Since next week I’m going to Africa forever and ever, “Boy I Am” — the June 9th screening at my sex-positive documentary film series — was the last one I’ll be able to attend in person. The film series will continue. It’s going to be coordinated by our amazing Hull-House Education Coordinator Lisa, plus discussion facilitators we recruited from among regular Sex+++ attendees! But I, alas, will be far away being eaten by lions. (Yes. Eaten by lions! … I’m getting a bit loopy from lack of sleep, caused by running around trying to wrap up my life.)
Happily, though, the June 9th screening was a really good one … okay, they’re all really good. But this was really good! There were lots of people in attendance (I’d estimate 30-40), which surprised me — as I said in my last sex-positive documentary report, I was figuring that attendance would generally be lower for the second half of the series. Maybe some people were tempted to come by the presence of filmmaker Sam Feder, who was a great contributor to the discussion! Or maybe I’m just wrong about what films have wide appeal. Or maybe now Sex+++ is getting famous enough that people are just excited about Sex+++, more than about any particular film. Hey, I hoped to start an ongoing salon … it seems like I’ve somewhat succeeded!
Distributed by Women Make Movies, the documentary “Boy I Am” is a fascinating look at the stigma faced by female-to-male transpeople — not just in general, but within specific liberal subcultures one might assume would be trans-friendly, such as lesbian/gay groups or feminist groups.
I’m a BDSM activist, so one of the topics I related to most was the way some forms of radical sexuality have frequently been excluded from gay/lesbian or feminist communities. I’ve read about this before — for instance, the Michigan Womyn’s Festival has in the past famously excluded BDSM activities from its site on the grounds that BDSM is inherently oppressive, etc etc. Only after I learned about the anti-BDSM incidents at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival did I hear about the much higher-profile anti-trans policies; unlike the anti-BDSM policies, the anti-trans policies continue to this day.
I think there’s two issues at stake here, and there were quotations in “Boy I Am” that admirably represented both of those issues. One quotation: “there’s no way to be male without misogyny” … the idea being that identifying as male — or, worse, choosing to identify as male — brings with it an inherent anti-woman bias. I feel like if the woman in question were discussing BDSM, she might say: “There’s no way to exercise power without being oppressive.” Arguments like these are based on a grain of truth — that privilege is terribly easy to both abuse, and forget — and for that reason, they can be compelling in the right company. But they erase the importance of individual differences and desires; and they assume that we can’t learn to outthink our biases, or negotiate our potentially “privileged” and “oppressive” desires in ways that don’t hurt other people.
The other quotation: the “existence [of radical sexualities like trans or BDSM within the lesbian/gay movement] demands a higher level of tolerance than [many L/G activists] are willing to fight for”. The idea being that lesbian/gay people may feel that they are “normal” enough to have a chance at social acceptance — but if they band together with more “extreme” sexualities, they’re worried that they’ll lose their chance. You can see some of this attitude in this Salon article from a couple of years ago, titled “Gay Rights and the Transgendered” by John Aravosis:
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act was first introduced 30 years ago. In all that time, it only protected sexual orientation and never included gender identity. This year, that changed, and gender identity was added to the bill. Coincidentally, this year is also the first time that ENDA actually has a real chance of passing both the House and Senate — but only if gender identity isn’t in the bill. … [Everyone I spoke to about this] felt bad about taking gender identity out of ENDA, everyone supported transgender rights, and everyone told me “pass it anyway.”
Their main argument, which I support: practical politics. Civil rights legislation — hell, all legislation — is a series of compromises. You rarely get everything you want, nor do you get it all at once. Blacks, for example, won the right to vote in 1870. Women didn’t get that same right until 1920. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided a large umbrella of rights based on race, religion, sex and national origin, but failed to mention gays or people with disabilities. People with disabilities were finally given specific rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but gays as a class have still to be granted a single civil right at the federal level. If we waited until society was ready to accept each and every member of the civil rights community before passing any civil rights legislation, we’d have no civil rights laws at all. Someone is always left behind, at least temporarily. It stinks, but it’s the way it’s always worked, and it’s the way you win.
(Thanks for the link to Sex, Art and Politics.)
On the surface, Aravosis makes a reasonable argument. But when I read the rest of the article, I get an uneasy feeling that this has less to do with practical politics … and more to do with the author’s biases. For instance, Aravosis calls bisexuals “only part-time gays”, and his dislike of trans is even more transparent (teehee): “A lot of gays have been scratching their heads for 10 years trying to figure out what they have in common with transsexuals, or at the very least why transgendered people qualify as our siblings rather than our cousins.”
I might consider the idea that civil rights move slowly to be a reasonable argument … but calling bisexuals “part-time gays”, or wondering what gay people have in common with transsexuals, is simply bizarre. It’s obvious what all alternative sexualities and gender identities have in common: the idea that consent matters more than knee-jerk bias; the idea that everyone has sovereignty over our own bodies. Gaining equal treatment for alternative sexuality can’t just be about convincing people that individual acts or specific identities are okay — because worrying about individual acts in themselves is part of what gives people anxiety about alternative sexuality in the first place.
If we say: “Okay, straight sex and gay sex is fine but I don’t support bisexuality,” we’re making the same mistake that the “normals” make when they say: “Straight sex is fine, but I don’t support homosexuality.” This movement cannot be about acts; it must be about the context of those acts. Consent has to be what matters more than appearance. That’s the only coherent philosophy.
Other points brought up by “Boy I Am”:
+ Some women talked about how they think transitioning stems from women’s negative body image. They argued that it’s really hard to feel okay about our bodies growing up; that women always feel uncomfortable in our bodies, and that female-to-male transpeople transition more because they hate being female — less because they want to be male. They were bothered by this; one was angry, and called it “audacity”. She resented female-to-male transpeople for “walking away” from the issues of femininity that she constantly felt compelled to confront herself. It seems clear to me that this is based more on resentment and frustration than on any rational critique of trans in itself. And while I’m sympathetic to women who hate our culture’s misogyny, I think we always need to make sure that we don’t attack/dislike others personally just because we feel shafted by society.
+ Every human body is a modified body: we all eat hormone-modified foods, we take medications, we wear makeup and piercings and tattoos — indeed, we wear clothing! When we allow smaller modifications like those, it seems strange to prevent larger modifications. One might ask, where’s the line? Well, the line … again … is consent. It’s not the acts, it’s not the body changes in themselves — it’s consent. Always.
+ Is there ever a premature time to transition? How young should we allow people to get trans surgery? I don’t think we do kids any favors by preventing them from dressing / appearing as they wish. I think the surgery question for me boils down to this: why is there ever a reason to prevent someone from getting trans surgery, if the person wants it? If that person recognizes the costs and accepts any potential risks, what right does anyone have to stop that person from doing what they want with their body? If we prevent kids from transitioning, then I think we need to be very clear about why we’re doing it. If we believe that people can do whatever consensual things they want with their own bodies, then the only reason it’s different for kids is if we claim that there are different rules about consent for children. And maybe there are different rules about consent for children — but if we believe that, then we need to be clear that we’re talking about those rules when we prevent kids from transitioning … not anti-trans bias.
1500 words this time! And I have to go pack for Africa; this’ll be my last overly-long Sex+++ documentary report. To summarize — “Boy I Am” is a really layered, fascinating movie. I give it five stars, and I’m glad it was my last one … it means I get to leave on a super-up note.
It’s been great, guys, and I encourage you all to come out to the next film — Tuesday June 23rd, “On the Downlow”. It’s about underground Black gay life. Have fun! Rock the rest of this film series for me!