Saturday, May 24, 2008

Another human target for conservatives

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre launched a disgraceful attack on transsexuals last week, for which he was soundly spanked by the Ottawa Citizen:

Usually politicians looking to score easy points will rail against needle exchange programs, but transgendered people are even more marginalized than drug addicts, so they make an even safer target to beat up on.

Well said, and timely, too. It appears that our humane and compassionate friends on the Right have discovered yet another marginalized group suitable for bullying and insulting. Jay Currie lost no time in firing a further salvo against transsexuals, and commenters there piled on with a will.

Now, we're used to this sort of thing. Finding disadvantaged people to mock, push around and kick when they're down is a fine old conservative sport. Kimberly Rogers died because of Ontario Premier Mike
Harris' vicious scapegoating of people on welfare. Dudley George was shot to death by an OPP officer for the crime of occupying his own land: the ultimate cause of the escalation at Ipperwash went right to the top. ("I want the fucking Indians out of the park," said the Premier. And he had lots of support for that kind of sentiment from the Usual Suspects.)

Transsexuals, marginalized in our society, have managed to stay more or less under the conservative radar until recently. But in a true spirit of consistency, they are now the latest bouc émissaire du jour, costing us money and disturbing the pristine lines of gender. So it is no surprise that they are described by Currie as "raving weirdos," and by one commenter as "nutbars."

It appears that a driving instructor in Sheffield, England, was the cause of a threatened lawsuit by an intolerant Muslim man, who had sent his wife to the driving school in question because of its all-female staff. The instructor in question is a pre-op transsexual named Emma Sherdly, who (as if to underline the contructed nature of gender) holds a "gender recognition certificate" from the government defining her as a woman.

Let me admit at this point that I don't understand the transsexual phenomonenon, which tends to run man-->woman far more often than the other way around. To hear transsexuals speak (Jan Morris, for example), they are apparently wedded to a kind of essentialism: although born physically male, they are "women trapped in men's bodies."

I don't happen to believe that gender is an immutable, inherent quality: rather, it is a performed series of behaviours, with accompanying emotions and cathexes, with which, for unknown reasons, a handful of people from the "opposite" sex identify. Note the inherent binary in the word "opposite." Yet gender is anything but neatly divided into two distinct categories defined by the physical body. As obvious examples of its plasticity, we might look at the fakaleiti of Tonga and the fa'afafine of Sāmoa, transsexuals who, far from marginalized in those countries, have privileged status. Gender is constructed: it's not some kind of essence.

But all that being said, people do self-identify by gender: "male" and "female" are obviously powerful categories of practice, and they are reinforced both socially and politically. The need for "assignment" to a gender is profoundly felt. In the case of transsexuals, whose physical bodies are so at odds with their self-perception, gender reassignment surgery can actually save lives.

Enter Pierre Poilievre and the howling hooligans of Jay's combox, whose contributions to this debate excite an anthropological curiosity all on their own. They've found themselves another group of human beings to use for target practice, and can barely contain their excitement.

Meanwhile, in fundamentalist, Islamist Iran...

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