second edition of Dressed Like That zine.

Clockwise from top left: Katinka Kraft, Paula Varjack, Goldie Dartmouth, Svetlana and Lipstick Terrorist

WHAT?

This year’s Berlin Femme Show is causing a commotion from the stage of Kreuzberg’s Lido on Thursday 15th March. The evening will debut with a spoken word section, followed by a late-night show; a collection of burlesque and fem(me)inist performances. The evening will finish with some dazzling DJs and the whole extravaganza will be hosted by the lovely Svetlana MC.

To give you a naughty taster, 2010’s performers included Paula Varjack, Katinka Kraft and Poe Liberado. We expect just as many wonderful acts this year!

WHY?

Emma and I want to showcase the amount of amazing Fem/me talent we know is hiding in the boudoirs of Berlin. The idea of combining another Berlin Femme Show with the chance to raise funds for our awesome queer feminist publication seemed just perfect.

Following the massive success of Dressed Like That zine, the editor (me again!) is keen to make the wise words of the writers available to everyone within the German queer scenes and internationally. For that reason, a team of wonderful translators are translating the whole thing into English and German. Cue the extra awesome bilingual edition of Dressed Like That! Given that this is going to be a 80-page publication, we understandably need to raise funds to print it. We are also currently looking for small donations from foundations. If any of you lovely readers know an organisation who can contribute to copying costs, please contact me at pinklab@hotmail.com

YOU?

We are looking for spoken word, burlesque, visual art performers, DJs and helpers. The Femme Show 2012 will showcase a variety of femme presentation and we particularly want to encourage new performers while celebrating our experienced fem/me performers. We particularly want non-cisgendered fem/mes, fem/mes of colour, fat fems and disabled femmes on stage. Non-fem/me identified people are also welcome to perform as part of collaborative pieces. We welcome performances in both German and English.

This year’s Mistress of Ceremonies is the lovely Svetlana, and confirmed performers are the alter ego of Emma Corbett-Ashby and Lipstick Terrorist (that’s me, dontcha know). With some other wonderful acts of the cusp of being confirmed, we fully expect this to be a decadent, entrancing and unique evening.

If you want to suggest a performance, DJ or help us with promotion we would love to hear from you! Email Laura at pinklab@hotmail.com

‘welcome to our world’

‘Every person who works in the sex industry has a different story, has come to this profession for different reasons and lives it in a different way. Owing to this, all generalisations made about prostitution are necessarily false and do not do justice to those who live this reality day to day.’

– ‘Le prix des toutes choses’ excerpt, Bains des Plaisirs, author unknown

As I walk back from the freezing pier, I notice a dark doorway framed by a string of bright yellow lights. Red velvet curtains hang around the square, as though this were the entrance to a circus show. I walk past, stop. Go back. I guess, from one point of view, my association wasn’t that far off the mark.

I go down some steps and through the doorway. In the dark hallway is a row of cabins, which I later realise are the old changing rooms for the public baths. On the left the same string lights vaguely illuminate bunches of flyers laid on a wood shelf. On the right, the cabin doors are open. A triad of fluorescent green strip lights shine at the  end of the hallway. They look very far away. I peek into the first cabin on my right. It is tiny; barely large enough to get changed. In it is a small gold mirror with a neon pink bra dangling from the shelf below. On the walls are framed pictures of women’s grooming products; a comb, more underwear. Each is hot pink. The plaque on the doorway starts ‘Chaque personne qui travaille dans l’industrie du sexe... [Every person who works in the sex industry…].’

A pleasant surprise. I have stumbled into an exhibition on sex work created by those who actually work in it.

Les Pâquis in Geneva is, historically, home to the city’s sex trade. At nighttime sex workers share the streets with the punters of gay night clubs. The area is called the bohemian quarter of Geneva. I wonder about this historical connection between sex workers and queers. Haven’t the two communities mixed, shared the same oppression? Isn’t this still the case? Walking from my hotel to the lake, I notice a couple of organisations for gay youth and smile at the street art that says ‘Respect means treating someone well, even when you don’t like them.’

This exhibition has been organised by artists, sex-workers and Les Bains des Pâquis, Geneva’s public baths, in collaboration with Aspasie, a Swiss organisation that works to promote the rights of and educate sex workers. It comprises the work of 25 different artists, some sex workers, some sex photographers, and seeks to represent the associations mainstream society has with sex work as well as to give some of the sex workers’ points of view. On each advent day in December, a cabin was unlocked and the work of one artist revealed to the general public. By the time I wandered in at the beginning of January, the exhibition was about to close. But that meant I got to see all 25 cabins.

“the exhibition suggests that the respectable and those who are disrespected are not as far apart as we like to think”

It was probably intentional to put the exhibition in a place frequented at daytime by ‘respectable’ families, but which is only 100 metres away from the boulevard where sex workers walk at night. It is, after all, the city’s tourists, diplomats and the well-to-do daytime visitors who form the sex workers’ clientele. I like the shock-factor of the exhibition, its blunt suggestion that these two worlds – the respectable and those who are disrespected– are not as far apart as we like to think. Like all other social categorisations which sustain the status quo and power of a few, these social classes are co-dependent.

Returning a few times over that day and the next, I see a few families, both Swiss and tourists, wandering through the exhibit. Children – ‘Dad, look! What is that?’ – pointing at the blown-up condoms which surround an open letter from sex workers to their clients (‘wear one and keep us all safer’) and their fathers’ nervous responses. Some viewers laughed openly, some took the photos of women in underwear for pure titillation, others wandered through slowly, like I. Despite the fact that not all the visitors I observed really seemed to appreciate the exhibition’s politics, the show was politically effective in itself. It would be hard to walk through that exhibition without gathering that it was about sex workers and without recognising that these workers have a voice. Even if you didn’t stop to listen for long.

While also erotic, the exhibition manages to suggest to the average punter (let’s face it, as a feminist activist, I’m not that average) that, perhaps, these women aren’t just for looking at. Not just for consumption. They, too, have something to say. I imagine that most visitors would have been challenged on some level by the artwork, and I appreciated this confrontation.

The cabins suggests circus cages and glory holes; the voyeurism of the freakshow and the collaboration involved in cottaging”

The exhibition was excellently curated. Walking down the steps into a dark hallway lit only by lamps, fairy lights and the strip lights at the end, gave the impression of entering a dark, seedy underworld. The dark corridor, the use of red lighting, water dripping onto our heads. Walking through the red curtains reminded me of what I had learnt about turn-of-the-century freakshows. People with physical ‘anomalies’ such as bearded women, intersex people, were exhibited alongside the strong man and sword swallower. The cabins on one side with their naughty invitation to peek in suggested circus cages and glory holes. Both the voyeurism of the freakshow and the collaboration involved in cottaging. Come, stranger, to our exhibition of worldy wonderments and natural curiosities. Whores and dwarves. Meet the underworld. In the late 1900s, New Yorkers used to call this slumming. Rich men and women would pay a guide to show them the working-class tenements of the slums. They would get the thrill of living a bohemian life while still having the comforts of a richer life to return to. Of course, this still exists today, in various forms. Tourism in third-world countries. The Berlin art scene, anyone?!

The halfway point of the exhibition’s unfolding was also marked by the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on 17th December. Perfect timing.

I wander further down the dripping hallway. Free cartons of condoms, their contents long gone. I am glad someone has used them. In one cabin is a lighthouse. The silhouette of a man goes round and round chasing a clockwork woman. He is crouching; the evil wolf; she runs away, arms thrown up mouth open. A cartoon scene of danger and a play on the idea of the sexual predator. I smile.

Another cabin is wholly covered by partially inflated condoms. Some of the condoms are filled with small plastic pipes. On the far wall is a pink poster, hard to read. It is an open letter from Geneva’s sex workers to their clients. Please, agree to wear condoms. In this time of HIV, we all need to be safe. The condom-balloons remind me of my own, more-light-hearted burlesque performance with its related safer sex message.

I walk past the strip lights and emerge into the light. I pass blue painted doors and stand at the end of the pier, looking at Geneva’s old town across the lake. Seagulls are in a feeding frenzy on the water. Cold, I go to the cafe, buy a tea and sit by the log fire. I am safe and warm, looking out at the water.