Academic debates, trans lives

Erudite academics applying philosophical techniques to the nature of trans affect my life, but only if I let them.

Prof. Kelli Oliver protests that she is openly bisexual and has mentored women and students of colour in her male-dominated discipline, in order to eliminate injustice and inequality. I find myself in an educational environment in which outrage, censoring and public shaming has begun to replace critique, disagreement and debate. She is still getting hate mail after defending Rebecca Tuvel, who wrote an article comparing transracialism to transgender. One way we delegitimise Nkechi Amare Diallo is by using her former name, though she has changed it, an act equivalent to deadnaming a trans person.

Mmm. Deadnaming. Prof. Oliver pointed out that Caitlyn Jenner herself refers to “Bruce”: I will refer to the name Bruce when I think it appropriate. Bruce existed for sixty-five years, and Caitlyn is just going on her second birthday. That’s the reality. I feel it behoves me to bear references to Stephen. I have enough ways for people to provoke me, without that. Yet deadnaming distresses many transitioned people: it is a way of denying the reality of transition and gender identity, the person’s gender and right to assert it.

Deadnaming is unfriendly. I can imagine psychologists or philosophers debating these matters in an academic setting, and if Rebecca Tuvel’s journal article had just been in print in University libraries perhaps no-one would have objected to it. However, it was available on-line, and so the least active transactivist and lots of incipient trans folk, as well as people of colour who objected to “Rachel Dolezal”, read it and got angry. As Kelli Oliver says, some who were in a position to ruin Rebecca Tuvel’s career read it and objected.

What you don’t know rarely hurts you. Had it been only available in print in a scholarly journal, trans activists would not have heard of it, and few might have bothered to communicate objection if they had to type a letter and use a stamp- perhaps even dictating rather than writing, in my first job I used a dictaphone to dictate letters for secretaries to type. Now, it is online, and gains notoriety. People read it. We are hurt by it. Transracialism is not accepted by black people, and I don’t like it compared to transgender. Others can make moral or practical distinctions, but finding those is effort.

I stop being able to ignore Rebecca Tuvel. People talk about her. So she affects me, threatening to delegitimise me. I have no safe space. Just as once there was a Gender Recognition Certificate I had to have one, so now Rebecca Tuvel impinges on my consciousness and that of other trans folk I have to read her.

The Guardian had an article saying that teenagers were not having gender surgery. Comments were opened, and people saying prejudiced things about trans people had a field day. Their comments got lots of upvotes. Some suggested that the Transgender Day of Remembrance was a fraud, that there was no evidence murder rates of trans folk were any higher than the general population. A few trans folk answered, and were abused.

Any TERF can join a TERF bubble, and learn horrible words like autogynephilia, or about assaults on cis women by trans women, including sexual assaults. Then they can come out and attack us with them. Articles about transracialism, or by Anne Lawrence, are used to attack us. And yet it need only affect me if I let it, if I read the hostile articles and the difficult arguments. People will transition, whatever the climate of hostility. Perhaps no-one I know IRL would read them, but me. I could just cut myself off from all this ferment, simply by switching off my computer, and no-one I know IRL would care. But I am drawn to it, however much it stresses me. Academic freedom has to take account of the casualties.

Possibly it would be better if philosophers and psychologists could debate trans in ivory towers, find a solution and just apply it. Actually, no, we have fought for what we have, it gives us a sense of agency. We are part of this argument. We know what we want. If academics debated, then lawmakers followed their recommendations, the world would be like the prayer of Teilhard de Chardin, archaeologist and mystic:

Ah, you know it yourself, Lord, through having borne the anguish of it as a man: on certain days the world seems a terrifying thing: huge, blind, and brutal. . . . At any moment the vast and horrible thing may break in through the cracks—the thing which we try hard to forget is always there, separated from us by a flimsy partition: fire, pestilence, storms, earthquakes, or the unleashing of dark moral forces—these callously sweep away in one moment what we had laboriously built up and beautified with all our intelligence and all our love.

Since my human dignity, O God, forbids me to close my eyes to this . . . teach me to adore it by seeing you concealed within it.

But then the world is.

Kelly Oliver in NYT.

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