Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Teaspoon Politics

This piece originally appeared in February 2013 in the LGBT+ student magazine No Definition. The full issue, with the theme of "Politics", is available in PDF format here.

“All I ever do is try to empty the sea with this teaspoon; all I can do is keep trying to empty the sea with this teaspoon.” – Melissa McEwan, founder of[1]

I never used to have much interest in being “political”. For me, “politics” just meant an argument that you dusted off once every four years at election time, neatly compartmentalised off from “real” life, boring and safely ignorable.

But politics doesn’t just mean which party you vote for. It has another, much broader definition. Coming from the Greek “polis” (city), it encompasses all aspects of being a citizen - part of an organised social grouping of individuals, a society. How any given society organises itself can vary enormously, but it will always have to settle on a system for allocating its collective power.

Politics, or power relations, is everywhere. And being queer can have quite some bearing on where we stand within the system of power.

In 1969, the feminist Carol Hanisch famously said “the personal is political”. The implication was that when we sit down and think about it, a lot of the ‘personal problems’ we suffer don’t just spring out of nowhere, but they have their roots in a wider social context - they are influenced by the politics of the day.

Marriage is obviously a political issue, under the more popular definition of the word: some couples have the legal right to get married, other couples (or members of committed relationships involving more than two partners!) do not. But it’s also political in that it affects individuals’ relative levels of social power. Marriage is not just a personal choice, but something which comes with considerable fringe benefits. Obviously there are legal rights associated with it, such as custody and inheritance rights. But these rights have knock-on effects on other aspects of the couple’s lives. They are more financially secure; they have fewer worries in the way of getting on with their lives, advancing their careers, and so on.

A society which doesn’t allow gay couples to access the rights and benefits of marriage is making a statement: it believes gay people should stay at the bottom of the social power hierarchy, and it will make their lives more financially and emotionally difficult than heterosexual couples’, in order to ensure that they stay there. The same principle is at work in a society which forces transsexual people to go through the upheaval of dissolving supportive marriages made in their birth gender in order to access vital treatment, with no guarantee that they can restore these legal ties once their transition is complete. Societies can load the dice such that gay or trans* people have a harder time getting by, and then, when they fail or give up or break down, legislators can argue that they are clearly more fragile, less well-adjusted, than ‘normal’ people – and therefore less able to cope with, and less deserving of, the rights which they are denied.

But once we realise that our personal problems are so bound up in a wider political framework, we might ask ourselves: what can we do to ameliorate them? After all, electoral politics can seem impossible to change. There might be a hundred “political” issues we feel strongly about (whether clearly within the remit of politicians, such as who has the legal right to marry, or more subtle matters of power relations, such as how bisexual people are treated in society and culture at large). But when electoral politics is presented as the only way of making a “political” difference, we feel that we have to delegate our voice in all of these issues to just one person who, out of a mere handful of choices, looks like ey might do the least worst job of handling them. Thus it’s easy to fall into apathy, feeling as though we have no power.

But we have to remember that although very few of us have power in vast quantities, such that we could change our situation at the flick of a switch, we all have some power. Every day, in every situation, we’re negotiating a matrix of power relations – of politics! – where we can exercise an influence, some influence, however small. Where we can take out our teaspoons and bail out a few millilitres from the sea of inequalities in which so many of our LGBT+ companions are uncomfortably submerged.

For me, being openly transsexual is a political act. Power relations are inevitably tilted in favour of the ‘normal’, and when we as trans* people buy into the idea that being trans* – or ‘not normal’ – is something to be ashamed of, disguised, hidden, we reinforce that power relation within the culture. I’m certainly not denying that some situations are actively dangerous if you don’t try to disguise your trans* status. But boldly and shamelessly standing up and being counted at times when you’re expected to stay humbly silent – when acquaintances are making transphobic ‘jokes’, for example – can act as a reclamation of power.

The balance of power demands that we meekly and uncomfortably sit through these situations, because this is the fate we have earned by being ‘not normal’. But when we refuse, it makes people think twice about what they can get away with – about how stable the power they derive from being ‘normal’ actually is. Suddenly it gives a personality to the faceless mass of ‘otherness’ that they or their companions or the media they consume make jokes or comments or accusations about. And bit by bit, thought by thought, person by person, the “accepted” power hierarchy of ‘normal > not-normal’ changes. Teaspoon by teaspoon, the political landscape changes.

And when a society (which starts from a person, which starts from a thought) accepts a minority group as legitimate, full, equal, well-rounded members, that’s when electoral politics are likely to change in their favour. One day, if our society gradually grows to view transsexualism as no big deal, just one of those quirks of human variation, a personal handicap easily resolved by simple procedures, then the pathologizing hoops we have to jump through to access treatment will start to look unsuitable and outdated. It will seem only common sense to allow all trans* people the right to bodily autonomy, rather than only permitting it to those who have been psychologically assessed, who have survived a stressful and potentially life-endangering extended period of living (and therefore dressing, and ideally also finding employment) as their chosen gender, who happen not to transgress their clinicians’ (sometimes simplistic, sometimes binary) ideas of what makes someone a man or a woman or neither. After all, it seems only common sense, these days, to allow gay couples autonomy over who they legally bind their lives with.

This is my manifesto: I will cling fervently to my teaspoon, and I will try to use it whenever I have the strength. I will stand up and be counted. I will never stop believing in the cumulative influence of the infinitesimal power of each action I commit. Because it is we who, if we give up and give in to political apathy, have the most to lose.

[1] Following the initial publication of this piece, I came across criticism of the sometimes problematic behaviour and attitudes of the Shakesville bloggers, including Melissa McEwan. I think the quotation is a useful one regardless of other things McEwan has said, but I understand the criticisms, I do not endorse Shakesville uncritically, and I want to warn readers that clicking through may be triggering.