Monday, 18 July 2016

Gender politics: it's all got horribly complicated

One of my women friends recently remarked how she was disturbed about children as young as three - essentially pre-school - being taken seriously when they expressed denial of their birth-gender labelling. Thus a little girl might complain to her parents that she wasn't a little girl at all, but a little boy, and wanted an immediate transformation. My friend - an ordinary woman in her sixties, who had grown-up children - thought this couldn't be right for a child so very young.

I agreed that medical intervention on just a three-year-old's say-so - let's propose hormones and some surgery - might be jumping the gun.

You can't be dogmatic about this, but children do get sudden ideas that seem attractive and fascinating for a period, then move on to something else. And no very young child, unless born into a desperate social situation, is going to have the comprehensive awareness, and street-wisdom, and wide vision, of an older person - all surely needed in order to imagine how adult life might turn out after those desired medical interventions.

We seemed to agree that a proper, sympathetic review at ten or so would be more sensible than a knee-jerk response at three to what might, after all, simply be a sign that the little girl in question envied the clothes, toys and games of the boys, or the way their parents allowed them freedoms that little girls did not enjoy to the same extent.

The discussion was out of the blue, and made me reflect that I hadn't thought deeply about gender issues for some time. I had taken an everyday interest once, but no longer. It was simply not a current thing for me. Instead, the concerns of older people generally, and older women in particular, were in my thinking so very much more. I was no feminist, and never had been; but I heard, discussed and observed so much about the lot of older women that contemplation of their issues had taken over. There were gender issues to think about, but they centred on the problems of ordinary women in later life, and how that might be changed. It was a matter that affected me personally. I had stopped taking an interest in any other kind of gender politics.

I was therefore most surprised when my trans friends in Brighton told me about things that were stirring in their circle, things they found hard to understand, and somehow disturbing. Such as the rise of Binary Rejection, where instead of regarding oneself as definitely a 'man' or definitely a 'woman', a fresh status had emerged that made a big virtue of being neither. A new status, obviously very wide in its extent, embracing every shade of being between what ordinary people might regard as 'typically' male or female, and allowing almost unlimited scope for individuality.

Well, there was clearly nothing wrong with having so much freedom to express individuality! But it seemed to come, in many cases, with a curious narrowness of viewpoint that was not so attractive, as if the persons concerned were very much on the defensive, and needed to put up barriers, and create boundaries, and form into a limited-membership clique. This smacked of wanting to be special and exclusive and restrictive: the opposite of being all-embracing.

It had resulted in the formation of a group of people who insisted on being addressed in a certain way, who were super-quick to claim social rights, who demanded special consideration for themselves. Even so, there was nothing too out-of-the-way about all this. What ordinary social group didn't want respect and fair treatment and the right to assert themselves to get it all? But nastiness had crept in. Some of these non-binary people had formulated a kind of manifesto, and had adopted an attitude that not only allowed them to be offended very easily, but to use that offended position for political ends. In plain words, to bully other people into granting apologies, concessions and privileges. Hmm. It sounded like a familiar tactic. And a familiar ambition might lie behind it. The effect anyway was to wrong-foot reasonable people at every turn, and poison the atmosphere.

Then there was - in America - the ongoing hardening of political attitudes towards trans persons wanting to pee in a public loo that corresponded to how they felt about themselves. I got myself up to speed on this recently, and was astonished to see how feelings were heating up about this issue. When, I began to wonder, would a trans man or woman be first shot dead for being found in a toilet? How soon? And what would happen after that? Would it depend on who or what the dead person had been? Would it be seen as a justifiable assassination or as a horrible murder? Did Trump and Clinton realise that this could blow up on their watch?

And I suddenly noticed that Binary Rejection and Parenting of Gender-Questioning Children were topics in serious programmes on BBC Radio 4. Such topics were being discussed on LBC too.

Amazing, I thought, that in Britain 'grown-up gender issues' had lately become so mainstream. It was all far beyond the old-fashioned traditional world of the 'show-biz drag performer' (and, really, in retrospect, what was that all about?). It was even a big step onward from the more recent spate of TV documentaries showing young men and women discovering their real selves, and doing something about it, with cameras following their hesitant steps. Who was hesitating much now? And if British and European politicians could be trans and/or (speaking now of sexual orientation, not gender) gay, lesbian, straight, asexual, bisexual or Vulcan, it could no longer be odd or newsworthy for an ordinary person to address their issues and pursue appropriate treatment. Feeling very uncomfortable in one's skin was now - apparently - widely accepted as a completely normal thing, to be taken seriously, and handled with some understanding. (What to do about it, and who would pay, might of course still be contentious)

I was, I admit, sceptical about the British media becoming clued-up on gender, and dropping it as a sensational story for a prejudiced mass readership. It might simply be perceived that gender wasn't a sure-fire joke any more. It didn't sell papers, because articles on it made the readership frown, or at least uneasy. Gender had stopped being salacious; it was becoming respectable.

There are many strands of thought here.

The old world of girls/boys, women/men and nothing else is clearly on its way out. It will introduce fresh problems. It has already become difficult to see at a glance how some people want to be treated: non-binary dress and mannerisms are so difficult to interpret. And I don't agree that the ordinary person has to learn a confusing and ever-changing set of signals in order to differentiate. That's unreasonable. One can (and ideally always should) ask what the person prefers - but that's not always possible or comfortable to do. So I hope those who are non-binary don't get marginalised, or even shunned, because they are too difficult to speak to. I wouldn't wish that on them.

Me? For the present, a lot of this passes me by. Not because I have my head in the sand. It really doesn't enter into my life. I have no children, I am a straightforward binary person, and I can certainly go to the toilet anywhere without worrying about a challenge based on my appearance or behaviour. And unless I write a book or enter public life, or something like that, am I most unlikely to be the subject of media attention.

Future measures to make life easier for persons with gender issues will affect me of course. Such as the widespread introduction of unisex public toilets. I won't like that much. How are you going to make men with a poor aim, or post-pee dribble, clean up?

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