Sunday, 12 December 2010

Police Violence - Targetting Women

As readers of UnCommon Sense will know, it is not uncommon for me to disagree with Julie Bindel. However on this occasion my slight disagreement with Julie is of a slightly different nature and probably not something she would disagree with herself. Julie, reporting from Parliament Square tweeted this and a few similar tweets;

"Support the students and hate the gov but a minority of nasty violent macho tossers down here, and not just the police for once".

Her take on the demo being that it was about macho twats on both sides of the police lines, intent on letting their testosterone take over. I can see her point, I haven't been to a demonstration yet where someone hasn't had testosterone problems, but I think it actually represents something rather more sinister than that; targetted violence against women.

OK so I have to admit that I arrived a bit late at the demo (because I couldn't get out of work that day), and my take on it as such may be a bit different. As I arrived, I noticed that the majority of people walking away from it with bloody heads were women and girls. This video, posted to show that the police officer fell off his horse rather than was dragged off it (as Cameron wanted us to think) actually shows, in the background, two women being beaten over the head by a policeman with a truncheon. These women were obviously not threatening anyone, yet they were targetted by a burly male police officer. This report from a girl from Barnsley clearly shows that police officers were engaged in deliberate targetting of women demonstrators, despite them being no threat to the officers involved in committing these crimes. The excellent reports from Laurie Penny have also shown how women and girls are deliberately targetted in unprovoked attacks;

"Fighting for breath, I am shoved roughly through the line by two police officers; twisting my neck, I see a young woman in a white bobble hat pinned between the shields and the crowd, screaming as the batons come down on her head once, twice, and her spectacles are wrenched from her face" (New Statesman 10 Dec 2010).

In the previous demonstration it is clear that Tahameena Bax was targetted by police and injured as policemen hit her over the head with battons. Tahameena is still nowhere near a full recovery. I could continue with many other reports of police violence against women.

What seems to be happening here is a deliberate policy (on the part of the Met - probably from the government) to target women in order to discourage women from coming along to these demonstrations and as such to reduce their numbers and eventually make them appear to be just the work of a small minority of hard-core anarchists and the moronic and macho Socialist Wankers Party.

There needs to be a full enquiry into the violence of male police officers attacking women and girls in these demonstrations, on top of the deliberately political police tactics of kettling demonstrators unnecessarily for very long periods after a demo has finished. Everyone has the right, and indeed the duty, to demonstrate. If the government is using the police to deliberately target female demonstrators in order to discourage them from demonstrating then they are actively discriminating against one group of people.

In my opinion there is clearly a deliberate targetting of girls and women by the police (obviously not to the exclusion of men and boys). There have been too many examples and reports for this pattern to be ignored. Whether it is the result of a deliberate policy of trying to discourage anyone female from protesting, or the result of something more sinister; a group of male police officers who are out of control and wish to indulge their dark, psychiatric fanatsies of misogynistic violence against women is a matter of debate. So whilst Julie may have a point, to an extent, that there was a lot of macho posturing there, it seems to me that there is more to it than that.

I suspect that not only will Lynne Featherstone not be interested in this aspect of equal opportunities but that the tactic of targetted violence will backfire and women and girls will be more determined to demonstrate to get rid of this appalling government. If the Met/Cameron thinks this sort of thing is going to make women cowed and frightened and stay at home, I believe they/he is very mistaken.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The T-word, contested meanings and cultural imperialism

The erzatz furore over the use of the word “Tranny” by a well-known transwoman has been erupted in an unacceptable way, to my mind. Considering the rather dubious basis for some of the accusations and assertions it is worth considering some of the things those who criticise first and think later (or not at all) didn’t think about.

A hundred years ago, Ferdinand de Saussure made the, actually rather sensible and now apparently quite obvious observation that in language, the relationship between signifier and signified is purely arbitrary. In other words there is no link between the word itself and the object or concept which it represents. There is nothing in the word “tree” which can tell you that it signifies something brownish with a trunk, branches and leaves. The only reason that it does signify a tree is because enough people (ie. those who speak English) agree that it does.

In other words, language and words have meanings which are negotiated and contingent. Of course some words are more negotiated than others but all are contingent to some extent on the way people agree to use them. Of course not all people agree all the time about every word.

Pierre Bourdieu however noted how some language is more privileged than others, and how the power structures and hegemonies of society are brought to bear through language. Language does not inherently have any power, we cannot ascribe agency to something inanimate such as language. Power is exercised by people, through language and it is also the sublties such as tone of voice and body language which affect its meaning. This fits in with Saussure’s view of language and suggests that society exerts power through privileging certain forms of language over others. “He” for example is normally privileged over “she” reflecting the sexist and misogynistic power structures within society.

Gunther Kress however, went a stage further in his analysis of language and noted how linguistic communication is in fact entirely social, and is contingent on a complex relationship between the subject matter, the speaker (or writer), the listener (or reader), and the context. In other words, you cannot separate any utterance from the relationship between the signifier, signified, the communicator, communicatee and the context in which this is all happening. When other variables are factored in, such as the degree of disagreement about the word or words in question, it becomes clear that there are going to be no hard-and-fast rules about the use of any particular element of language which are not contingent on the person communicating, the people being addressed, the situation in which the communication is taking place and indeed the media in which it is being expressed.

As such the use of a word such as “tranny”, the meaning and usage of which is still highly contested, will be difficult to predict in terms of making judgements about its appropriateness or otherwise. Of course in the case of a word like “he”, which is almost completely uncontested in terms of its meaning and usage, it will be much easier to predict and make judgements about the appropriateness of its usage.

To illustrate this, transgender people consider the usage of the word “Tranny” inappropriate in cisgender media. However even here there are going to be exceptions when cisgender media are discussing the appropriateness of its usage, when they are quoting from transphobic hate-criminals or when reporting hate crime or examples of transphobic discrimination. However as a recent survey has shown, there is no evidence whatsoever of any feeling in the trans community that it is wrong for trans people to use this word. As such there is no problem, for most trans people, for a transwoman performing drag calling herself “Tranny”. In the case of Mzz Kimberley’s performances at Transgender Days of Remembrance in London, the additional contextual locating of the performance, that of lifting the mood after a particularly difficult reading of the names of 179 trans people who had been murdered during the year, meant her performance enabled the participants to get over the depressing and sad mood, to help people to regain some kind of optimism to enable them to face the future. As such it was particularly appropriate. Of course one participant (out of about 100) disagreed and made an accusation of transphobia about this, although this is all the more puzzling considering the fact that she didn’t complain a year ago, when the same song was performed for TDoR.

In contrast the use of “he” by Planet Transgender to describe Mzz Kimberly, who clearly identifies as female in her everyday life as well as her performances, is easy to come to a judgement on. It is clearly unacceptable and represents deliberate transphobia. One doesn’t need a survey to know that misgendering is one of the areas in which transgender people and their supporters almost unanimously agree is unacceptable whether it is done by cisgender media or by trans people.

The fact is that, like most words in the English language, or indeed any language, the meaning, implicit or explicit, and connotations of the word “tranny” is always going to vary according to context, subject and person using the word. If I say, “There’s going to be a war” and David Cameron says “There’s going to be a war” the meaning will be completely different. If David Cameron said it in the context of a drink with his friends down the pub or on the steps of 10 Downing Street, it would also have different meanings. To ignore these multiple textual, contextual and social elements to any utterance is to ignore the most important elements of that utterance in terms of its meaning, relevance and importance.

One of the contextual and social elements which people use to judge the importance of any particular utterance on the internet, and especially in the blogosphere, is the extent to which a blogger is willing to permit people to respond and contribute to the discussion and ideas raised in the blog itself. Obviously bloggers who disable comments or who “moderate” large numbers of comments such that many do not appear, should be taken far less seriously than those who are prepared to permit others to respond. Indeed bloggers who do so devalue their ideas by about 99%. By doing so these people are effectively communicating to us that they are not confident enough of what they say to be able to argue it with others. Indeed so many people I know tried to respond to Planet Transgender’s blog that I got several people actually complain to me about it down the pub…

Another variable in this situation is of course, culture. Most people seem to make the mistake of assuming that British and American cultures are very similar because we speak the same language. This is well wide of the mark. British culture has much more in common with those of our north-west European neighbours than it does with that of the United States. One of the features of this is humour and lightening the mood. The best way to illustrate this is ITMA. ITMA, or “It’s That Man Again” was one of the most famous radio programmes of all time, although it is little heard of today. During the dark days of the blitz in 1940-41, when London effectively suffered a 9/11 every day for 9 months, people all over Europe risked their lives to tune in to the BBC to hear news from the free world. Most were surprised, if they tuned in when ITMA was being broadcast, to hear laughter, lots of laughter. In the face of the most brutal and destructive attack on our country in history people were listening to comedy on the radio and laughing.

Different peoples deal with death and horror in different ways. In Britain we tend towards feeling intense pain but then lightening the mood so that we can get on with everything and fight to live another day. TDoR could easily make some people depressed and inaction and resignation can often come from this. Mzz Kimberly’s performance, in the context of our national cultural heritage, was not merely appropriate, it was magical.

At London TDoR I was honoured by being invited to be one of the five people to speak the names of our fallen brothers and sisters. Despite reading out the names and ages of two 16-year-olds and a 16 month old, I pretty much held my British stiff upper lip and did so without too many tears. I allowed myself to weep quietly in my seat afterwards while CN Lester amazingly performed the unenviable task of following the silence with a piece on the piano. While he was doing this I had time, through my tears, to reflect on the list which I still held in my hand. I realised that there were a lot of places where there were no names of dead trans people. The whole of Africa, Russia, China, Eastern Europe and Mongolia. Apart from Turkey and Pakistan there were none from the middle East.

I refuse to believe for one moment that there were no murders of trans people in Damascus, Baghdad, Novosibirsk, Ulan Bator, Guangzhou, Lagos, Volgograd, Harare, Riga, Cairo, Cape Town, Casablanca or any of the smaller towns an villages in isolated places in these teeming and highly populated nations. The names we read out on the TDoR were clearly just the tip of the iceberg. The real number of trans people who have been murdered last year is probably many times the 179 we read out. In many cases their deaths will never be recorded because they were carried out either by or with the connivance of the states they lived in, or by oppressive religious authorities. This is the real issue, there could be as many as 1,000 of us murdered every year, with countless more driven to suicide. This is what should be uniting us in a determination to fight, rather than throwing stones at others in our community and then running away…

Friday, 5 November 2010

Faceless money-men in Stockholm

The government has been keen to portray local education authorities as monolithic bureauracies which are remote from the communities they serve, when in actual fact they are elected by the local communities they serve and have offices usually only a few miles from the schools they run.

So how does it feel that your local school, say one in Hampton, for example, is no longer run by a locally elected bureaucracy in Kingston, down the road, but from Stockholm? That's right, some schools in South-West London will soon be run from Stockholm, and by unelected faceless money-men whose main motivation for being in education is to make money. The government's so-called "free" schools programme, will now force schools, even those schools that are deemed satisfactory, to be converted to academies which will be run by large multinational corporations, one of which will be Kunskapsskolan, based in Sweden.

The last Tory government started off the 'academies' programme with highly undemocratic "one-way street" elections, in which parents of children at the school could vote to take their school out of local democratic control. The take-up of this was very small and few opted out of local democratic control. The academies programme has since become less and less democratic. Presumably this is because the local parents have refused to vite in the right way. Now there is no vote, now schools can be forced to bcome academies by diktat from the education secretary Michael Gove. No consultation will be required. Effectively Gove can privatise any school against the wishes of the parents and the local community. Power will be taken away and placed in the hands of the money men of Stockholm.

Obviously this is just an excuse for the government to centralise control of all schools in the hands of a small number of unelected private-sector companies, many of whom are based in other countries.

So much for the Tories' claim to be giving power back to the people. The Tories education policies represent the imposition of centrally-determined policies on each school, in this case from another country. This monolithic, one-size-fits-all regimented approach which is part and parcel of these large multinational companies' educational business will make every school the same, every school operating with the same policies as the one down the road, or in Sweden. The regimenting tendencies of unrestrained capitalism are being unleashed on our children. Lots of square pegs will be forced into round holes.

Who will run your local school?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

How the budget discriminates against young trans people.

Sometimes measures which are applied to everyone in the same way have a disproportionate affect on some groups of people. The new rule that all single people under 35 will not get housing benefit for a flat of their own looks as though it is equitable because it will affect everyone under 35 in the same way.

Not so. What if you are a trans person under 35 who is questioning their gender, who is unsure of their gender identity or knows they are trans but can't come out for fear of repercussions at work or with their parents? What if you are forced to share accommodation with other people? Suddenly that difficult process of coming out and figuring out your gender identity becomes much more fraught. suddenly you may find that the bullying and harrassment you get in the street, at college or at work comes home and you get hassle there as well. Effectively it forces you to come out to people who are essentially not your own group of friends.

This is goiung to hit transgender and gender variant young people very hard, to the extent that many will either continue to conceal their gender identities or be forced out of their homes by transphobic bullying. Young trans people are already a group with a high risk of poverty, unemployment and homelessness, this is just going to exacerbate the situation. This is one of the horrible measures which Cameron has announced, that will hit trans people hardest.

so what can people do? The first thing is to write to your MP. The second thing is to put a comment on Lynne Featherstone's blog about trans equality. Lynne Featherstone is Lib Dem minister for equality and a keen supporter of trans issues. Now is the time to ask her to put her money where her mouth is. We need to ask her, for the sake of all minority groups, to campaign against this measure in government, and if that fails at least to permit transgender people under 35 to obtain housing benefit for small flats on their own. To do otherwise is going to hit these people very hard and possibly even lead to more deaths from suicide. This is something there is already too much of.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Women in government - so what about transmen/women?

Harriet Harman is widely credited with the success of getting 8 women into the shadow cabinet and this is considered a major achievement, despite the fact that there are now fewer women MPs in parliament, because Labour women MPs were repleced by Tory "Cameron Clone" males at the last election. Not mine, incidentally, just 42 votes kept Glenda Jackson as MP instead of some George Osborne (ie. posh but dim) lookalike.

The government in Spain is the first one to have more women in the cabinet than men. Hilary Clinton represents a very powerful women as US foreign secretary. Iceland, Germany and many other countries have women leaders. The UK, Israel, Pakistan, Oz, Bangladesh, and many other countries have had women leaders in the past.

So far so much progress for gender equality in some (but not all) parts of the world.

So how come this gender equality has not extended to people who do not fit easily into the categories "male" and "female"? Where are our transgender politicians?

OK so Italy had a transgender MP for a while; the wonderful Valdimir Luxuria, as did the Kiwis, and there are elected transgender politicians in Hawaii and New Zealand. But that total does not represent very many compared to the numbers of transgender people there are on this planet. The UK actually elected its first transgender politician back in May; Sarah Brown was elected as a Lib Dem councilor in Cambridge. (The former mayor of Cambridge was also a transwoman but she was not known as a transwoman before she was elected, only choosing to out herself after the threat of being outed by the gutter press).

If we accept one of the lowest estimates of the number of transgender people in the UK at 1% and if there are 600+ MPs and 785 MEPs in the EU as a whole, there should be at least 6 transgender MPs and 8 transgender MEPs. Instead we have to settle for one Lib Dem councillor.

As is often the case, "diversity and equality" are simply never applied to transgender people. Even Sarah's heartfelt speech about transgender marriage equality at Lib Dem conference this Autumn was not broadcast, I suspect because they did not want to portray themselves as a party of "freaks" which might put off "mainstream" voters. Well it is about time parties started to be more inclusive. If "mainstream" voters are put off by the sight of transgender people standing for election, then it is up to the parties to educate the public and argue against the insidious propaganda of the Daily Mail and associated hate-mongers.

I have always believed in transgender people speaking for themselves as trans people. That is the ultimate performative act of being transgender. Yet unless those who purport to support our existence as human beings of transgender experience in their parties need to show that support by permitting transgender people to stand as candidates for the major political parties in elections where they have more power at national and European level.

Monday, 4 October 2010

No Safe Spaces for Transgender People

Those who think that transgender people have, at least in Western Europe, are safe from transphobic hate-crime, need to rethink their view of the world. Even those places which one would consider most safe are not necessarily as safe as we may have thought. From the ignorant feminist minority insisting that we be "mandated out of existence" to religious zealots and fascists, the presence and expression of these objectionable idologies clearly results in increased hate crime...


The third Transgender Europe (TGEU) Conference in Malmo, Sweden, was a resounding success and enabled transgender activists and campaigners from around Europe and beyond to share ideas and campaign strategies to help make their campaigning more effective and better coordinated. It was, however, not without incident. One of the reasons the conference had been convened in Malmo (other than because of the excellent local knowledge of Maria Sundin which enabled TGEU to use the conference facilities of the University and to have a civic reception in the city hall), was the feeling that Sweden is a civilised and safe place for transgender people.


This turned out possibly to be a false assumption to make.


At least one of the two transphobic (and possibly also racist) attacks on two Turkish delegates outside a restaurant in Bergsgatan was premeditated. After shouting insults at these two transwomen as they went in, the group of 6-7 male attackers were waiting for them when they came out. They were violently assaulted and pelted with eggs. During the attack the women called out to a male passer-by to call the police, he refused to do so. Eventually two young women called the police, who arrived 30 minutes later. The women were treated in hospital and released. However this was far from the end of their ordeal.


When questioned by the police about the incident they were subjected to a host of degrading and embarrassing questions, including questions about what they were wearing and questions in which they were deliberately misgendered. They were also, rather threateningly, asked questions about their visa status. Questions which would not have been asked to a white victim.


This was relevant to what happened to these two women next. The following day, a Friday, they were enjoying themselves in The Crown nightclub in Amiralsgatan, the entry fee to which they had paid. At one point a male clubber slapped one of the women in the face. Rather than retaliate, these women complained to the staff, expecting, as would you or I, that the assailant would at very least be cautioned or ejected. Instead, astonishingly, the two women were thrown out!


Of course, following their previous ordeal with the police they did not want to report this, and so left feeling extremely unhappy. Of course TGEU has protested very strongly and the equality ombudsman, who was at the conference became involved, and another national equality and diversity worker came straight to Malmo from Stockholm to investigate the incident, even though it was the weekend. TGEU has rightly demanded a full investigation into these incidents and that the transphobic/racist police officers be at least disciplined. The leader of Malmo City Council has personally apologised for these outrages, despite the fact that he does not have any control over the police, saying that all peoples deserve respect as a minimum.


The vast majority of us were treated with that respect by everyone we encountered in Malmo although there were incidents of transphobic abuse suffered by some other, delegates. This contrasted with the particularly courteous treatment I received at a transgender conference in November 2009 in the small industrial town of Linkoping, about 70 miles out of Stockholm. Here, there were no transphobic incidents at all and one got the feeling that Sweden really did live up to its billing of being a tolerant and accepting liberal country.


So what has changed? The location? Obviously the City of Malmo is not like the town of Linkoping, but seems to be a much more sophisticated place with its own queer subculture. So I would discount the effect of differing geographical location as the main factor in the different experiences of transgender people, although others may argue that it is a factor.


No, the main other reason for the difference between our two experiences was time. The conference in Malmo happened after the election of a number of Nazi MPs in the Swedish general election a few weeks ago. The Nazi Party, calling itself the SD, is an openly racist party. And we all know that, where racism exists so do other forms of bigotry.


In my opinion the atmosphere in Sweden had changed tangibly since the last Autumn. It felt as if, now that representatives of a hate-party had been elected, those who would otherwise have thought twice about expressing antisocial opinions, now felt free to do so. The restrictions of social convention and the fear of criticism for being a bigot/Nazi/total wanker had been lifted. The haters seem to feel that they could come out of the woodwork, the social atmosphere has changed and they feel able to express the pathetic, immature hatred in their selfish, evil and ignorant hearts as though it were socially acceptable.


Their perception that the election of fascist MPs renders socially acceptable the emptiness and ignorant egotism of the arrogant, confused and childish chaos which represents the personalities of these sad people. This is what happens when far-right parties get votes.


The reaction from the queer community in Malmo was swift however and the evening after the incident in the Crown, 200 people demonstrated outside the club at the time when most of their customers would have been going in. The nightclub would have lost a substantial proportion of its revenue for that evening and they received a good deal of publicity for their attitude in the local newspaper.


This is a reality check for people who think that everything is hunky-dory and that trans people no longer suffer from discrimination, as has been shown again recently; transgender people are still being murdered at an alarming rate. It would appear that one of the factors affecting whether or not transphobia raises its ugly head is likely to be the presence of political or religious or other organisations which serve to legitimize the kind of across-the-board bigoted attitudes against anyone who is different. It is the presence of Nazis in the shape of the SD which has made at least some people feel that it is now socially acceptable to indulge in bigoted behaviour and hate-crime. As such countering these peddlers of hate, wherever and however they manifest themselves, is an essential precondition for improving conditions of transgender people.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Cisgender male PANIC!

The arrest and imprisonment of apparent transman Lee Brooks in Scotland represents a desperate panic situation for cisgender males. The crisis goes right to the heart of cis male identity and threatens to undermine their worldviews, their own perceptions of manhood and selfhood. Lee Brooks is in jail because what Lee has done represents such a profound threat to the very core of cisgender males' identities as men, that, despite the fact that it appears that Lee has almost certainly done nothing wrong or harmed anyone, this person will be severely punished for threatening to undermine male selfhood in such a profound way.

It is alleged that Lee lied to a number of women to the effect that they believed they were going to have sex with a man. The panic for men's very self image comes from the fact that at least one of these women must have been quite satisfied with this sex, since she was in a relationship with Lee for six years. The threat to men comes from the fact that a man without a penis can satisfy a woman, that a self-defining heterosexual woman can be happy in a relationship with such a person. Of course this is nothing new, musician Billy Tipton lived his life as a man, including being married to an apparently heterosexual woman. It was only discovered that he had been assigned female gender at birth when he died. He died of a very curable illness, because he was afraid to go to a doctor because he was terrified that he would be jailed if it was discovered that he did not have a penis. People have often reacted to this to the effect that it is almost unbelievable that he might think this, and that nowadays this would not be a problem. Maybe the case in Scotland demonstrates that he was right.

The important implication to draw from the cases of Billy Tipton and Lee Brooks, is that a man does not have to have a penis in order to maintain an extended sexual relationship with a women. Yet this is the one possibility which the male hegemonic culture must, from its own point of view, suppress at all costs. Men's identities are totally bound up with the fact that they posess a penis. The Freudian assumptions in this regard have become part of masculine culture to the extent that the phallus has become the core of male identity such that that male selfhood is almost entirely dependent on this. The idea that such an appendage can be irrelevant to maintaining a heterosexual relatinship with a woman is almost certainly privately terrifying to many people born with penises. This is why Carrie Paechter observed, in relation to transgender people, that the masculine gender is more heavily policed than the feminine gender. Men have much more to fear, and much more to loose, and their identities are much more fragile and more easily undermined.

However this also represents a potential cultural (as opposed to sexual or psychological) identities of the women who sleep with these transmen. This is almost certainly the reason why there has been a complaint made to the police after such a long time in a relationship. The Foucauldian idea of different sexual orientations developing into personal identities through the establishment of the categories of 'homosexual' and 'lesbian' means that women who percieve themselves as heterosexual and engage in this type of relationship are likely to feel the need to disown their involvement with someone like Lee because they do not want to be seen socially as lesbians. Indeed this entire trial and the reason why Lee is in jail now may well not be because of any wrongdoing but because of the crisis of identity of these women. It is likely that these women have gone to the law in order to establish their own identities as heterosexual women rather than because of any damage their involvement with Lee has caused them.

Of course there could be other sides to this story, we still have very little information however it seems that sam is likely to be severely punished, not for any sexual wrongdoing but because of the threat Lee represents to heterosexual, cisgender identities, particularly heterosexual cisgender male identities. Cis-masculine identities are too fragile to allow this challenge to go unpunished.

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Tory version of the past and its threat to our children’s future

History should no longer involve the robotic learning of facts and propaganda, the crucial 21st century skills of critical analysis and evaluation of information have made it far too important for that.

As one of their priorities for education, the government has appointed a right-wing historian to impose its new History curriculum. This comes hard on the heels of the biggest centralisation of the education system since Margaret Thatcher ordered the original monolithic National Curriculum, SATs and Ofsted system back in the 1980s. However this new curriculum for History is all the more worrying, not merely because it gives lie to the Tories headline claim to be a party dedicated to reducing state dominance, but because it seriously threatens the present and the future of our children.

One of the most crucial 21st century skills, identified by many think-tanks, business and employers’ organisations, as well as universities, is the ability to search for, critically analyse, evaluate, and process information. Indeed this is probably the most vital generic skills children will need after literacy and numeracy. The relationship between information and the individual has changed entirely since 1990. The spread of the internet, the creation of Web 2.0 and information tagging has resulted in so much information becoming available to everyone in such an unstructured way that the skills of finding precisely what you need have now become much more complex than when most of us were at school. Not only that, but the levels of usefulness, trustworthiness, bias and reliability of the information available online is extremely varied, ranging from the genuinely enlightening and useful to the wildly inaccurate and dangerous. Since anyone can publish anything online the need today is for children to become their own editors-in-chief.

Children need not only to develop skills in locating information but also in assessing its relevance and bias and evaluating its reliability. These skills are the skills which will make a huge and tangible difference to most children’s lives in the 21st century, not only making them safer online while they are young but enabling them to become more effective in their adult working and social lives. It will be vital to provide them with the skills to be adaptable and flexible lifelong learners as the single, predictable, linear career for life becomes a thing of the past.

Yet studies of children’s information-seeking skills show that little has changed since the before the internet. Study after study has shown that children do not possess basic skills in finding, evaluating and using information whatever its source. For instance a study in 1991 demonstrated this by analysing high-school pupils’ interactions with historical evidence. Not only did they rate information as either biased or not biased, but they couldn’t identify sources as a means of assessing the nature of the information and then failed to make meaningful use of it. Further studies since then have shown that little has changed in this area despite the spread of the internet.

However, there is one subject on the curriculum that can prepare children for the information environment of the present and the future. Paradoxically that subject is History. Teaching children to find, evaluate, question and use historical sources, especially primary sources; the core skills of the historian, are the same skills children will need when locating, assessing and querying information online. Indeed, History presents teachers with a safe offline way to teach these skills.

Which is why the prospect of a right-wing historian dictating what children should and should not learn in History is against the interests of our children. By selecting such a figure to prescribe the curriculum, the government apparently wants History lessons to become some sort of stale exercise in rote-learning their version of the past rather than an active and engaging exercise, as it truly should be, in critical analysis and argument.

The coming of the internet has meant that History needs to take on a level of importance way beyond what it used to have 20 years ago. The skills of locating, critically evaluating and using information will be crucial for the future business, educational and social life of the generation currently in our schools. Of course, a party relying for its power on a selective and biased media which, for example, wants people to believe it will decentralise power, increase democratic participation and strengthen individual freedoms will not want a population able to engage in critical analysis and evaluation of what they are told. Despite it becoming an increasingly important skill in the globalised internet age, the last thing the Tories want your kids to be able to do is think for themselves.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Cameron. In the Shit. Already.

The sight of the Daily Mail already having a go at Ed Miliband's family (less that 12 hours after he was elected leader of the Labour party) suggests that the apparently serene blank windows of the right-wing establishment hide a greater insecurity than at any time since it became clear that Cameron was not going to win the general election. Yes, if you listen carefully outside Conservative Central Office and the citadels of the gutter press, you can hear the sound of soft furnishings being munched already. Apart from the boost this is going to give to Allied Carpets and other such retailers the reaction of this hard rightwing government to Miliband's election is already to be the passing of enough substantial turds to be used to fix the housing crisis.

Miliband's initial task will be to dispel the expected wave of crap from the Tory establishment that he is (yawn) "in the pocket of the unions", "Red Ed" and all those things. I suspect however that he also needs to come up with a decent left-of-centre narrative which is not just like what Laurie Penny described in her excellent article about the anti-Pope demo, an anti-everything movement which is also being drawn into the Tory discourse about cuts. Whilst he clearly realises that he cannot credibly position himself as being in opposition to all cuts, he needs to move more solidly towards a position in which investment and growth take the place of cuts.

This should not be difficult. The contrast between Ireland, which has already disastrously put in place the sort of cuts that Cameron is intending, and Spain, where public investment has already halved their deficit without creating large-scale unemployment, could not be more marked. Of course the Tory-controlled media and the sycophantic BBC have conveniently ignored these examples of the two divergent policies offered by the Tories and Labour. If anyone ever needed any more evidence that the Tory establishment's cuts were ideological rather than necessary this is it. One economist even stated yesterday that these represent almost laboratory-condition examples of how to get out of a recession and how not to get out of a recession.

In truth the Tories' lies and duplicity are already being exposed and when their cuts start to bite, throwing millions out of work or unnecessarily into poverty, they now know that there is an effective opposition ready to point the finger of blame and make them suffer electorally. Up to now Cameron has had it easy. Gordon Brown's inability to communicate was all his Christmasses come at once, and the opportunity to hide behind a man with a yellow tie (what was his name again?) as he makes the cuts enabled him to turn electoral defeat into a victory of sorts for his loony rightwing economic agenda. Since the election, the only hits Labour has landed on the Tories have been Ed Ball's attacks on Michael Gove's insane education policies which, of course represent a sitting duck for any politician worth their salary. Now the game has changed; Ed Miliband is the sort of politician with the media communicative ability to make Cameron's stage-managed informality look like the fake, insincere PR veneer that it is. The Labour leadership has also realised that there is no point in going for the LibDems, they are already a spent force that is likely to descend into infighting and disarray as their support collapses. No. Just as the solids of Tory economic incompetence hit the airconditioning, just as everyone (except the very rich) becomes less secure, less prosperous and less likely to continue to support Cameron's Cuts, Labour finds its voice again. Building a coherent alternative to the government's economic madness shouldn't be too difficult, and attacking their "achievements" will get easier by the day.

Time to look forward with some optimism. We just have to hope that we are not all too far up shit creek without a paddle by the time a sensible government can be elected.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Redrawing the Boundaries of the State

A number of things have happened recently which make it clear that "The State" is not what some people would like it to be. The most important of these is the New York Times revelations about the Prime Minister David Cameron's Media Advisor, Andy Coulson's alleged lawbreaking in respect of breaching the civil liberties of a large number of people. The NY Times allegations are serious and the UK public needs to know about them. Alas, unless they read the Guardian, they are extremely unlikely to find out about them.

Strangely though, on the day this story broke in New York a scandal about another minister in the government broke. He was accused of doing something neither unlawful nor immoral; being gay. Whether he is or not does not actually matter, the fact is that this story was very conveniently planted just at the right time to cover and distract from any possible whiff of a much more serious scandal, which does involve not merely doing something illegal and immoral, but something, namely breaching people's civil liberties and human rights, which the alleged perpetrator's employer, the Prime Minister used as a campaign tool during the general election.

Yet the silence from the media has been deafening. The allegation that someone this close to the government has been illegally tapping people's phones, something that even the security services can only do with difficulty and legal constraints, is not considered newsworthy by;

  • The BBC
  • ITN
  • Channel 4 News
  • The Independent
  • The Murdoch Press
  • Sky News
  • The Right-wing press incl. the Daily Mail and similar
  • Most political bloggers, including Guido Fawkes
  • The Daily Torygraph
OK so the fact that the right-wing press and the Murdoch press has censored this story is not surprising, but the fact that the others have also, especially the BBC, is worrying.

It is this censorship which gives greatest rise to concern. This is the sort of thing which should happen only in dictatorships. Stories about the government which are inconvenient for it are regularly censored in places like North Korea, Burma and China. So this begs the question about the mechanism behind how this functions in the UK. The only answer can be, is that since these media organisations now fulfil the same role which they do in these dictatorships, it too has to be considered an arm of the state.

Actually it has always seemed obvious to me that teachers, doctors, nurses, lecturers, librarians, home helps, classroom assistants etc. despite being paid from the public purse, are not arms of the state. They do not represent the state or the government while doing their jobs, in the way civil servants, the army or the police do. However it is clear that the censorship of this important story reveals how the majority of the media have effectively become part of the state apparatus in the UK even to the extent of pushing a cover-up distraction non-story (William Hague) to help bury it.

The normal distinction between state and non-state has, in the past been too simplistic anyway; "If you are paid by the public purse you are part of the state apparatus, if not you are not." Rubbish. The truth is that the private sector has, for a very long time, been taking on functions of the state, particularly the media. Perhaps it is better to use the word 'establishment'. The Establishment in the UK has always been those organisations in whom power is vested. This clearly includes the City, large private sector companies, the media and some very rich individuals. When the government is Conservative, the rest of the establishment works with it, when the government is Labour the rest of the establishment works against it.

It is time we regard this establishment as effectively representing arms of the real state. These are the sites of real power, these are the organisations which make the decisions that affect everyone's lives. This power base is all the more powerful because it is able to portray itself as seperate from the state and not part of it when it really is. It also has the power to position others who exercise no state power functions as being part of "the state".

However, this censorship of the Coulson scandal is appalling and, even more than the alleged act of phone-tapping, is something people should be much more concerned about. That the media is controlled to such an extent by rightwing billionnaires is the greatest threat to our freedom, civil and human rights.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Toilet Debate - a historical deconstruction

It is funny how the issue of toilets rears its ugly head from time to time, especially when cisgender males are concerned, and especially with reference to transgender women using the ladies. This seems to be something which worries them overwhelmingly, yet it appears to be much less of an issue for cisgender women. Speculating as to the reason for this one could potentially think of;

  • envy, these guys would like to get into the ladies themselves.
  • Carrie Paechter's concept of the masculine gender being policed more strictly (both going in and going out) than the feminine one.
  • The old-fashioned sexist idea that these guys have to be protective of "their" women against people they perceive as men.
However I believe the reason is much more simple than that and is related to power. If you take a walk through St Ann's Square in Manchester there is an interesting historical relic which gives us a clue. A very old, early Victorian, public toilet. It is now disused and they have put an electric substation down there or something like that. But notice how I said 'toilet' in the singular. There was only one of them. For men. You can see this repeated if you go into some very old pubs like The Ship in Wardour Street London; there was originally only space for one toilet and they have had to make space for two giving the back of the pub a rather cramped feel.

During much of the Victorian period public toilets existed only for men and there was a reason for this; to control women. Public toilets allow people to stay out, away from their home, for long periods. This meant that men were able to travel, to work, to do business, to engage in political and civil activity in ways which women were not. Women were effectively only able to do the shopping and go home again, they could not spend long periods away from the home. Indeed not having women's public conveniences became so 'normal' that women attending Ladies Day at Royal Ascot would not wear any underwear because they would need to 'go' in a corner of a field behind a hedge.

This represents the situation today for transgender people; not being able to use a public toilet represents a restriction on one's civil liberties. The fact that men are the ones most concerned about this issue strongly suggests that it is a power issue rather than an issue of public safety for women; men, most of whom are termed 'gender defenders' by Kate Bornstein, would like to see transgender people's restrictions on taking part in civil and public life restricted by subtle means since they cannot argue for restrictions on transgender people's civil rights in other ways.

Toilets may seem a relatively trivial issue, but it is an important issue of civil liberty and human rights; the right to take part in civil and economic life depends on being able to spend long periods of time away from home during the day which in turn depends on easy access to public conveniences in the same way that cisgender people have.

Despite transgender people's run-ins with some feminists in the past, I believe trans people have a lot to learn from feminism, in particular that pretty much anything gendered has a power element to it as well and that male hegemony wants to force its way into the most unlikely places, including, in this case, the ladies.


Friday, 27 August 2010

What causes trans people?

Silly question I hear you say. "Sexual intercourse between your mum and your dad of course!" comes the reply. OK but why are some people trans and some not? There have been all sorts of theories including something in our childhood, too much estrogen/testosterone in your mum's tummy, environmental pollution etc...

There are even scientists beavering away trying to solve such problems; coming up with ideas such as androgen receptors, brain stems, even DNA. The trouble is, what is known as "publication bias"; the fact that if a study produces no link between something and being trans then it is unlikely to be published, makes the small number of studies which are published (and usually subesquently discredited) seem less noteworthy.


However, there is a much more plausible and simpler explanation for the existence of transgender people, and it comes form the work of the Professor of Biology at Stanford University, Joan Rougharden. Her detailed analysis of nature and the way most of the animal kingdom and almost all of the plant life on this planet do not fit the pattern of fixed, stable sex categories or gender identities suggests that our view of the world is not what it ought to be. In fact Roughgarden is seriously critical of biolgists from Darwin onwards, for the way they have presented social, sexual and gendered life within the animal kingdom. It is not by chance that animal social and gendered behaviour, if you look at Origin of Species, resembles that of middle-class southern England in the 1850s. The animal kingdom has been viewed through the lens of existing social expectations of gendered behaviour by biologists and zoologists for at least 150 years. It is this bias which has done such harm to our perceptions of ourselves as a species. The bigoted, the narrow-minded and the outright vicious have used biology to argue that cisgendered heterosexual monogamy is natural and as such should be considered 'normal' and anyone whose life does not fit this must be at best deviant, at worst criminal or evil.

The fact that these justifications for bigotry and hatred were based on a fiction is only now beginning to come out. Strangely, whenever a natural history programme, or school textbook wants to talk about our nearest relatives on the evolutionary chain, they refer to chimpanzees. The social life of chimpanzees is conveniently close to that which the rich and powerful in capitalist society would like our society to be. They are fiercely competitive to the point of being violent towards each other, very territorial, heterosexual and selfish, the perfect image for human societies such as the laissez-faire, 'liberal' unregulated capitalist ones would like to project as natural, and without alternative.

The problem is that, of course, chimpanzees are not solely our closest relatives, they are jointly closest along with the bonobos. You don't hear so much about bonobos do you? There's a reason for that: Bonobos live in sharing, cooperative, collaborative and peaceful communities, and not only that, they enjoy intense and varied sex lives, all of them being bisexual. This image does not suit the controllers of our society and as such we hear very little of them.

Similarly we hear very little about animals whose gender structures that differ from ours. The image of the coy female attracted to the biggest and most aggressive alpha male is a myth not borne out by reality. In some species there are multiple genders - such as one type of salmon which has three male genders and two female genders, and in some species the female in not coy she is aggressive, and in some she isn't interested in having a strong, handsome male as the father of her offspring, she wants a male who will help her care for them. In some species the male and female enjoy a family life lasting only 10 minutes, spending the rest of the time either in single-sex company or alone. The cis-het nuclear family suddenly doesn't appear so natural any more.

So what does all this have to do with gender identity? Well the answer is that what humans perceive as the binary gender system, has nothing to do with what is natural. The binary gender system is a social construct, like nationality or class. In fact humanity is naturally a very diverse species. In fact it would be bizzarre to assume that we were not much more diverse in every way compared to all other species on this Earth, after all, we posess larger brains than any other animal with the possible exception of dolphins, who of course do not posess the ability to communicate or create and use technology in the same way we do. As such it would be unreasonable to expect humans not to be extremely diverse, given that the animal kingdom is very diverse, especially from the point of view of gender identity and expression.

So, from my point of view, transgender people are not to be explained by theories of social depravation as young children, or by pre-natal occurences or hormone imbalences or other physical damage. We are transgender because being transgender is a natural element of humanity. There is no explanation for our existence which is not the same as any explanation for the existence of any other human being. We exist because the human race naturally has transgender people in it. There is nothing unnatural about being transgender, trans people, in that respect, are no different from anyone else.

What is unnatural however, is the gender binary system which most societies live by and which most of us expect to fit into, and which expects all 6 billion people on this planet to fit neatly into its two categories. It is this which is unnatural not us. It is time people woke up and realised this. Transgender is natural. Binary gender is not.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Citizen Gove

Recently there have been some reruns on TV of an old 1970s sitcom called "Citizen Smith". In it a deluded left-wing politico, leader of the "Tooting Popular Front" believes that the country (or at least Tooting) is waiting desperately to be led into a revolutionary left wing government. Of course the reverse happens and shortly after this the country, in its wisdom, elected a particularly nasty Tory government in the shape of Margaret Thatcher.

The ultimate deludinoid Citizen Smith has now been surpassed in the delusion stakes by Citizen Gove. The new Tory education secretary has become the most deluded man in history, comfortably surpassing Wolfie Smith in the delusion stakes.

That he has achieved this within only a couple of months (yes it has only been a couple of months!) of being in government, demonstrates quite how spectacularly out-of-touch this man is with reality. Out of 25,000 schools in the UK just 153 have actually applied for his "academy" status, the Tories' flagship education policy. That is well under 1% of schools.

Citizen Gove, almost certainly aided by his chums in the Daily Fail, The Torygraph, the Scum and the Daily Excess believed the propaganda they built up over years, indeed probably decades, by the right-wing media. This created an unquestioned consensus in the media that there were all these schools, teachers, heads, pupils and parents just waiting to have their local schools set free from the Kremlin-like control of the local councils which were deliberately ruining educational opportunities for children by...well...er...running the local schools...er... democratically.

This iron-fisted grip of...er...democratically elected...councils imposed their will...er...on schools on whose governing bodies the parents had a majority...

Parents were crying out, looking for leadership and turning towards the shining light of Michael Gove, the education secretary who would set them free, the exalted hero who would replace these ...er...democratically elected councils... and ...er... democtratically elected boards of governors with what the parents really want; the freedom for schools to go-it-alone, and do away with all this democratic hinderance as they are taken over by large private companies, religious zealots or run centrally by Government diktat. This is what parents wanted, this was the media consensus, this is what all right-minded people (especially journalists who tended to regurgitate official pronouncements on education without questioning their contents or wisdom) believed. More meddling in structures, freeing schools from local control and accountability and runnig them directly from Whitehall would herald a new dawn for education in which all children would learn their 3R's and every school would be special.

Into more than 20 years of constant restructuring and 'freeing' schools from local control jumped Citizen Gove. The man who would save the schools of this country from the their own locally elected representatives, and the yoke of accountability to the parents of the children they teach. Here he was, this was the man, his time had come! With one bound Michael Gove was going to be the man to set them all free, to give them all exactly what they had wanted.

Except it turned out that, exactly what they all wanted, was to have nothing to do with Citizen Gove's hair-brained ideas. Despite the fact that Gove had used emergency legislation to rush through his Bill to enable these schools to start up as soon as possible, despite the fact that even his own Tory MPs had described his actions as undemocratic, the future of the country was at stake and he needed to act fast to save the children from their own parents and their parents' locally elected representatives.

Predictably he has made a complete and utter fool of himself. Unforced error after unforced error, he could be an England goalkeeper.

The thing about Gove is that he is the same as all other education secretaries only more so. He has been to school so he knows all there is to know about education. Education secretaries have, for as long as I can remember, taken this attitude. An I-know-better-than-teachers-heads-parents-educationists-advisors-inspectors etc... It is like appointing someone with no knowledge of economics to be chancellor (OK so Osborne has no meaningful knowledge of economics but at least learning about economics is fairly easy compared to understanding how children learn). Education secretaries have all actually not really had a clue about learning, much less about teaching. So what have they done? Pretend they are doing something. Tinker with the superficial structures of schools rather than listen to teachers and education experts about how to improve teaching. It's not as if there are no models of excellent education systems in other countries to get ideas from; for example Finland's concentration on quality teaching with high quality teacher training and more professional freedom and respect for individual classroom teachers. This is in contrast with the top-down management structures of the UK, where decisions, which should be taken at classroom level, are too often taken at management or national level.

The problem is that Gove, and the rest of the Tories don't want to look at the successful countries like Finland. Because they know they will not like what they see. So they carry in making arses of themselves instead and fiddle while Rome burns.


Friday, 18 June 2010

Reclaiming "Transgender" and speaking for ourselves

This post is about the dangers in allowing non-transgender people to define and speak for transgender people. This is something which is becoming more common and which is likely to become increasingly so as trans people become more visible and political progress towards greater trans liberation is made. The conspicuous absence of trans people at David Cameron's LGBT reception in Downing Street suggests that the trans community has to consider who represents it and misrepresents it to the rest of the world.

The word "transgender" has become a phenominal success. Indeed it is one of the linguistic and political success stories of the last 20 years. Yet, in its current usage it is only 18 years old. In fact "transgender" was originally coined by Virginia Prince back in the 1970s to describe people (like myself) who were somewhere between "cross-dresser" and "transsexual". However it was used by Leslie Feinberg in a publication entitled "Transgender Liberation: A movement whose Time has Come" in 1992.

This was a call to arms and, in this case the word "transgender" was used as an umbrella term for all the various different transgender people who could come together to achieve political advancement of trans people. This is the current main usage of the word. As a Foucauldian political rallying-point it has been astonishingly successful and the last 18 years has seen transgender people emerge and become much more publicly visible and politically active, engaging in campaigning to achieve liberation for all trans people everywhere.

Although there is still a great deal to do there have been advances in terms of legal protections for transgender people such as legal gender changes on official documentation and protections against discrimination in areas such as the provision of goods and services and employment. The academic discipline of Transgender Studies has established itself as a bona fide academic field of study, and transgender people have been elected to important positions such as the state governor of Hawaii and MPs in Italy and New Zealand. Two transgender people have been appointed to work in senior positions in President Obama's administration. Even the normally conservative Royal Air Force has accepted the first transsexual pilot almost without batting an eyelid. Sass Rogando Sasot and Justus Eisfeld became the first transpeople to speak at the UN General Assembly last year. The depathologisation of transgender people is gathering pace with, so far, France and Cuba removing transgender people from the list of people with mental health issues. Holland, Spain and Scandinavia and other many countries are expected to follow soon.

Astonishingly, all this was achieved after what Susan Stryker described as the two "dead" decades for transgender people. The 1970s and 1980s represented a 20-year period when it became acceptable to bully, misrepresent, pathologise, demonise and ridicule transgender people. Malicous and ignorant "academics" such as Janice Raymond called for our extinction by public pressure from non-transpeople. "Mandated out of existence" was the phrase she used, a thinly veiled esprit fasciste inviting discrimination, pathologisation, cultural non-acceptance, media mistreatment and social bullying of transgender people who, remaining subalterns who cannot speak, were unable to defend themselves. Her call for non-transgender people to act against transgender people was as clear, her intention to mobilise the masses against a minority group reminiscent of the Nazi history she attempts, through dissemblement and innuendo to attach to trans people. The" Transsexual Empire" remains a dire warning of the need for transgender people to remain eternally vigilant against this sort of incitement to hate-crimes.

The success of "transgender" in bringing the trans community together has been documented by David Valentine, in his excellent study, 'Imagining Transgender'. However, he raises some issues about definitions and inclusion within the the group 'transgender' which, even in the last few years of the last century, were becoming problematic. Some people who were born male but lived as women did not see themselves as "transgender", especially those from ethnic minorities in the US, and some trans people who were born female may not include themselves in the category. Some, such as gay male drag queens, also did not include themselves under the umbrella term "transgender", although here the politics of gay liberation intervenes as gay men have sought to throw off stereotypes of effeminacy. The emergence of "transgender" as a category distinct from "gay" has been helpful to their cause from this point of view. Incidentally, the group within the transgender umbrella which has probably gained most politically in the last two decades has been transsexuals. Some view this being because they remain within the gender binary. However this is a rather simplistic view; Tam Sanger's research has shown that many transsexuals simply feel that changing their physical sex enables them to feel much happier and spiritually whole in a body which better approximates their identity rather than actually being a 'man trapped in a woman's body' or vice versa.

However we are now however seeing other people, who are not transgender, or organisations which do not have adequate knowledge of transgender people starting to define, to the perception of the public at large, what "transgender" means. Although Sefton's Transgender Work Volunteer Scheme is to be thoroughly approved as an example of how affirmative action can be taken to help transgender people in an area of high unemployment, and represents a fantastic piece of inclusive thinking, it still equates "transgender" with "transsexual". Yet people who are not transsexual may well be deterred from applying for this if they do not meet this criteria. Even two academics, Rebecca Dittman and Pam Meecham, who should know better, have written a scholarly article about transgender children where "transgender" appears to be interchangeable with "transsexual". Given that we know that not all transgender children become transgender adults, and not all those who do will want to have sex reassignment surgery, this is not merely a case of negligence but could be downright dangerous.

A more recent academic article by Richard Elkins and Dave King now seeks to identify two 'new' transgender identities; "Autogynephilic transsexuals" and "Adult male sissies". This is where I start to have problems with the concept of "identities". From my point of view these represent sexual practices rather than any particular type of identity. Autogynephilia has been the subject of much conflict between transgender people and that small group of psychiatrists who continue to try and pathologise us. Indeed, there appears no reason for this definition of a particular group to exist at all, other than to provide the likes of Blanchard with regular and substantial income. Elkins and King fail to enter into any discussion of this other than describing it as 'unwelcome', a description they also attach to "adult male sissies". In my opinion, these do not represent "Gender Identities" nor should they be lumped together under the "transgender" umbrella.

The reasons for this are not simply because, I believe, these activities should be categorised as sexual activities rather than gender identities, but because of the origins and purpose for the adoption of the term "transgender" by trans people. "Transgender" should be seen as first and formost a political term, and one which covers a range of different people from cross-dressers, genderqueers and drag kings to transsexuals and many others in between. It is not an academic category. That is not to say that academics should not study transgender people nor consider the study of transgender people to be an academic discipline; "Transgender Studies". This is not a problem. The word "transgender", and what is included in it is first and formost a political matter and a political matter for transgender people. Attempts by Elkins and King and others to 'discover' new transgender identities should as such be viewed as political rather than academic acts. As transgender people we should therefore be careful as to whether we accept the inclusion of these 'categories' and the political effects of that inclusion. It should not be up to cisgender academics to decide who should and should not be considered transgender. As Donna Haraway argues in The Cyborg Manifesto "Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousnes". The matter of who is involved in the construction of this consciousness is vital to it's effective functioning as a political concept.

I am not saying that transgender people should have the absolute right to veto who is and who is not transgender (not that we would all agree on everything anyway) but it is probable that the inclusion of such groups would not only cause division within the transgender community but also result in a loss of credibility from a political point of view whilst at the same timehaving no potential to achieve tangible political gains. The tiny number of Autogynephillic transsexuals (if indeed they do exist) are not going to benefit, in terms of their political or civil rights from being considered a seperate category from other transsexuals. As such we should ask what the political purpose of including "Adult male sissies" and "Autogynephilic transsexuals" as distinct categories within the transgender umbrella. Transsexuals are of course fully paid up members of the trans community (although some post-operative transsexuals would disagree with me there) what transsexuals' sexual preferences are is no concern of anyone else in the same way that cisgendered people's sexual preferences are not a determinant of their gender identities. Likewise with adult male sissies; it is probable that not all of these people would view themselves as transgender anyway, much less feel that their gender identity is dependent upon something they do in private at home. If the variety of sexual practices engaged in by cisgendered people are not used to define them as cisgendered, or to categorise them as a seperate category within cisgendered men and women, why should these practices apply to transgender people?

Whilst this post is ont intended to discourage our cisgender friends and supporters, it is clear that cisgendered people who are involved with the trans community need to be careful, as most of them already are, to respect the wishes and opinions of the transgender community.

We need constantly to remind ourselves that transgender is first and formost a political concept, and a particularly successful one at that. As such it is the more the property of transgender people than anyone else and who is included as transgender, or as seperate identities within that umbrella, should be a matter for us all, not academics. The consequences of weakening the transgender movement and a return to the days when "academics" such as Janice Raymond can openly call for others to engage in hate-crimes against us will not be borne by cisgender academics but by ordinary transgender people in their everyday lives, workplaces, schools, streets and homes.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Why Iain Dale is wrong about Parliament Square

I must confess I like Iain Dale, he is one of those few Tories who is prepared to argue stuff rather than just restate things over and over again Gobbels-style like most Tories do.

So it is bearing this in mind that I have to respectfully disagree with his blog post today about the protest camp in Parliament Square. Iain argues that this is unslightly and a disgrace and that we should not allow it. Falling back for a moment into traditional Tory mode he derides those who disagree with his position as being "lefties" and associates by implication those who occupy this space as scroungers and the like. Strangely he also argues that the camp is effectively denying others the right to use the square, although quite what anyone else would want to do in the middle of a roundabout that is busy 24/7 is beyond me.

However his view on this is taken from a typically Tory POV; Tories have never had to struggle to get their message heard by large numbers of people, if not by everyone in the UK. The protesters in Parliament Square have never had that luxury. They do not have right-wing billionnaires who own national newspapers trumpeting every inch of their cause; The Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Sun, The Daily Express, the Times, the Evening Standard, Sky News, etc, etc, etc...

Those who wish to have issues raised which the super-rich owners of these papers do not want to have discussed find themselves effectively censored, their arguments not publicised their activities unknown to huge swathes of the population. Let me give you an example of this censorship.

A week or so before polling day this year, a friend of mine felt compelled to go public about one of the Tory candidates, one Philippa Stroud, the Tory candidate for Sutton & Cheam and now one of Theresa May's special "advisers" (and I thought the government was supposed to have been cutting out such 'consultants'). She related how Stroud had funded a church in which gay and trans people could be taken for strange voodoo-like religious rituals to "cure" them of their homsexuality or to "fix" their gender identity "problems". She felt compelled to do this because David Cameron had been at pains to tell everyone how much the Tories had changed and were no longer the homophobic bigots many of them quite clearly are.

Stroud was living proof that the Tories' "liberal" approach to human rights was neither as firm nor as embedded as Cameron would have liked us to believe. This information being made public just before an election could have deterred a lot of people from voting Tory on the mistaken premise that the hateful bigots were no longer part of modern "progressive" Conservatism; that interesting and ultimately meaningless contradiction in terms. Apart from the Observer this story was reported nowhere, with the notable exception of the Telegraph (which prides itself on the quality of news, even news which sometimes undermines its own editorial positions). Nobody ran it. It was effectively censored.

Just to compare, so that the argument cannot be made that it was not important enough, the story about a no-hope, maverick Labour candidate in an unwinnable constituency, who had been disowned not only by his local party but by his own mother, criticising Gordon Brown made headlines everywhere at the same time.

So people who espouse causes which do not fit into the manufactured news agenda of the wealthy far-right supporters of the Tory party are familiar with the concept of the artificial invisibility of some information, stories and arguments. As such the only means they have at their disposal to publicise them is to use tactics such as occupying prominent places, so this is very much a free speech issue. Free speech, is only an academic right, if no-one else can hear you. It becomes a huge issue when certain information is deliberately and systematically censored by self-appointed private-sector censors; "Banned in Boston" still lives on today in the UK media. Until the media in the UK becomes less one-sided, more democratic and stops resorting to censoring information it doesn't like, the existence of the demonstration in Parliament Square will be as justified as the existence of Iain Dale's blog.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Time for Action for Labour is NOW!

The leadership and membership of the Labour Party need to wake up and get their act together extremely quickly. There is a political disaster for the people of this country about to happen and only swift, intelligent and careful action by the Labour leadership (together with the Lib Dem leadership) can prevent it from happening.

The Threat

People seem almost oblivious to the real threat to the prosperity and wellbeing of the people of this country. It is not the economic crisis or even an Icelandic volcano. It is the Tory proposals on constituency reform. Their proposals would result in a system with an inbuilt Tory majority which would be impossible to defeat. We are looking at perpetual Tory government with Labour, or indeed, any other party would never be able to break down.

The Tory Plan

The Tories will never concede electoral reform in a pact with the Lib Dems. As such it has to be expected that there will be no coalition with them and the Lib Dems will be forced to try a coalition with Labour and other smaller parties. It is at this point when the Tories and their friends in the media start to rock the boat in every direction possible. The statesmanlike pose that Cameron displays will disappear into a kind of aloof sniping, with the press barons hacking away at the Rainbow coalition as hard as they can. In other words any coalition will need to be rock solid if it is to resist the Tory Political Establishment’s drive for another election as early as possible, in the knowledge that they have loads of money and the other two parties are broke.

Resistance and cooperation is the only solution

A Rainbow coalition would need to work and work quickly and it would need to get electoral reform on the statute books as fast as possible, with or without a referendum and in the face of enormous bully-boy tactics of the multibillionaire media barons who support the Tories. For this to happen the Labour Party needs to do the following;

  • 1. An urgent leadership contest while Brown serves as caretaker leader.
  • 2. Adoption of Proportional Representation as a matter of party policy
  • 3. Ditching some of the most unpopular policies such as ID cards
  • 4. To be ready to form an electoral pact with the Lib Dems

The reasons for this are as follows;

Brown is too easy a target for the media. Someone new with a good media manner who can deal with the media onslaught and be listened to by the public and who can be ready to fight any subsequent election at very short notice.

PR is going to be the only way ahead for the UK, the old system cannot cope any more, failure to adopt it will eventually result in the Tories gerrymandering their own system which will result in 15 or 20 years of unchallenged Tory rule. Everything labour has fought for, all the positive changes we have introduced, will amount to nothing.

With both parties out of funds the only way we would be able to fight a short-notice election this year would be to adopt an electoral pact which would mean that, in some constituencies Labour candidates would not stand in order for the Lib Dem candidate to be given a clear run at the Tories and vice versa in seats where Labour was the main challenger. Some sort of local or regional twinning might be necessary. This would obviously put some noses out of joint but would stop the Tories in their tracks.

Let me also put it another way; if we don’t do it now we will have to do it in five, ten or fifteen years’ time. Only then we will have had five, ten or fifteen years of Tory cuts, crime and economic misrule. Collaboration will have to be the norm from now on unless Labour wants to leave the population of the country to the mercy of a particularly nasty right wing political-media establishment which will tear the fabric of our society apart, and which will be impossible to dislodge.

This is the time when politicians can really show their mettle, this is the time for great deeds, sacrifice and fortitude. The alternative does not bear thinking about.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

“A Small, Closed and Restricted Offer”, and other Excuses

There is no sense in dealing with the Tories; they have form for lying and will stab Clegg in the back over PR. A much better deal with Labour could be worked out...

As Nick Clegg talks to Cameron about his inappropriately described “big open and comprehensive offer” he would do well to take the utmost care. Unless he comes away with the promise of an immediate binding referendum on electoral reform, as a bare minimum, he might just as well not have campaigned in the election. Anything less will cost him votes and his reduced number of seats will further dwindle, he will end up the worst loser.

I say ‘immediate’ because agreement on a referendum a couple of years or even months down the line would give the Tories the chance to stab him in the back and call another election whenever they can find an excuse to do so. Let’s face it, the very last thing the Tories want, is any change to the voting system. Indeed their only policy on this issue proposes to make the iniquities of the first past the post system even worse, to the extent that many observers believe it would have the effect of building in a Tory majority which would make it virtually impossible to elect anyone else.

This Tory policy of rigging all subsequent elections should represent a dire warning to Clegg that the Tories cannot be trusted. Cameron has used the expenses scandal as an excuse to try and make parliament even more unrepresentative. Indeed this is one of the main characteristics of Tory politics: the excuse. The Tories have a core political philosophy which is rarely expressed. It includes the clear determination to reduce enfranchisement, obtain and centralise power vesting it in unelected, often private sector organisations, at almost any cost and to use that power for the benefit of the few rather than the many. As such their main modus operandi revolves around the excuse. Any excuse. Their policies are based on searching for the excuse to get away with whatever they can get away with. The economic crisis caused by their friends in the City is the perfect excuse to slash and burn public services way above what is absolutely necessary. The concept of the so-called ‘big Society’, a vague and malleable enough concept to be used as an excuse to cut police and social services. Their policy on free schools, now being abandoned as a failure in Sweden from whence they got the idea, is an excuse to create greater inequality in the education system...

In other words they have form, their principles are flexible to the extent that they will find any kind of excuse to justify any policies which suit them in their all-embracing quest for power at any cost. The main basis of this power is the first-past-the-post system, a system which skews the election results meaning that they get access to unrestrained power on a regular basis. To abandon it would effectively mean that they will never be able to achieve the same level of power in the future. First Past the Post is as such the main basis for their power. Proportional representation is something they will do anything to avoid. ‘Anything’ in this case would include finding any excuse to prevent this from happening. As such precipitating another general election would be something they would be very keen on doing to prevent a referendum from taking place or to prevents the results of a referendum from being enacted. Of course Cameron’s promise of an all-party commission to look into the issue of electoral reform is one of the most obvious way of achieving this. Kick the issue into touch, get into power and call a general election before the issue is resolved…

Fortunately Nick Clegg has to obtain a deal which he can sell to his party. The chances of doing that without an immediate, binding referendum on electoral reform are slim. However he would be ill-advised even to consider wasting his time on negotiations without this crucial part of any deal. He needs to secure agreement on this before discussing anything else. He needs to remember however, that a Tory-Lib Dem pact would be the biggest political gift to Labour in history. With a new leader and ditching some of its policy baggage associated with the Blair-Brown era, Labour would be able to Hoover up a fair proportion of Lib Dem votes along with the inevitable dissatisfied Tory ones.

Let us be realistic; A Tory-led government would become extremely unpopular very quickly. In fact it would have one of the distinctions of being already unpopular even before it takes office. Clegg would, without doubt, suffer by association from this and with the combined exodus of progressives to a Labour Party headed by one of the Milibands, and with people who leave in revulsion at the unnecessarily swinging cuts, their vote would be the gift that Labour has always wanted. Assuming that no proportional representation system has been agreed with the Tories, we would be looking at a landslide for Mr Miliband or Mr Miliband whenever the next election took place.

It is clear that Clegg feels he would be in trouble if he went into coalition with Labour and might lose any referendum on electoral reform (although I am not convinced any referendum would be necessary), because of “public” revulsion (as one paper put it); a euphemism for “Tory media media outrage” at him being seen to prop up a labour prime minister who is unpopular. Obviously his stated demand that Brown goes would be fairly easily met by the Labour Party but having Harriet Harman as caretaker PM for a few months until a new leader can be re-elected would also not go down well.

So I would like to propose a solution which might trump all this threatened media backlash; arrange a referendum in late September or early October and install Nick Clegg as Prime Minister until that time. This would enable Labour to sort itself out with a new leader and give the Lib Dems the best platform from which to argue the case for electoral reform in that referendum. The media would find it much harder to attack a Lib-Lab pact headed by a Lib Dem than by a Labour Prime Minister. A public agreement for the Premiership to be handed back to Labour for the rest of the parliament after the referendum would ensure that Labour get their turn in the time needed to set up the new voting system. Once that has happened, the Lib Dems would probably no longer find it in their interests to continue in a coalition government and an election would be inevitable.

A progressive coalition (which don’t forget would have to include some of the smaller parties such as the Nationalists, Northern Irish parties and the Green MP) would actually represent more than 60% of the electorate, and could be repeatedly justified in such terms. I cannot see any other way that proportional representation can be achieved, other than by such a large coalition.