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.