Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Pagan values, feminism, and transgender women

This is my contribution to the 2012 Pagan Values Project.  For more information about the Pagan Values Project, please see http://paganvalues.wordpress.com/.   

Non-violence and eco-feminism

I'm a Witch and a Quaker.

Non-violence and eco-feminism are essential parts of my life.

(I've written about this in detail before, including in my contribution to the Pagan Values Project in 2009: http://aquakerwitch.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/my-pagan-values-my-quaker-values.html.)

Because non-violence and eco-feminism are central to me, I don't support -- and I do challenge -- violence and behaviors that lead to violence.  I support, encourage, and participate in non-violent conflict resolution.  I participate in community that promotes non-violence, teaches it, and tries to live it, amongst ourselves and in the wider world.  I have training in both verbal and physical non-violent conflict resolution, and have trained and co-trained others in these methods.   I have put my own life at risk in peace witness, and as part of and in support of non-violent activism, both at home and in other parts of the world.

So, no, this is not just an airy theory to me.

This is real life. 

And one of the things I challenge because it leads to violence is hate speech.

What do I mean by "hate speech"?

There are two main categories of hate speech -- the kind that's covered by the law, and the kind that isn't. 

According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_speech):

The kind of hate speech that is covered by the law is

...any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group. The law may identify a protected individual or a protected group by race, gender, ethnicity, disability, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other characteristic.

The kind of hate speech that is not covered by the law is

...any communication that vilifies a person or a group on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or other characteristic.


This is over-simplified, but provides enough of a background for purposes of this piece. 

How does hate speech lead to violence?  

Hate speech dehumanizes other people, and thereby leads to violence -- by allowing us to come to see them as less than human, as deserving of violence.  Dehumanization allows us to come to believe eventually that what happens to them doesn't "count" as violence towards other people

The research on violence and violence prevention, and experience within the eco-feminist and other political and spiritual and religious movements, demonstrates this, over and over.

  • When we make the effort to remind ourselves of the humanity of other people -- other people we don't like, other people who make us uncomfortable, other people who challenge us, other people who scare us, other people who make us squirm -- we reaffirm a commitment to non-violence.  Even more importantly, we are doing something concrete to ensure that we are less likely to commit violence against other human beings -- other expressions of That-Which-Is-Sacred. 
  • When we use words that trash other people, words that support some people as deserving of violence, words that support other people's violent behavior against certain people, words that dehumanize other human beings, words that refer to other people as animals or objects or trash...  We are engaging in behavior that promotes violence. 

If you'd like to read more about how how reinforcing humanity works to prevent violence, and dehumanization works to increase violence, see http://aquakerwitch.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/growth-of-political-violence-in-united.html.

Talking about transgender women

Recently, in particular, I have come across a wide range of language used in reference to transgender women.

Because of this, I'm going to speak about transgender women specifically right now; but almost everything I say is also true of transgender men, genderqueer people/people who don't fit the gender binary, as well.

I know that many people who are uncomfortable with transgender women, and make disparaging jokes about transgender women out of that discomfort, think nothing of it.

I know that many people who insist on using their own words for the experience and bodies of transgender women, instead of the words that transgender women themselves choose, think nothing of it -- or even believe that they are doing something positive.

I know that many people who use derogatory language for or towards transgender women think it's no big deal, or it's harmless, or that they are somehow defending themselves.

I know that many people don't think these things are hate speech. 

They're wrong.

  • These things are hate speech.  They disparage an entire group of people based on their gender identity. 
  • These things are not harmless; they are dangerous.  This behavior dehumanizes transgender women.  Dehumanizing transgender women promotes and encourages violence against transgender women. 
  • Dehumanizing transgender women promotes and encourages violence against all women.
  • Dehumanizing transgender women promotes and encourages violence against everyone who does not conform to a particular set of gender stereotypes

Gender stereotypes and feminism

One of the aims of feminism has been to help women -- and not just women -- resist gender stereotypes, and make choices based on what we like and what's good for us, rather than have our choices limited based on what society says is appropriate for arbitrary categories of gender.  Things like "girls," "boys," "women," and "men."

What should determine whether I wear a skirt or trousers -- what I like, the weather, and what I'll be doing while wearing my clothing, right?  What should determine the length of my hair?

My gender should just not be relevant to these choices.  Neither should anyone else's.

However, my gender is still relevant, and I am sanctioned for making choices too far outside my culture's stereotypes for my gender.

Society holds transgender women to even stricter adherence to gender stereotypes than it does cisgender (non-transgender)* women.  (So do many feminists, something I find ironic.)

(*Cisgender as non-transgender: Again, this is over-simplified, but should be enough for this post, for now.  I will give a more in-depth treatment of this in another post soon.)

Hate speech towards transgender women in feminism

Many transgender women are feminists.

Many cisgender feminists are supportive of transgender women and transgender feminist women.

Many cisgender feminists are uncomfortable with transgender women and transgender feminist women.  Some are challenging their discomfort; some are not.

But there are some cisgender feminists who take their discomfort to extremes.

One of the places I've come across some of the most derogatory language towards transgender women again recently -- outright hate speech -- is within feminist communities. 

Speaking  up

As a feminist, as a Quaker, as a Witch, it is my job to speak up when people in my communities use language, especially hate speech, that promotes violence against women, period.

And it is my job to speak up when people in my communities use language, especially hate speech, that promotes violence against transgender women.

So I am speaking up:

Hate speech against transgender women -- NOT consistent with my Quaker, lesbian, radical eco-feminist, Pagan values.  

It's time to for all of us who are allies to speak up.   

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

10 comments:

Sorcha said...

Thank you, I rarely see feminists that care about transgender people or non-binary people. One reason I think people don't care about hate speech is because they say it's just words, same reason why psychological and emotional abuse are not crimes or considered real, I think this is wrong, it's enough to destroy a person and it leads to violence.
Feminism and paganism have a bad story about those things, sadly, as genderqueer and disabled I only find confort with few feminist writing like this post, my gender is considered a lie and many feminists laugh at ableism and see disability as medical, that's why I am happy to find feminists that challenge that and have ethics and respect for other groups.
Thank you for this post.

hedra said...

Thankfully, I don't come across this much, but I hang out with a rare crowd. I'm definitely sensitive to the 'othering' issue, where to treat as other is to treat as less than self. Thankfully, also, I've had the privilege of being 'nearby' as a friend of my husband's transitioned to public congruency with her internal gender. I didn't really like her as a man, before, but when she was free to be herself, she was amazing - so much else came free at the same time, including, very simply, happiness. It was incredibly powerful to see, and it made it much easier to integrate, too, because it became a simple truth, that she had always been a woman, but people didn't know it before. I'm always glad to see you talk about nonviolance in many forms, and glad to see you address the details on violent and othering language toward transgender women.

Kelly Worrall said...

Thank you so much for this post. As a transgendered woman, my experience has been that the most difficult thing to overcome is when someone I previously respected dismisses the legitimacy of my identity. The groups most likely to do this are people associate closely with athletics, conservative religions, and feminism. Not to speak for all trans* people, but it means a lot to us when people challenge oppressive behaviour from within. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

@Sorcha,

I don't usually comment here, because Staṡa so often speaks my mind so eloquently than I've little more to add--and there's no easy "Like" button here!

Still, since you point out that hers is not always the majority perspective in this context, I want to let you know that there is at least one more cisgender feminist--me--who strongly believes it is important to be supportive of transgender women and transgender feminist women. Women are women, and men are men, and many people are neither of the above, no matter what kinds of bodies they received at birth or developed later. I've known a few more than my share of transgender woman, perhaps, but across the board, we've had more in common from our shared humanity, and more to learn from one another's diverse experiences of our shared world, than we ever had to divide us.

Regardless of dis/ability, regardless of body type or body parts, I welcome all the contributions you and others like you want to make to the community we share, and I will work to make all possible opportunities open to you as well as to me--after all, I live here, too, and your presence (and that of every human being) enriches my life as well!

- Weavre Cooper

Victoria Pearson said...

i, too, as a cisgendered bisexual feminist quaker with pagan and buddhist leanings, want to echo strongly the need to stop hate speech against transfolx, and specifically the really outdated and misguided essentialist claims that seem to stick around despite the best thinking about gender constructs and the valuation of radical self-determination. there are places where there is support and recognition of trans women! we need to find them, we need to support them. i attended a couple of gatherings with this great group --full circle of women-- i don't know if it still exists, but this group was amazing. i went to 2 gatherings in New England in 1998 and 2002, and i know they were based out of CA.
language is powerful, and our ability to name ourselves is one of the most powerful lessons i have learned from feminism, and feminist theologies. for me, feminism is a liberatory path for all, not just cis-women. thanks for this post, and here's to more connection making.

staśa said...

Sorcha, hedra, Kelly, Weavre, Victoria -- thank you, each of you, for your comment, and for sharing from your experience. I truly appreciate it.

Amy said...

Am I the only person whose response to this post was not "Yeah, preach it, sister!" but "Huh?"

My problem is that I just don't feel like I really know what you're talking about when you refer to "people who insist on using their own words for the experience and bodies of transgender women, instead of the words that transgender women themselves choose." What, specifically, are the words you find unacceptable? Which are the words you think would be more acceptable? And how do you know that the people who are using the unacceptable terms are "insisting on using their own words" and are not merely ignorant as to which terms are now considered socially acceptable? In today's world, accepted terminology for referring to groups of people can change very fast, and it's easy to fall behind. People who find themselves, out of ignorance or out of habit, using "black" rather than "African American," "Oriental" instead of "Asian American," or "dwarfs" instead of "Little People" (a term I personally detest) may need to be corrected, but I don't think they should be denounced as bigots.

So once again, how about a little clarification here? What are the words you *shouldn't* use, and what are the ones you should? (I understand if you're uncomfortable about using the unacceptable words yourself, even to say that they're unacceptable, but please think of it as a service to people like me, who honestly might not know.)

staśa said...

Hi, Amy!

Sorry for the delay getting your comment posted -- I've been traveling, jet-lagged, hosting a houseguest, and coping with a seriously ill kitty. (Kiri the Miracle Cat is, well, miraculous yet again, for all her adoring fans who want to know. =^..^= )

Thank you for asking honest questions.

What I'm talking about here are not situations of honest ignorance, but situations where people deliberately choose to use language in certain ways.

For example, situations like this:

When a transgender person uses specific words to refer to themselves, and says things like, "This is the word I use," "These are the pronouns I use" --

-- and a cisgender person says, or a group of cisgender people say, "Well, I'm not going to use that word," "We're not going to call you/them that," argue that someone is not really the gender they say they are, or use outright derogatory language or hateful language.

I'm not talking about ignorance -- I really am talking about bigotry. I am talking about being asked and told, being given clear (and simple) guidance about language, and choosing to behave otherwise.

I'm talking about using speech that dehumanizes people, that refers to people as less than human, that reduces people to their body parts and to whether or not they conform to gender stereotypes.

Even outside clear guidance about language specific to transgender people -- or any other minority -- some of this is about simple humanity: when we use language that strips people of humanness, that's what it is, pure and simple -- dehumanization. When we use language that focuses on body parts, for example, separate from the human attached to those body parts -- eyes/eye shape, skin/skin color, breasts, vaginas, penises, legs; I could go on -- and refer to people only that way, without the person attached, we are dehumanizing them.

I started to go through the list in that paragraph above, and type a list of examples -- "Look at that ---." And I found I was not okay about doing that, not even imagining quoting someone else. I will leave it to your imagination.

I thought this next paragraph would then read: Beyond that, I'm not going to repeat certain words.

Regarding specific words: would you ask me to repeat certain words that are typically used to incite/justify violence against or dehumanize Black people, Asian people, women in general, or Jews -- ? I'm not talking about Black vs. African-American, or Oriental vs. Asian-American. Keep going further into the nasty category. I won't repeat those words, either, in this context.

"So once again, how about a little clarification here?"

Huh? I'm missing something here. When have you asked me to explain anti-transgender hate speech to you before?

Thanks for chewy conversation!

Amy said...

"some of this is about simple humanity...When we use language that focuses on body parts, for example, separate from the human attached to those body parts...and refer to people only that way, without the person attached, we are dehumanizing them.

Again, I don't think this is as simple and obvious for everyone as you're making it out to be. If I, for example, use a word that can be a synonym for "penis," but that is more commonly used as a synonym for "jerk," to refer to a driver who is tailgating me, I think it's pretty obvious to everyone in the car that I am not literally trying to refer to that person as a sexual organ. In such a case, I do not see that word as an attempt to "dehumanize" the other driver by reducing him to a particular body part, and I would be surprised if others perceived it that way. So if they *do* perceive it that way, I do need to be told so--it's not simply a matter of common sense. (Side note: Brian adds that when he uses a synonym for "penis" to refer to another driver, he actually is trying to dehumanize him, though not to his face. So I guess the point I'm making is that reasonable people can perceive this term in different ways.)

Regarding specific words: would you ask me to repeat certain words that are typically used to incite/justify violence against or dehumanize Black people, Asian people, women in general, or Jews -- ?

Well, what I was thinking of when I made that request--but didn't refer to at the time because I couldn't work it smoothly into my post--was the "not acceptable" public service announcement that was launched to educate people about the use of the "R-word." (http://www.r-word.org/r-word-not-acceptable-psa.aspx) This ad deliberately uses other terms that are widely understood to be unacceptable in order to educate people about the fact that the R-word, which they may not think of as being in the same category, really does belong there. So I think that's an example of a case in which it does help to identify, very clearly, the word that you find offensive and why you find it offensive. It's much more effective than just saying, "Certain words are unacceptable" and trusting people to know what those words are. They may not.

Huh? I'm missing something here. When have you asked me to explain anti-transgender hate speech to you before?

No, sorry, when I said "once again," I merely meant that I was repeating the request I had made at the beginning of my post. It might have made more sense to say, "to reiterate."

(Completely unrelated: am I the only person who finds the captchas on this site and other blogs really hard to read? Maybe I actually am a robot and don't know it.)

staśa said...

"Again, I don't think this is as simple and obvious for everyone as you're making it out to be. If I, for example, use a word that can be a synonym for "penis," but that is more commonly used as a synonym for "jerk," to refer to a driver who is tailgating me, I think it's pretty obvious to everyone in the car that I am not literally trying to refer to that person as a sexual organ."

So, let's say someone tells you, "I consider myself a man. I'm a man. I prefer to be called a man." And you insist on calling them a jerk instead of a man, both to their face and when you talk about this person in conversation with other people. You never refer to them as a man, only as a jerk. That's the kind of behavior I mean. That's deliberate. You can couch it in whatever excuses you want, but that's deliberate.

"Side note: Brian adds that when he uses a synonym for "penis" to refer to another driver, he actually is trying to dehumanize him, though not to his face..."

Only b/c I know Brian and can totally hear him saying that: go, Brian! (I am not literally encouraging Brian to dehumanize people. I am chortling over Brian's well-demonstrated, at least in my physical presence, ability to own up to such things.)

"...So I guess the point I'm making is that reasonable people can perceive this term in different ways."

Yes and no. I still think you're making this too hard. If I tell you I'm a woman, and I live my life as a woman, but you insist on referring to me as a man, and use male-gendered pronouns for me, both in front of me and with other people, then you are encouraging violence against me. Statistically and morally.

http://www.r-word.org/r-word-not-acceptable-psa.aspx

Wow. That's awesome. And hard-hitting. Yes, yes, yes.

I started to say this in my earlier comment, then changed my mind -- that if any of my transgender or genderqueer friends wanted to speak up and say, It's not okay to use this word or this phrase or this language, I would welcome that, but I would not ask them to do so -- because it's not their job. I was feeling uneasy as a cisgender person saying, It's not okay with me if you use ______ -- but thinking about it now, isn't that part of the point?

So I will think about this more. But also, in the meantime, I have a blog post that's about to be published -- it's seasoning and being proofed -- that contains actual screenshots of examples of transphobic and cissexist language. With some analysis from me. So there will definitely be some specific examples there.

"I merely meant that I was repeating the request I had made at the beginning of my post."

Oh, I get it now!

"(Completely unrelated: am I the only person who finds the captchas on this site and other blogs really hard to read? Maybe I actually am a robot and don't know it.)"

No, you are not. Hmmmm. Blogger has purportedly made their spam filtering more robust. I might experiment with taking the captcha out and just going with moderation. Thank you very much for letting me know this is becoming an accessibility issue.

And thank you again for the conversation!