Monday, 30 November 2009

Surreal but predictable; trans people excluded again.

It was almost surreal; at a meeting of the "Cutting Edge Consortium" in the house of Commons on Tuesday night, Andrew Copston, representing the Humanist Society, right at the end of the meeting when there was no opportunity for us to argue back, suggested that it wouldn't matter if there were no transgender comissioners on the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) because other commissioners could just as well do the work of a trans commissioner if they have good enough knowledge of trans issues.

And whaddaya know but the next day the EHRC announces new commissioners, and guess what...? Yup you got it in one, there are no trans commissioners. Guess what II... the other commissioners are not people with any understanding of trans issues.

Predictable as this is likely to sound to transgendered people, it is not something which should go without either comment or protest. This is a deliberate snub to the trans community, make no mistake. It is like saying that we don't count, or that our problems with equal rights do not have to be taken seriously. Despite all its warm and supportive words, when it comes down to it the EHRC is all mouth and no trousers. This is not the first time either, when words have flowed freely but action has been conspicuous by its absence. The Moving Wallpaper affair earlier this year, demonstrated how it is unwilling to take any action on any trans issues. No wonder the Equality Bill is such a big step backwards for transgender people, it will mean that they will legally be able to ignore us in favour of less underpriviledged groups, encompassing larger numbers of people.

So let's call a spade a spade shall we? This is all about numbers. Transgender people in the UK make up such a small proportion of the population that we do not merit the attention of the EHRC. After all race and sex discrimination can potentially affect everyone in the country, whereas transphobic discrimination affects maybe only 1% of the population. We are too small a minority to merit inclusion in the hierarchy of discrimination, the bottom rung is still to be kept out of reach as everyone else pulls up the drawbridge.

Of course there are other reasons for our exclusion; it would not do to shake the cosy worldviews of Daily Mail reading 'normal', Barratt Homes, Mondeo Man with 2.35 chilren... they might start to question other aspects of their lives if the most basic concepts of 'male' and 'female' are suddenly revealed to be not the only options. My goodness, the thought that the lovely, pretty, blonde-haired daughter they assiduously cultivated with pink t-shirts and Barbie dolls might grow up into a MAN! Or worse, a genderqueer butch dyke with attitude and a pair of DMs...

Of course there is hypocrisy by the truckload, and of course trans people are used to that as well, indeed we start to get nervous at its absence such is the regularity with which we have had to deal with double standards being applied to us. One of the biggest voices against the full inclusion of trans people in the Equality Bill came from religious groups. (Incidentally 99.9% of their responses which call for our exclusion did not refer to religious grounds or religious texts in support of their 'arguments' but that is another story.) Leaving asside the obvious question as to why transgender people do not get consulted about issues involving religious freedom this makes manfest one of the most spectacular and monumental instances of hypocrisy and double standards of modern times. This is Hypocrisy of planet sized proportions...

One of the main arguments which the Equalities Office deployed to justify excluding the majority of transgender people from the scope of the bill was that people who are transgender but not transsexual represent a "Lifestyle Choice". The fact that this is clearly complete nonsense is neither here nor there. The same people, including those on the EHRC, argue for religious discrimination to be a protected characteristic in the Equality Bill, so that people cannot be discriminated on the grounds of religious belief. Yet what is religion? One is not born a Muslim, a Catholic or a Protestant, therefore religion is a Lifestyle Choice.

The irony is of course that people who argue that they should not be discriminated against because of a lifestyle choice then turn round and argue that the majority of the transgender community should be unprotected from discrimination because they represent a "Lifestyle Choice".

The reality is, of course, that being transgendered, whether transsexual or not, is something you are born with and nothing to do with any choices you might make. My own research has shown that around 80% of transgender people realise that their gender identity is different before they leave primary school. with only around 3% becoming aware they are trans after their 18th birthday. With a mean average age of realisation at around 7-8 years old, and a modal average age at only 5 years old, the suggestion that any trans person is trans out of a lifestyle choice is quite clearly ridiculous.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Copyright Extremists take over the Asylum

The news that a pub has been fined £8000 because a customer used their wifi access to illegally download a piece of music will send shockwaves through the internet community as well as the licensed trade. Pubs have, for a while, been struggling to compete with cheap beer in cans and the attraction of the internet, which entices punters to stay at home. Provision of free wifi internet access in pubs was meant to change that, drawing people out of their homes into the more socialble environment of the local. Where I live, it is not just the pubs which have wifi, but most of the cafes as well.

However few, if any pub managers are going to risk being fined £8000 or more as a result of a customer downloading a piece of music. The poor pub manager in this situation has not broken any laws, has done nothing morally wrong, and certainly has not breached anyone's copyright. Still the copyright extremists have persued and punished him despite his innocence. Just when you thought that you had the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, you discover you are wrong.

The more scary element of this however, is how this could affect ordinary home users of the internet. It is not difficult to piggy-back onto someone's wifi connection, where I live I can pick up about 20 different wifi connections in addition to my own, most of which come through as "very good" or "excellent". If I try sitting in my car outside in the street I can get even more and with stronger signals. I can even get the wifi of the pub round the corner. So it is not going to be long before large numbers of people are going to be prosecuted and fined (or even imprisoned or bankrupted) for copyright infringement even though they are completely innocent and have committed no crime, and certainly no infringement of copyright.

Copyright was originally started (as the Statute of Anne) in order to protect the work of creative people such as writers and artists, to give them the incentive to be creative and produce creative work. Copyright protected this and meant that they could make a living out of being creative without being ripped off by people who might copy their work. The term of copyright was originally 14 years. Today it is around 75 years. In other words what you write, compose, paint, film, etc will not enter the public domain free of copyright, until 75 years after it was created. This represents one of the problems of copyright. It would perhaps be tolerable if the current draconian copyright laws expired for most things after 14 years since it could be argued that, if the creator had not made enough money by then they were unlikely to make anything worth justifying the blanket copyright protection.

But it looks like that isn't going to happen. In fact the 'creative' industries are rapidly becoming the 'copyright' industries and the business leaders focus more on this than fostering new talent. It is a bad deal from the point of view of the creators as well. These people actually make such a small percentage from royalties from their work that, for all but a very lucky few, it does not pay a living wage. So let's be straight about who benefits most from the current copyright laws; the large multinational companies which own, and sit on most of the copyrighted material which is of commercial value. They are not just worried about illegal downloads of music, they are probably more concerned that, in future, musicians will be able to communicate directly with their fans and sell them the music directly online without any intermediaries. Worse still for these wealthy dinosaurs, relics of the 20th century, many of these musicians distribute recordings of their work for free, making their money out of live performances and associated merchandising operations.

The fact is that copyright laws as they stand (and as they are currently proposed) are an anachronism. They will have no appreciable effect on the tide of file sharing and downloading. They will actually be counterproductive from the point of view of the copyright industry; it will not be long before the weight of injustices and infringements of liberty of innocent people begins to make itself felt. Every innocent person prosecuted, every publican, every 9-year-old child, every silver-haired old lady, every unwitting parent, every poor sod whose home wifi gets hacked into will become another chip in the Berlin Wall of copyright. Sooner or later, either public opinion or a determined individual will bring down these laws, probably in the European Court. They will then find that what little protection they have against copyright infringers is worth nothing.

The tide of technology is against them, if they want to continue in these industries they need to come up with a new business model; as Don Tapscott suggests, considering music as a service rather than a product would be a good place to start, then people would be able to pay a subscription, say £5 a month for unlimited access to as much music as they can listen to online. This would stem the tide of illegal downloads very quickly, by charging a reasonable sum for a service.

As things stand the music industry spends so much money on advertising, videos, publicity, etc. (with usually much more money and effort going into creating the video than recording the song) for a relatively small number of "artists". They are still trying to milk the public with the old 20th century model of a small number of superstars which the music industry invests heavily in to create demand for their music. This is already beginning to break down with 'new' artists like Lady GaGa already looking like lame ducks to the extent that her record company has to milk her fame as quickly as possible before the next big thing takes over. The commercial life of a popstar today is measured in months rather than years. Pretty soon the period in the spotlight will become so short that the income from sales will not justify the expenditure on publicity.

It will be the death of the music industry but the rebirth of music.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Transfeminism, trans stereotypes and attribution of gender

A response to Penny Red's Blog Post "No Feminism without Transfeminism"

Penny Red's wonderful blog post "No Feminism Without Transfeminism" made some very important points and reminded us all of the importance of solidarity between trans people and feminists. In particular her response to the critique of some in the feminist movement who talk about transwomen as having "Fuck-me boots and birds-nest hair" arguing that the feminist movement needs to accept that anyone, newly coming out as female, is likely to want to explore their gender expression through the wide variety of female clothing available to them.

She makes the point about how, in a sense transwomen, many of whom come out in their 30s or 40s are doing just what most girls do when they start grappling with their sexual and gender identities as teenagers. The only difference being that transwomen in their 30s or 40s have usually got a whole lot more money available than 12 - 14 year-old girls. They can not only afford fuck-me shoes, MAC or Chanel make-up and dresses from French Connection, rather than cheap jewelery, nail varnish and stick-on tatoos from Claires Accessories. However this is not the whole story. She makes the very important point that young girls, if they had the resources of a 30 or 40 year-old would probably spend quite a lot of it on fuck-me shoes and other clothing as well.

As an experienced transwoman yes I can afford fuck-me shoes, I can even afford comfortable fuck-me shoes. But I actually don't go around wearing them all the time. Neither do I wear £100 French Connection dresses down the pub. I usually wear a denim skirt, mid-heeled shoes and understated make-up. (OK so I occasionally let myself go with a nice necklace...). I do, however, know many transwomen who wear trousers and/or flats, with almost no make-up. However these tend to be more experienced transwomen. It is all about getting the balance right to blend in and not being "read".

However there is an additional reason for transwomen wearing feminine clothes, shoes and make-up which is slightly more complex but a clue lies in Kessler and McKenna's excellent book, "Gender; An ethnomethodological approach." Here they show how people attribute gender to someone the meet, and the mechanics of this is quite unexpected. Normally what happens is that people, both men and women, attribute someone a gender on the basis of "Male" or "Not Male". In other words people look out for male signifiers, such as beard, 5 O'clock shadow, hair (or lack of it), clothes, walk, speech, etc. They attribute gender on the basis of the presence or absence of these and other signifiers. This is the product of a binary gender system; if it isn't male it must be female. This wouldn't work with more than two genders, but it functions because most people percieve that there are only two genders.

However this "Male" or "Not Male" approach which almost everyone uses to attribute gender is not applied in a balanced way. Generally if there is one or more male attribute present the individual is attributed a male gender. In fact pretty much the only way to be certain that a good majority of the general public would attribute female gender is in the complete absence of any male signifiers. For example, I can remember a couple of years ago meeting a really well made-up transwoman, her hair, her clothes, even her speech were all perfect and would not have given her away. What gave her away was her walk. It simply was not a female walk in any way. Talking to her she was at a complete loss as to why she was constantly being "read" as trans. Just the one element, the lolloping gait like that of a builder, was enough for people to attribute "male" to her as opposed to female, which they probably would not have done if they had only ever seen her sitting down.

I met a trans man at a conference recently and he described how he cut his hair short, wore a loose-fitting shirt with a tight sports bra underneath, men's trousers and a tie and was always considered male, despite not having a deep voice, a beard or many other male signifers, in fact he was even quite short with very small feet. He simply did not have to worry about some aspects, a few signifiers were enough, he did not need them all. Unfortunately for transwomen, we need to make sure no male signifiers are present at all before Joe Public will consider us female.

Now, of course, you may say "What has Joe Public got to do with this?" Well, it would be fine if transwomen could get away with being kind of androgynous and get by with some male signifiers remaining, but this would mean constantly being read as male and also probably constantly being under threat of abuse, assault or worse. So the safest thing by far for transwomen is to aim to pass as comprehensively as possible.

Obviously this means plenty of female signifiers and a complete absence of male ones, but this may be where some transwomen, especially in the early stages of coming out, go wrong. This is where Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and others get their stereotype tranny. The over-use of blue eyeshadow, garish lipstick, towering heels, party clothes when out shopping, of course has the opposite effect. It is also true that these transwomen are generally the only type of transwomen to be read. As such Bindel, Greer, etc. will notice these people, and think all transwomen are like that, when in actual fact they will have passed 20 other transwomen who pass completely, without noticing them.

Fortunately this stereotype is generally becoming much rarer and will almost certainly die out as transwomen become better informed about issues of appearance.

Why is this changing? The internet. There is strong evidence that the internet is helping more trans people to come out and to do so better and with the advice of others in their community. In fact it has been a very long time since I have seen any transwoman with blue eyeshadow let alone 5" stillettos, accoutriments which seem to belong firmly in the wardrobes of Drag Queens or teenage girls.