In my earlier post [*] I had some fun with the humourlessness that pervades both sides of the transgender and gender-fluid discussions. I struggled for the best neutral term right there, as it doesn’t qualify as a ‘debate’, nor is it a ‘movement’, yet it is definitely more than just a ‘fad’ or a ‘trend’ — something I’m only just beginning to appreciate; and that’s the problem for me, and, I suspect, for most people who dip their toe into this particularly frosty pool. Our opinions are subjective, imperfect, and open to attack. But fear of attack shouldn’t chill the discussion, even though it often seems to be the overt motive of those that led the attack. No person should be shut out or shouted down because they happen to disagree with you.
I’ll give an example. Read this essay called ‘Sacred Androgen: The Transgender Debate‘ by Daniel Harris over at The Antioch Review. Next, read this response by Clarence Harlan Orsi at TheMillions.com. Lastly, read this blog post by Daniel Wallace at The Incompetent Writer.
I’ll see you back here in about twenty.
I came into this mess out of order: I read the blog first, then the essay, then the response, and lastly I read the illuminating and intelligent responses to the response. Does that make sense? As an aside, what is it about the internet that encourages people to disrespect others with such impunity? But anyway, let’s look at what passes for informed critique these days.
Daniel Harris, as a former cross-dresser, voices a view based in part upon his own alleged mistreatment at the hands of the trans community: “a key aspect of the impersonation of women was missing from the abominable manners of the TGs I encountered: the milk of human kindness” but his critique is not solely driven by vengefulness. I don’t think, for example, that he’s being provocative when he notes how the holy grail of gender-reassignment often fails to produce the new reality that many trans people crave. Suicide statistics prove this. Instead, a man born into a female body may well spend a lot of money to become a man trapped in a mutilated female body. And while Harris doesn’t ventilate the interesting theory that gender is mostly a social construct, he doesn’t dismiss it either. Reading his essay, I found Harris to be positioned to the angry-right of reasonable, but not so far out as to be unusual or unduly offensive. I mean, sticks and stones, right?
Clarence Harlan Orsi (writing as Claire Harlan Orsi in The Inquiry, Feb 3, 2015) disagrees. Admitting only a year ago that “my gender is both real and hard-won, but also that most incendiary of descriptors, the one no one wants to apply to themselves: trendy“, Orsi’s responds as if personally affronted, dismissing Harris’ essay as “a mess of unreflective bigotry” notwithstanding the bits that are, umm, personally reflective. Next he insults the editorial staff at Antioch College (‘stagnant’ and ‘out of touch’) and chillingly reminds readers that this is what you’ll get if your diss us trendy trans folk. He then accuses Harris of playing ‘gotcha’ for daring to point out some of the hypocrisy inherent in the trans dialogue. Not satisfied, Orsi insults Harris as an ‘asshole’ but then gets hissy in the next sentence because Harris wrote something which might be offensive. Imagining motives for Harris’ essay, Orsi concludes “the real reason” behind it is an unrequited desire:
If your supposed concern for transgender people masks plain old misogyny, a vitriolic relationship to femininity so deep it saturates the pores of even your most innocuous words, then you are complicit in violence. You highlight the path that leads from your vacuous think piece to some other man’s fists.
Now, I’m no lawyer, but in my country this could be defamatory. Mind you, I suspect Orsi could avail himself easily enough of the statutory defence of ‘triviality’ — I’m well versed in that, don’t you worry! — but again, one person’s opinion about another person’s opinion is just sticks and stones, right?
Now to where I actually blundered into this morass, the otherwise excellent blog ‘The Incompetent Writer‘ by Daniel Wallace. I was surprised when the blogger advised us not to read the Harris essay, attaching a reluctant and seemingly half-hearted link to ‘the awful essay‘, yet implored us all to read the Orsi response, which he thereafter quotes at length and showers with immoderate praise — ‘excellent‘, ‘measured‘, ‘generous‘, ‘careful‘, remarkable‘. I have to say, all this gushing left me feeling a little disturbed and gross myself, because I found Orsi’s rant no better than Harris’. But, ah, those typos. Forgive the author of ‘a writing blog for petty pedantry, but how are typos evidence that “the piece was not edited or proofed in any way before publication” — yet another stab at the poor editors of The Antioch Review! Poor bastards. But what really got Daniel’s goat was Harris’ opinion that trans people are unattractive. Even Orsi’s overlong and vicious rant didn’t focus much on this aspect, yet it pushed a big, red button over at ‘The Incompetent Writer’.
Lastly, among the smattering of comments to the Orsi piece, the usual supportive murmurings are interleaved with comments that argue, for example, that someone isn’t a certain gender just because they say they are. One piece by ‘Sean H’ describes Orsi’s rhetoric as ‘lazy identity politics‘ and warns against ‘succumbing to new left censorship‘. That piece garnered some emotional and faintly offensive responses from people who likened the author to a patronising, lazy eugenicist. But ‘Sean H’ predicted this, noting that some folk are ‘inclined to scream racist/sexist/homophobe/transphobe at people you disagree with’. Sometimes its hard to hold a civil conversation because there’s always a Dorito-munching fucktard out there somewhere that wants to take a swing.
I don’t have an opinion ‘about transgender people’ but I do have an opinion about the trans and gender-fluid discussion. We can’t sort out our perceived differences with our fists, whether the punches are real or in cyberspace. Everybody need somebody to talk to. Imagine being part of a group everybody hates, without letting that hate infect you too. I don’t like how aggressive transgender supporters can be, but i haven’t walked a mile in their fabulous shoes, either.
Sticks and stone will break your bones, and names will always hurt you.