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Why words let us down and become oppressive

  • Posted on February 9, 2014 at 10:30 am

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Maybe it’s because I have worked writing, editing and proofing technical documents and research reports all my career. What is in our head finds words so that we can share our thoughts. The trouble is, the words are also in our heads, and got there first, and carried meanings that may be precise, but equally may have been misunderstood already when we learned them. Or they may be imprecise words, from a time when understanding in society was not as rich as it is now. There are many reasons why my meaning for a word may not quite be another’s. Then there are specialist meanings: when a word in a legal context, for example, means something more particular than in regular use.

Who owns a word and it’s meaning? I wrote a blog back in July 2012 (Semantic Hegemony, if you know what I mean) that still reads quite well, if you have time. We all think we mean what we say, but often offend when it leads to unintended misunderstanding.

Conversations of this ilk have, this week, included the legal definition of ‘bedroom’ in the context of the ‘bedroom tax’ (for non-UK readers, this relates to housing benefit to cover rent on a property deemed to have surplus space, assessed as the property having a non-essential bedroom). There is no legal definition. In an empty property, the room may be regarded as a bedroom. With a bed in it, it certainly is; but put a dining table in it and it isn’t. However, sleep on your sofa, and your lounge is a bedroom.

The words that tax us most in trans* land are still ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, not least because in a simple, neat world there are only male and female, and each only feels sexually attracted to the opposite. This underlies almost all social and cultural thinking, globally. Anything else is an interesting (or repulsive) deviation. It also underlies the idea that a trans* person changes their sex or gender. We do need to speak of change, because it is an enormous change to present for part of your life one way, and for the rest as something different. But the change is a perceptual one; we do not change sex and we do not change gender. The only problem is a social one, that led us in the first place into having to live a particular way until we were able to assert our authentic selves. That derived from identification-by-genitalia, itself fraught at the fringes.

And all in a way that repeats once more the limitations of language. Our words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are not fit for purpose. By using these words in the ways we think we know what they mean, we cause discrimination. By discrimination, I mean we distinguish one from another, make something different by exception: this is that, and this is other, so that it can be treated differently, less privileged and unequal.

I have been struck this week by minority assertion. The obvious examples have been in Russia, where activists have been arrested and beaten for singing their national anthem under a rainbow flag. There, under recent law, being anything other than heteronormative is lumped together as predatory, along with paedophilia. It is absurd, as well as cruel and barbaric. Activists are people who assert that non-heteronormative, non-binary states of birth are part of the normal and expected diversity of all human life.

I was struck also by a speech by an Irish drag queen (self-defined as a gay male, rather than transsexual) about institutional homophobia. In the link above, do watch and listen, do also watch senator David Norris at the end of the article. The core message is that every time one of us born not fitting the simplistic, religion-enforced, model expressed by the words sex and gender, is set aside in any way, we are being oppressed. Because one person is one colour does not entitle them to diminish someone of another colour. Because one person has four working limbs does not entitle them to diminish another with anything less. Because one person is a man attracted exclusively to women does not entitle him to diminish another who corrected their social situation for anything different. Because one person is a government minister, or priest, or lawyer, or religious leader, does not entitle them to diminish another who has a different take on life.

Inherent sex, sexuality and gender, by any definition, are not the domain of an elite to define a meaning that separates out anyone whose genitals or gender identity don’t fit their personal or cultural view. Anything else is oppressive.

This week also saw a spat on CNN between Piers Morgan and Janet Mock (if you’re unclear about either, get Googling). Both are public figures, one a journalist full of ego and self-justification, the other a very successful advocate for young trans* people who is working against social exclusion, othering and bullying. Why should a young person come to prefer suicide to life in the face of social attitudes perpetuated by ignorance and intolerance? If those doing the bullying had not been brought up with the cultural expectations of sex and gender being so unrepresentative of reality, they would not be bullies. Bigotry is very simple: the need for certainty combined with an inability to learn and understand. Janet Mock knows this place well, and was interviewed about the launch of her book Redefining Realness. What she didn’t know at the time was that the broadcast would be captioned ‘was a boy until age 18’, and that Morgan would treat her throughout as a man-become-woman with complex (implied, deceptive) sexual relationships. The result was acrimony and insults from Morgan on Twitter, and a panel on Morgan’s subsequent show to discuss whether Morgan was a victim of cisphobia.

In all three cases, Sochi, Ireland and CNN, the whole point is that those in a dominant role can sit around and discuss any other group, and make decisions about them, without listening or learning. This is abuse. White people may not sit around deciding the identities of those of any other colour. Roman Catholics may not sit around deciding the fate of abusers or the abused, without listening and learning and acting with justice. Men may not sit around discussing by themselves the rights and equalities of women; this is oppression too. Heteronormative senators or ministers may not sit around deciding the fate and rights of gay or lesbian people and their relationships. Journalists, panelists and experts may not sit around deciding the fate and rights of non-binary conforming or trans* people, without listening and learning that this is not a behaviour.

One other statistic I came across very recently: 61% of transgender people refused medical intervention attempt or commit suicide. That’s higher that the 46% of trans* people in general.

I don’t want to appear ‘one of the oppressed’ because I don’t personally feel that, and this may seem a bit of a rant. Nevertheless, anything that makes me feel that I have to assert the validity of being trans* in society is oppressive. When I came to consider suicide, it was out of the realisation that to be authentic, to be a woman with a trans background, in all likelihood would mean the end of any committed intimate relationship for the rest of my life. My feeling and horror in those dark hours was that as far as the rest of the world was concerned, I was neither a man nor a woman, and was therefore excluded from the privileges of either. And the reason? ‘Sex’ and ‘gender’ have simple meanings, don’t they? And therefore I am not really what I say. That upsets everyone stuck with hetero and binary. I have become likeable, even lovable, but untouchable.

If I don’t have to tolerate someone for being cis, why do I need tolerance for being trans? If I don’t need to be accepting of someone cis, why do I need acceptance for being trans? Am I waiting for a gift? I do feel accepted, which is a whole lot better than being tolerated, but often it is on the terms of the other. Is this a form of oppression?

I shall leave that with you, without judgement, because we still all need to think about this one a whole lot more.