Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Blogging mistakes, part 1: Controversy and misunderstanding

I think I'm qualified by now (after 1,060-odd posts) to take a view on what subjects, or presentations, make for a decent post, and what is best avoided. Believe me, I can recall quite a few posts of mine that were ill-considered!

About a year ago, early in January 2013, I did in fact take down nine posts mostly published During December 2012 that got me into trouble, or could easily have done so. I think it's worth examining them now, to see what lessons can be drawn. In fact, I have recent encouragement to write at least one post about this.

By the way, I don't want to lay down any rules. The whole delight about blogging is its freedom. So if someone deliberately wants to write a post guaranteed to shock or offend or bore every other person on the planet, then, subject to local laws on menacing behaviour and defamation, that is their prerogative. Thus muddle-headed, unrewarding posts written in code on obscure and trivial topics that don't matter two hoots to anyone are perfectly all right: of course they are. Some of mine are like that, after all. Think of those Rupert Bear posts, for instance!

On 13 December 2012 I wrote a post titled Husbands behaving badly: Christine Benvenuto's experience. And at once you can see a risk: a book written in America by the wife of a trans woman whom (as Christine Benvenuto saw it) had decisive cultural support that was denied to her. It was certainly in the trans and radfem news at the time, and apparently a fair-enough subject to tackle. But (a) I was not American, and missed the nuances that hinged on that; (b) I was not a member of the Jewish community and therefore ignorant of what was expected of each partner; and (c) the way I wrote it, it appeared that I was taking sides in favour of Ms Benvenuto, when I should have taken pains to seem impartial. See what you think.

This morning I was asked to comment on a quote from a book which recounted the story of a wife's experiences when her husband aggressively pursued his need to transition. It was Christine Benvenuto's Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender And Moving On, published recently in the US by St Martin's Press (ISBN 978-0-312-64950-0). You can read a longish extract here (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/nov/02/my-husbands-sex-change), which includes the passage that was brought to my attention. It is the latest of a type of book that reveals the wife's or partner's viewpoint. 

Christine Benvenuto's marriage had lasted for a very long time, over twenty years, then took a mere two years to disintegrate while her husband made more and more space for his feminine life. He stayed at home. He insisted on his rights to do so. He kept most of his feminisation from their young children until it was nearly time for him to leave. But Christine felt that in their private, away-from-the-children moments he was smugly flaunting his new persona at her, and she couldn't ignore the stress and the hurt this kind of assault heaped on her.

She has been criticised for not supporting her husband, for portraying 'him' as an uncaring, calculating and unsmiling deceiver. A good Dr Jekyll who became a heartless Mrs Hyde. I won't know whether such criticism is justified until I get hold of her book.

I've been thinking how I might feel if someone very close to me announced that they must push ahead with a relationship-busting project. And they did it in a way that seemed selfish and insensitive. It's not so hard to imagine, even if the raw pain is missing because it's only a thought experiment. I certainly can see how Christine could arrive at a negative point of view - although my impression is that she does not condemn her former husband simply for being trans, only for the ruthless way he embraced his destiny, how he became hard and angry, pushed her feelings aside, and coldly walked away.

I think that her husband was far from typical. Most trans people I've met are just as definite about their real gender, and feel driven to do something about it, but none of them have proceeded without considering the other people in their lives. And such thinking very easily leads to fear, fear of adverse reactions, and of losing the love of parents and partners. And ongoing guilt for making people cry, and forcing them to change their lives almost as much as one's own. The fear and the guilt are emotions that somehow have to be managed. That can be a full-time job. There is not much left for displays of righteous self-justification.

I am in fact continually struck how gentle most trans people are. How far they will actually go to accommodate family wishes. This can easily become a life of constant appeasement, of getting nowhere. The first six months of my own transition were like that. But I couldn't keep it up, and eventually I pressed on. However, the last thing I ever wanted to do was bully my way to the desired end state. So I think Christine Benvenuto was especially unfortunate. 

This drew fifteen comments, including one from Joy Ladin, the apparently erring transitioner, who had written her own book about the affair. I quickly realised that I had fanned the already-roaring flames of a very hot topic. I should have stayed out of it. I tried this:

It's only fair to hear both sides of the story.

I do have a lot of sympathy with any non-trans partner who finds it all too much of a struggle. The most one can reasonably ask for is time and space and goodwill. It's demanding too much to insist that they go on loving you just the same. If they can, then fine. If they can't, it's sad but an ending must be faced. 


The husband in this case may have found himself misunderstood and misgendered, and his dogged defiance misinterpreted. As you say, I need to know both sides.


Then someone called 'Anonymous' commented, and it became a serious firefighting exercise. I went on to make this comment:

I've now seen references to Christine's book in several places on the Internet, and I'm getting wary of making any further judgement. Don't get me wrong: I've no reason to think that she has misquoted real conversations, nor to doubt that this is her sincere point of view. On the other hand, there is another point of view here too, and it's difficult to see exactly what the truth is. 

It is almost axiomatic that the female in any partnership is less likely to be in full control than the male, and here was a case of a wife who had married into a male-dominated faith she wasn't born to. It looks as if she embraced her new faith and liked all that was good about it. But she'd have to observe its rules, and couldn't cherry-pick. And the rules favoured her husband. I'm not sure whether it would be fair to say that the rules were completely behind the husband, but surely he was in a stronger position to invoke any that he could. This aspect might have made her feel isolated and bereft of allies in her adopted world, and that lack of power might show in the language of her book. Anyone who has to fall into line with established custom and observance might feel browbeaten. 

From what I know of my own position, the feelings of both parties, when one of them needs to transition, can be very complex. Neither necessarily has instant and complete comprehension of what it's all about, what the real driving motives are; and that love need not be a casualty, although it frequently is. There is no official guide to the best way forward, and how to avoid polarisation and exclusion and emotional devastation. 

I'm thinking that both parties here have written their books not only to put across their experience of an awful situation, but to externalise a mass of damaged feelings and raw hurt. A catharsis that both require.

Perhaps there is in one the anguished cry of a victim, and in the other the anguished cry of someone misunderstood. Perhaps both have wanted to persuade outsiders to their own view. 

I can indeed understand all of that, if it applies here.

Anonymous wouldn't have it. They attempted to move the discussion on to censorship and male privilege, and cited instances of provocative behaviour from American transgendered persons wanting to make a point, or simply to stretch the law. The suggestion was that Joy Ladin was like them. But they tripped up on the cultural differences between the States and the UK. That allowed me to say this:

You seem to be referring to the situation in the US, and to a somewhat wider trans community than in the UK, where 'transgender' is a more general term than specifically 'transsexual'. I assure you, it would be a major provocation here - and certainly counter-productive - if a non-passing trans person attempted some of the stunts you can cite. There is no culture here of pushing boundaries to their limits. 

Most trans people in the UK are relying on gradual public education, a drip-drip approach, and the uncertain effect of things like the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. It's getting better for trans people here, but we're not mainstream yet. I for one would rather concentrate on winning hearts and minds through meritorious achievement and behaviour, and not by getting up people's noses.

Anonymous bowed out at this point, although I felt they could easily have said much more. I was lucky to be let off so lightly.

Lessons?

1. That British people (such as myself) may have limited appreciation of American conditions, and may be unwise to comment, however benign the intention.
2. That the reverse is equally true.
3. That speculation on human relationships and motives is pointless unless one really knows the parties involved. I could have posted with authority if either Christine Benvenuto, or Joy Ladin, or both, had been a close friend and had taken me into their confidence. But I wasn't in that position. And for all I know, I hurt their feelings, or frustrated them with my lack of understanding.

That's three types of blogging mistake. More to come!

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this honest, searching reflection Lucy.

    Joy

    ReplyDelete
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    ReplyDelete

This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

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Lucy Melford