Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Some Thoughts on ‘Age 8 and Wanting a Sex Change’

Channel 4’s “Age 8 and Wanting a Sex Change” examines the plight of trans kids across the pond ahead of a possible change in the laws governing treatment of trans kids in the UK. Being from the ‘Bodyshock’ strand of documentaries (sample titles: The Man Who Ate His Own Face; The Man With A Shark For A Foot) I wasn’t expecting much in the way of sensitivity and after a minute or so I thought my suspicions had been confirmed when the narrator started to use the wrong pronouns to refer to the trans kids, and continued to do so for the rest of the documentary.

First off, seriously? The people interviewed (mostly the families of the trans kids or the doctors who were treating the kids) were using the correct pronouns! Everyone in the context of the programme used the correct pronouns. Why the hell was the voice over using incorrect ones? That’s beyond insensitive. It’s damn right insulting. Are we supposed to infer that the kids and their parents are deluding themselves? That it could only happen in America? That the documentary filmmakers don’t respect the gender choices of the subjects, or worse, don’t see their subjects as the gender they are? That they’re trying to dumb it down, match the pronouns to the “true sex” and aim it at the general public who don’t know anything about trans issues?

I suspect that the last question is the most accurate and it’s the most troubling. Part of the reasoning behind the documentary was that it was designed to educate ahead of a possible review of guidelines for dealing with transgender kids in the UK. By consistently using the wrong pronouns, the programme just reinforces negative assumptions about transgender people, chiefly that they will never truly pass and they’ll always be the sex they were born. Worse, it reinforces the idea that these kids are deluded, or going through a phase; eventually they’ll return to their “true sex.”

In fact there are a couple of occasions in the documentary when the interviewer asked the younger kids if they were going through a phase, as if hoping to catch them out. Of course, they all strongly denied it with one going as far as to say, “If I had to dress in boys’ clothes and be a boy for the rest of my life I’d probably die.” The thing that bothers me the most about the implication that trans kids “grow out of it” is the assumption that children don’t know what gender they are. Cisgendered children know if they’re a boy or girl, even before they know that boy bodies are different from girl bodies or the cultural expectations that their gender places on them, so why can’t a transgendered child know the same thing?

The medical side of the process of obtaining puberty blockers and cross gender hormones was somewhat glossed over as well. In each case we were told how the child had been unhappy in their birth sex, worked up the courage to tell their parents they were really a boy or really a girl, and were diagnosed with gender dysphoria. The process of being diagnosed can be a lengthy one and isn’t something that happens lightly. The programme seemed to be suggesting that this wasn’t the case, and somewhat ignored the regular doctors’ appointments and medical procedures before and after the kids were diagnosed.

There were one or two other troubling moments in the documentary; firstly the fact that Josie, an eight year old mtf, still played with cars and other “boy’s toys” and secondly that Bailey, a twelve year old ftm, had been on age appropriate “dates” with girls who didn’t know that he was genetically female. In the first case, the narration treated Josie’s toys as an anomaly and perhaps a sign that she wasn’t “truly” a girl. In the programme makers’ world there only appears to be two modes of gender expression: ultra feminine girls and butch, masculine boys. That Josie could be a tomboy never seems to enter into their heads. The only person who seems au fait with this is Josie’s awesomely supportive mother who basically says it’s none of their damn business what toys her daughter plays with, “Just because a man likes to cook doesn’t make him a woman and just because a women knows how to change the oil in her car doesn’t make her a man.” The documentary really missed a chance to explore other gender expressions here, and instead chose to point to this as something (else) that wasn’t really “normal” about these children.

The second moment is one I had the most trouble with. Bailey’s family had had to move due to the bullying he was receiving at school, and they purposefully haven’t told anyone in their new town that Bailey was born female. Being that both of the ftms in the documentary are a little older than the mtfs, they are both asked about dating girls and the problems this presents for them. Bailey has been on “dates” with other girls, but hasn’t told them that he’s genetically female. Later, the interviewer asks Bailey’s mother what she would do if her daughter had been kissing a boy who was “really” a girl. Ignoring the transphobic implications of that question, Bailey’s mother says that she would be a little freaked out but she doesn’t really think it’s a problem at this age, and she believes that when Bailey is older and in a serious relationship he would tell the girl the truth up front. A sensible answer you might think, but the tone of the interviewer and the way the question was asked really speaks volumes about the programme makers’ intentions. The idea of transmen and women preying on hapless cisgendered people who have no idea about their partner’s “true” sex is one that is prevalent in society and the documentary seems to be pointing the Bailey’s behaviour as an example of this (see something like The Crying Game for a filmic example). Look, it seems to say, these kids are no better than those terrible transsexuals we’ve all heard about. Luckily, the documentary asks sixteen year old ftm Chris the same question and he explains that he has a girlfriend who knows that he was born female. In addition to this, Chris’ mother is in a relationship with an older transman (who the narration still refers to with female pronouns in what was perhaps the most offensive moment of the entire hour) so we do get to see that the “happy-ever-after” as it were, and “balance” out Bailey’s behaviour.

The programme doesn’t include an adult transwoman, which is a glaring omission considering transwomen are often the most stereotyped and vilified by popular culture; this would have been an obvious chance for the programme makers to truly dispel misconceptions and educate the casual viewer.

Despite all this negativity, what truly made the programme worth watching was the trans kids themselves. They were all overwhelmingly happy and had incredibly supportive parents and families. After seeing the kids with their families, there is no doubt that they are making the right choice and living their lives as they were meant to. Without the narration, the programme could have been truly revolutionary; a sensitive and largely positive portrayal of a difficult issue. The narration undermined the strength and courage of the kids as well as the positive message they presented. If you can divorce the programme content from the offensive narration and have an interest in transgender issues then I’d say it’s definitely worth a watch.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Gately's "Unnatural" Death

Breaking: Gately death due to complications of queerness. 
So says the latest homophobic hate piece from Jan Moir over at the Daily Mail.  Not in so many words, of course, but the message is clear nonetheless.  Gately’s death was not natural, screams the headline.  What’s not written is the implied justification for this opinion: because Gately’s sexuality was not natural.  Sad and homophobic as the piece is, it’s also rather funny the lengths that Moir will go to to blame Gately’s sexuality for his death.  Moir’s concluding piece of evidence that his queerness killed him? Gately and his husband may or may not have had a threesome on the night that Gately died.  Because straight couples never have threesomes.  Or, for that matter, engage in sexual practices more often associated with gay men. 
What is more troubling about the article is Moir’s insistence on turning Gately’s death into an argument against “the happy ever after myth” of marriage equality. 
"Gay activists are always calling for tolerance and understanding about same-sex relationships, arguing that they are just the same as heterosexual marriages. Not everyone, they say, is like George Michael.
Of course, in many cases this may be true. Yet the recent death of Kevin McGee, the former husband of Little Britain star Matt Lucas, and now the dubious events of Gately's last night raise troubling questions about what happened.
It is important that the truth comes out about the exact circumstances of his strange and lonely death."  (Emphasis mine).
The fight for marriage equality has nothing to do with Gately’s death.  She is taking one possible case of something that might not have even happened as proof that gay marriage doesn’t work.  By the same logic I could point to a divorced couple as proof that all heterosexual marriages don’t work.  You can’t base any conclusions on a sample of one.  For that matter, I wasn't aware that (possibly) having a threesome automatically meant your marriage was dysfunctional anyway.  I'm sure it works for plenty of people.  There are happy and unhappy same-sex relationships just as there are happy and unhappy heterosexual relationships, and besides, I think straight people have the monopoly on dysfunctional marriages, don’t you?  They’ve been doing it a lot longer than we have (if we can do it at all, that is.)
In Moir’s world all queers are promiscuous, and destined for an early death.  The use of the phrase “strange and lonely” brings to mind Dyer’s “sad young man” of the Hayes Code era films; a stereotypical character that was frequently made ‘safe’ and/or ‘saved’ through death.  And that, it seems, is Moir’s final point.  Gately deserved to die for daring to be queer.  That he did so in a way that Moir believes condemns his “very different and more dangerous lifestyle” all the better. 
After all, how can someone who lives an “unnatural” life have a natural death?

UPDATE: This issue has been getting a lot of coverage on twitter today, with the result that the Mail has changed the headline on the article but not on the links to the right (via: @charltonbrooker).  
UPDATE 2: They've changed the links on the right now as well (via: @charltonbrooker).

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Gender and Choice in Mass Effect

Bioware’s epic sci fi rpg-shooter Mass Effect was at the centre of some controversy when it was released in 2007 due to the possibility of player choices leading to the main female character becoming involved in a “lesbian” sub plot. Why the inverted commas? Bioware were quick to point out that one of the characters in the scene was actually a member of a “mono-gendered” alien race called the Asari. The scene can’t be a lesbian one, then, because the Asari in question, Liara T’Soni, is not a woman in the traditional sense. The confusion arises from the fact that Liara presents as female in every way, refers to herself and her species with female pronouns and is voiced by a female voice actor. In fact the in-game Codex entry for the Asari refers to them as an “all-female” race. While I would never presume to assign someone a gender identity, the fact that Liara has no problem being referred to as “female” or presenting her gender in that way suggests that she is happy to have a female gender identity and happy to be read this way by other species.
To further complicate matters, the Asari are capable of reproducing with any other species and gender. There are no Asari “males” (that is, Asari who present as “male”) and though two Asari are capable of reproducing it is generally frowned upon as the Asari believe it produces genetically inferior offspring. Liara herself is a “pureblood” Asari and this is the only context in which an Asari is ever referred to as male: Liara refers to her “father” on more than one occasion.
Now this could be explained via the old sci fi cliché of the translator microbes being unable to translate the Asari’s concept of gender into English. Since there is no word for the Asari’s gender in English, the translation device finds the closest translation and comes up with “female.” Fine. But to a modern audience, the Asari still present as female in every way apart from their insistence that they are mono-gendered. In fact, all of the alien races in Mass Effect conform to a binary gender system. The game also emphasises the male members of alien races and frequently misses the opportunity to present different notions of femininity in the less humanoid races such as the Krogen or Volus. The only female aliens we see, when we see them at all, are all humanoid, thin, and conventionally attractive.
Liara herself falls into this category, and the situation is exacerbated by the optional subplot in which she becomes a love interest for the player character, Commander Shepard, whose gender the player chooses at the start of the game. Like the majority of things in Mass Effect, the romance plot involves a choice on the part of the player; firstly whether or not to participate in the sub-plot and secondly which of two crew members your character wants to woo. If you are playing as a male character you can choose to romance Liara, or Ashley Williams, a human female. If you are playing as a female character you can choose to romance Liara or Kaiden Alenko, a human male. For a male character, the choice is a very heterosexual one; you can either romance the human action girl or the blue skinned space babe. For a female main character the choice is less heterosexual; despite what the game devs want the player to think, a female Shepard has the choice between a male human and (what appears to be) a female alien. Anyone who saw a scene between a female Shepard and Liara would assume that Liara was female if they had no prior knowledge of the game, so why did the devs continually deny the existence of a lesbian relationship?
While I’m asking hypothetical questions, why couldn’t a female Shepard romance Ashley Williams, or a male Shepard romance Kaiden Alenko? Mass Effect is a game about choice – the player’s choices affect the main plotline in very real ways, and can result in three different endings, and countless different sub-plots along the way. Despite this emphasis on choice, the player’s (particularly the LGBT player’s) romantic choice is severely limited. Some modders of the PC version discovered that the game disc actually contains the dialogue for these pairings, but the content never made it into the game. In this case, Bioware’s choice was to remove the choice of the LGBT gamer.
In a medium where LGBT people are severely under-represented, homophobia is rife and all gamers are assumed to be male, Bioware had the chance to stand up and claim the relationship between Liara and a female Shepard as a lesbian one. Instead they chose to hide behind words and force the characters into the closet. The relationships become a product of homophobic male-orientated gamer culture in the same way that Liara’s gender representation is a product of deeply entrenched social binary concepts of gender; a binary system where “mono-gendered” doesn’t mean a new, third gender presentation but simply a species that only has one of the two available options. Until devs like Bioware are willing to stand up for choice – in all areas of their games – LGBT gamers will continue to be ignored.
Being included only to be told you’re not is worse than not being included at all and insulting to the lesbian gaming community’s intelligence. Being included to act as titillation for fifteen year old boys is even worse.  I still think that Mass Effect is one of the best games of this generation. It offers a mature, interesting story, engaging characters and great game play. I just wish that in a game world where choice is valued above all else mine wasn’t taken away.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Semantics of Gay Marriage

According to a poll published by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press last week 57% of Americans now favour “allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into legal agreements with each other that would give them many of the same rights as married couples, a status commonly known as civil unions.” This number is up from 45% from the same poll in 2003. This means that a majority of Americans now support civil unions for gays and lesbians. The interesting thing about the poll is that is also found that a majority of Americans (53%) oppose gay marriage. In the last year, support for civil unions has grown the most amongst the 53% who oppose gay marriage.
Proponents of civil unions often stress that they offer all the benefits of a marriage and it is only the name that is different. And yet, according to this poll, if the same rights are called a marriage rather than a union they are no longer supported.
One reason for this semantic issue is that these people believe marriage to be a religious union and since a lot of mainstream religions believe that homosexuality is wrong gays and lesbians should not be allowed to marry. However, they don’t question heterosexual atheists who want to commit to each other and get married, or ask them to refer to their marriage as a “civil union” because they don’t conform to certain religious beliefs. So why should they ask the same of gays and lesbians? The fact remains that in modern secular societies marriage is no longer simply a religious institution. There are very real legal, social and economic benefits to getting married. Giving gays and lesbians these rights in the form of “civil unions” smacks of the same bullshit hypocrisy that saw African-Americans regarded as “separate but equal” not so long ago.
I’m not asking for the right to be married in a church. While I might not like the discriminatory stance some churches take to gays and lesbians, I can accept their opinions and beliefs. All I’m asking for is the right to call my civil marriage a marriage, like so many heterosexuals do.
I don’t want to gain an important civil right only to be reminded that I wasn’t good enough for the real deal whenever I reference my marital status. In a startling display of insensitivity last week, The Sun and The Daily Mail referred to Kevin McGee as Matt Lucas’ “ex-husband” (yes, including the quotation marks) when he committed suicide. During the course of my googling for this blog post I also found the BBC at it in December 2006 when the couple “wed” (again, quotation marks are theirs) and celebrated their “marriage.”
The message is clear. Any relationship I have will never be as good as a heterosexual one and certainly never worthy of a true marriage, whatever that is. Someone has decided that a “marriage” is a heterosexual privilege and one more way to mark gays and lesbians as different and unworthy. It’s only a word, but no one knows better than the LGBT community how much words can hurt. Fags and dykes can’t get married but gays and lesbians can have civil unions.