Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Being polite (and generalising)


My new job has brought with it a sudden rash of people declaring that they are “totally fine” or that they “don’t care” about my sexuality. 

To be more accurate, they don’t care about what they think is my sexuality.  What they think is based on some reference that I’ve made in conversation, usually to some relationship I had many years ago.  They hear a pronoun and compute:  female person, used female pronoun, must equal… lesbian!  The thought process doesn’t stop there, either.  It then proceeds to: must reassure the lesbian that I’m ok with lesbians! 

This has taken me a bit by surprise, I must confess.  It’s a new dynamic for me.  I’m used to working with people who are much too polite to make reference to such things.  Other people that I have worked with obviously had the same thought process, except for the last bit. 

Gay men and lesbians tend to come to that conclusion before I ever use any pronouns, based simply on how I dress.  Gay men tend to be the worst, in my experience, in the sense that they assume they know all about me, my life history, my opinions and my values - all based on how I dress.  Lesbians have generally been around enough women who don’t wear make-up to know that there’s not a big future in assumptions.

Straight people tend to think, ‘lesbian’ and then don’t say anything.  Often they genuinely don’t care.  This is particularly true for straight folks who have been around a lot of gay people.  Others probably do care a little bit but they know that it’s rude to make reference to it in public, rather like making reference to someone being fat.  It’s only when they have a problem with me that I become ‘that lesbian’, and this only comes out in private.
 
I haven’t been present for these conversations, obviously.  But I have been present for some of the conversations where I’m informed that it’s my own fault that people make assumptions about me, that I ask for it, because … because I don’t wear make-up, apparently. 

I’ve also been thin – or at least not fat - at different times in my life, and heard the way women who aren’t fat themselves and are much too polite to say anything to women who are tend to change when they have a problem with the [fat] woman in question.  Clearly, good manners are only skin deep.  Or a layer of fat deep, I guess. 

Lesbians are no better, in this regard.  They don’t go to a homophobic place, obviously.  It’s just ‘that fat bitch’ rather than ‘that fat lesbian’.  Gay men, of course, don’t need much encouragement to go to either place – though there are some honourable exceptions.  And straight men… I don’t know where they go.  I think for them it’s just ‘bitch’. 

There is, therefore, no moral distinction to be made between those who say they ‘don’t care’ and those who don’t say anything.  I prefer the people who don’t say anything, though.  If they’re straight, at least. Because really, I don’t want to talk about any of it. 

Don’t get me wrong: I have the same need for affirmation and validation as anybody else, and there was a time when I did want to talk about it.  Talking about it, however, taught me that you’re not going to get validation from people who have no idea.  All you’re going to get is dumb questions.  And people who have some idea can be even worse: they give you fatuous, offensive assumptions dressed up as validation.  I guess there is a lot of good work to be done, if you want to be an educator.  I don’t.  

Consequently, these declarations that people ‘don’t care’ about something I had forgotten about are a bit of a new thing.  I don’t know why it is happening: maybe it’s because the folks I’m working with now are a bit younger.  But they are obviously trying to do the right thing so it seems a bit, well, rude, to say, “I don’t care that you don’t care.  In fact, I don’t care if you do care.  I just flat-out don’t care!”

Instead I just politely ignore it.  “Right.  Good-oh.  Well, as I was saying…”




Monday, 2 October 2017

Dust

In a month of unemployment I haven’t done any of the things I said I would do but I have managed to clean up the house a bit.  The timing for this is good as it’s spring, though it hasn’t felt like renewal or rebirth or any of those happy clich├ęs that one associates with spring.  Instead it’s been heavy and hard and I’ve had to push myself to do even basic things like the vacuuming. 

The dust in this place is endless.  They say it’s the ‘black dust’ – ordinary dust mixed with Sydney’s pollution.  And in this house there is cat hair, which is also endless.  It really doesn’t seem to matter how much or how often I clean because it doesn’t make any difference: the place is always coated in a sticky grey dust. 

I wanted it to be lighter.  In the disturbed decision making process that surrounded my decision to leave work I imagined a lighter, easier life.  Naturally that picture was set in a lighter, cleaner house.  Less cluttered, less heavy.  Of course, it hasn’t turned out that way.  I don’t know whether it’s my age or my state of mind but even cleaning seems to have become complicated.
 
What to keep?  What to throw away? 

Behind the curtain in the lounge room, for example, I find two model cars parked neatly on the window sill.  One is a yellow Mini Minor – I always wanted a Mini Minor.  Three times I’ve come close to getting one.  When I was 17, my mother and I saw a red Mini in a used car yard on the outskirts of Bendigo as we were driving home to Shepparton one Saturday.  The price tag?  $499.  I was so obsessed that I badgered Mum into getting some friend of a friend who lived in Bendigo and knew about cars to go and check it out.  It’s fine, he reported, except that it needs new rings.  New rings??!!  That would have cost at least another $500, not to mention how to get it home from Bendigo and I didn’t even have a proper licence yet.  I let it go. 

Ten years later when I was living in Canberra there was a lime green Mini parked on the corner with a ‘For Sale’ sign in the window.  They wanted $1400 for it but I didn’t know what was wrong with it and I didn’t actually have $1400 and besides, I had a perfectly usable 1973 Corolla.  A few weeks later my partner bought me a frypan for Christmas and said, ‘You know, I thought about buying you that Mini but I wasn’t sure you’d be up for it’.   My heart ached, but I just had to let it go. 

Even five years ago when I was looking to buy a different car and the local mechanic showed me a Mini that he was fixing up and it had a BMW engine in it and leather seats and all the trimmings but he wanted $22,000 for it and I didn’t trust him and I hate grey so I let it go. 

I don’t remember when I bought a yellow model Mini Minor but I have an idea why, though I am not sure why I would keep it now, cluttering up the window sill and gathering dust.
    
The other car is a black VW Beetle with hippie flowers.  You can guess that I love Beetles, too.  I about buying one that I saw parked around the corner in - you guessed - Canberra, in my early 20s.  They wanted $1600 for it but my friends took one look and turned up their noses.  ‘Buying someone else’s problem,’ was their verdict, and I let it go. 

The model VW came into my life in Nevada, of all places.  It was in the late 90s and I was pursuing a stupid love affair, all the way to the US.  We drove from San Francisco to Las Vegas and somewhere in Nevada in the middle of the night we stopped at a petrol station and on a whim, I bought a model VW Beetle for $7.99.  That trip was nothing but an extended exercise in betrayal although, with the advantage of hindsight, I thank God that the betrayal came earlier (though not early enough) rather than later and just prefer to forget the whole thing though I have held onto the model car which is the only tangible relic from the whole episode. 

Why? 

I have enough Buddhism to know that attachment is the cause of all suffering.   This ancient truth is, well, true.  So why keep the model VW?  What am I attached to?  The love affair, which gave me much, much more misery than joy? The affair that, though I thought it about it way too much for way too long, I haven’t thought about it years now?  Or something else? 

A different life.  A moment of possibility, glimpsed somewhere in the middle of the night in Nevada and never seen again.  Often, I hear people talk about the importance of living without regrets.  Sometimes I wonder if I have anything else. 

The place is full of these random, useless objects.  When I’m in a good mood I have been known to say, ‘Everything here has a story’.  My friends - bless them - are too polite to say, ‘Yes, and that story is boring.’ 

The books – the place is full of them.  Some people have been impressed by the books and I certainly was, in the past.  There was a time when a collection of Foucault’s interviews was the thing that I desired most in life.  Now I never look at them, and they just gather dust.  But I can’t get rid of them.  I would give them away, but nobody now is interested in a collection of Foucault’s interviews. 

In my bedroom is the dressing table, which I remember buying back in the early 90s.  I thought it was an antique.  Turns out it was a reproduction but it has lived in a few houses, that dressing table.  I’ve managed to clear off some of the clutter but there is a bowl full of jewellery that has pride of place.  The jewellery is rubbish – things that I’m either allergic to (in my late 20s I became allergic to non-precious metals) or things that I have inherited from my mother and grandmother.  I never wear any of it.  The children to pass these things on to, I never had.  Hell, I never even liked my grandmother.

Clearing away the jewellery I find fully half an inch of dust at the bottom of the bowl.  The bowl itself is a relic – a pottery creation from art class in Year 7.  Forty years I’ve carted that bowl around.  Glazed in a delightful shade of 1970s brown, I imagine it reminiscent of Murano glass except that the bowl is hopelessly off-centre and wobbly.  Regrets aside, it could use a wash. 

As I turn it over in the sink I discover something long forgotten.  My name is etched into the underside of the bowl.  My full name, which I hated then as I hate it now.  But there it is, etched in ceramic.  ABIGAIL GROVES.


Thursday, 14 September 2017

'Not the marrying kind'


I just watched Penny Wong’s eloquent speech in the Senate about ‘polite prejudice’, and a memory floated to the surface of my tired brain.  The memory was this: five years ago I emailed Penny Wong, after her appearance on Q & A.  Her comments got a lot of coverage at the time, so you may remember this exchange:


I can’t remember what I wrote to the honourable Senator but it would have been something like ‘Good on you’.  To her credit, she emailed back and said, ‘thanks for your support’. 

I was chuffed at the time because I am not in the habit of contacting politicians.   I’ve done it three times and as I reflect on it, I can see that there is a pattern.  When I’ve been moved to contact a politician, it has been to express my support, and each time it has been to a female politician who I felt was being picked on. 

Before Penny Wong it was Julia Gillard who, it must be said, abjectly failed the leadership test when it came to gay marriage while she was in office.  Nonetheless, I thought she was treated unfairly and that that unfairness was a product of the most base, contemptible sexism.  Before Gillard it was Joan Kirner.  Remember her?  She was Premier of Victoria briefly, after the Labor government down there shat itself back in the early 90s. 

That seems a long time ago now.  I was living in Canberra then, and was busy being young, out and proud.  Nobody talked about gay marriage at that time, or even about gays having children.  Such things were just not part of our expectations, as young lesbian and gay people. 

The big issue for gay men in those days was AIDS, obviously.  Lesbian politics was mainly diverted into feminist issues – hence we did things like writing to beleaguered female politicians.   I don’t remember marriage even coming up.  If it did it was roundly dismissed as ‘mimicking the breeders’ or something like that.  ‘Breeder,’ incidentally, is a word that seemed to disappear from the lexicon very quickly, once poofs and dykes starting breeding like rabbits themselves.

And they all did.  Without exception, the dykes that I was friends with in my early 20s are now in ‘settled domestic relationships’, as Tony Abbott calls them.  Some are already married, because they ended up with men.  Most have children as well.  Because that’s what they wanted.  Because that’s what everyone wants.  Really, everyone wants a home with someone who loves them or who, at the very least, will be there for them because let’s face it, life can be fucking hard. And lonely.

None of them seemed to feel overly deprived, though, about not being able to enter into the sanctity of marriage.  In 2004, when John Howard amended the Marriage Act to clarify that it was indeed intended to exclude same-sex couples, it seemed odd.  Nobody in the GLBT community was even talking about marriage.  Sure, it might have been made legal in Vermont or Denmark or wherever but here, the subject of marriage rights was more likely to be greeted with a sanctimonious speech about how there were ‘much more important things’ that gays and lesbians should be worrying about.  I seem to recall that Community Action Against Homophobia took this line, for example.

My, haven’t they changed their tune!  Now everybody is talking about it and everybody is in favour of it and all the poofs and dykes seem to feel aggrieved about their inability to get married.  Because it’s about rights, of course.  Once the debate is framed in terms of rights rather than privileges then everyone has a right to feel angry. 

Whether they are angry about their inability to get married or about being treated differently by the law or about this postal survey nonsense or at the Tony Abbotts and Cory Bernardis who brought it about, they all seem to have got to the same place.  Proposals to boycott the vote have faded way.  Even the usual anger toward GLBT people who have a less than glorious history when it comes to marriage (like Penny Wong), or towards straight people whose sympathies are nakedly opportunistic (like Bill Shorten) seems to have been put on hold.  I’ve never seen such unity and better still, it reaches beyond our community to all Australians with goodwill and justice in their hearts.  I wonder if Aboriginal people campaigning for their referendum fifty years ago felt like this?

Vote.  Yes.  Now.

Yet I’m conscious that it’s not my rights that I will be voting for and it’s not going to improve my life even one little tiny bit.  I’m not going to marry – I’m single.  At 50, it is unlikely that I will find someone.  I will not, therefore, benefit from this enhancement of my rights. 

Indeed, if gay marriage does have any impact on my own life, I suspect it is likely to be negative.  No doubt I will be accused of pessimism but I do not think that a shift in social status from ‘queer person in her 50s’ to ‘unmarried woman in her 50s’ is likely to be positive.  But among all that my friends have said about gay marriage over the last few months, not one has indicated the vaguest awareness that a single person might feel differently about this issue to someone who is in a ‘settled domestic relationship’.  This does not bode well.


I will vote, of course.  And vote yes.  It goes without saying.  But I won’t be putting glitter in the envelope, as some have suggested.  As chance would have it, I have another request from the Government that I need to respond to.  It’s from the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program – another dubious present for my 50th birthday.  I’ve just finished gathering my sample.  I thought I might mail them off together.  

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Fear and loathing

There was a footnote to the recent federal election that stuck in my mind.  It was this: in Victoria, One Nation won half of its votes in the electorate of Murray.  This detail appeared in The Age a couple of weeks after the election, right around the time that the “Pauline Hanson: Please Explain” doco aired on SBS.  One Nation won four Senate seats but none of them were in Victoria, where it gained only 1.8% of the vote.  The votes that it did receive came overwhelmingly from rural seats and in particular, Murray.

As it happens, I grew up in that electorate.  Its main town is Shepparton – my home town.  Shepparton is a big town that supplies health, education and retail services for the surrounding region – much like Dubbo or Wagga or Tamworth in NSW.  Like them, it has grown while the smaller towns around it have withered.  Outwardly prosperous, Shepparton still hangs on – just – to its rural manufacturing base, with iconic brands like SPC Fruits and Campbell’s Soup based there.  It has changed a lot since I lived there, but in some ways it is just the same - deeply conservative, and deeply racist.     

When it first emerged in 1996, the Pauline Hanson phenomenon shocked me.  Not because of her views or her popularity, but because anyone could be in the least bit surprised by it.  And they were surprised, or at least they said they were.  They dressed up their reactions in fancy language like “feelings of exclusion” and “responses to globalisation,” which I thought were just nonsense.  A vote for One Nation is not a vote against globalisation.  It’s a vote for racism. It was as if people didn’t want to say that word.  Where, I wondered, have they been

Not in Shepparton, obviously.  I had been there, to visit my Dad.  I grew up in racism.  All those lines that Hanson spouted, about Aboriginal people getting “special treatment”, getting “paid to go to school” and all the rest of it, were like a vox pop from the pubs of Shepparton.  Even from my Dad, who was a Labor man all his life. 

“Why do the Abos get special treatment from the government?” he asked during one visit.
I thought for a moment, because my Dad and I rarely talked about political things and never to disagree.
“I think they probably deserve a hand, Dad” I answered. 

There was a long silence.

“Yeah well,” he grumbled.  “I suppose we did steal their land.”

When I was growing up, Shepparton was an overwhelmingly white Anglo town.  There were a few Italians and Greeks and Turks – they seemed mostly to live outside the town.  It is irrigation country, where water is as precious as gold.  The Goulburn River flows north to Echuca where it meets the Murray and all through the area there are orchards and dairy farms.  The wogs had orchards and kept to themselves.  In the town, as in most Australian country towns, there was a small minority of Aboriginal people.  They lived in the poor end of town in public housing, which is also where my family lived. 

They were our neighbours.  They swam at the swimming hole in the river, which is where we went on those long, hot summer evenings.  They dived for mussels, which I thought was strange and dirty.  I didn’t taste a mussel until after I left home.  When I was little we occasionally played cricket with the Aboriginal boys in the park on Malcolm Crescent, until someone pooped in the tower on the playground.  I just assumed it was one of them.  After that, I went to a different park. 

In the early 80s there was a bit of an uproar, when an Aboriginal family got evicted from a house in my street.  The Shepp News reported that they were living in a tent. 

“I heard,” my mother whispered, “that they hadn’t paid rent for two years before they were evicted.”  The implication was clear:  why should she have to scratch and save to pay the rent while they didn’t?  We would be out on our ear if we didn’t pay rent, and long before two years. 

They went to my school, but we weren’t friends.  In truth, I was scared of them.  And not without reason: Tracy Bennett and her sisters pulled me off my bike while I was doing my paper round and roughed me up when I was 12.  In fact, the characterisation of Aboriginal people as victims has always bemused me a little bit.  I sure don’t remember these kids that way.  They were fierce.  They were scary.  Joanne West, who was in my class in first grade and pretty much every year after that, was not a girl to be messed with.  I was shit scared of her. 

Joanne left school at 15, as all the black kids did.  There was an Aboriginal girl who enrolled at our school in Year 11.  That was unusual enough.  Then one day she turned up to school wearing a bright red sweater with an Aboriginal flag on the front.  It was NAIDOC week.  I remember this because the teacher stood at the front of the class and earnestly explained that, “This is a special time for Aboriginal people and we understand that this is special for Jackie and in recognition of this we have allowed her to wear her Aboriginal sweater instead of the school uniform.” 

This lecture was shortly followed by a classroom “debate” about land rights.  That poor kid was howled down by an angry mob of 30 white kids and I, with my desperate need to belong, was one of them.  She ran out of the room in tears. 

I grew up in this racism, and it grew up in me. 

Why, I wondered years later, would a bunch of teenagers care or even know about land rights?  They didn’t know, of course.  They were just mouthing the nonsense they had learned from their parents.  But their parents didn’t mention the other stuff.  The stuff about Aboriginal children being taken away.  Or about the fact that there were no jobs - never would be - in that town, for a black.  They never told them, either, about what happened to the first people of that region.  To be fair, their parents probably didn’t know themselves.  
By the turn of the last century those people had been virtually wiped out, and their passing wasn’t considered important enough for white people to talk about. 

In 1994, just two years before Hanson was elected, I went to a school reunion.  I’d barely said hello when one of the women turned to me and said, “We were just saying how unfair it is that the Abos get all this stuff for free.” 

“You’ll get no sympathy from me,” I said, and walked away. 

Afterwards, I thought about this exchange a lot.  Why, I wondered, did this even come up?  There were no Aboriginal people there – of course there weren’t.  With people you haven’t seen in years, aren’t there more important things to talk about?  And yet none of these people were especially racist, by local standards. “That kind of whingeing and whining about Aborigines,” said Marcia Langton in the Please Explain doco, “for those of us from rural Australia, that was the norm.”  It was just normal.  More than that, I realised, it was something that we were supposed to share.  To bond over.  It was their way of being friendly to me, and I rejected them. 

I claim no credit for this.  My need for approval was, by that time, directed elsewhere, so it was no loss for me. 

Credit, if there is any, goes to Kath.  I don’t remember her last name but she was a Murri woman who I knew in Canberra in the early 90s.  She worked at ATSIC.  I remember telling her about my boss – an eminent left-wing political scientist – who had asked me to find a “nice photo of some Aboriginal women sitting under a tree” for her latest book. 

“What a crock of racist shit!” Kath scoffed.  “If she wants a photo of a black woman, tell her to come down here and take a fuckin’ photo of me.”

And Judy, an Aboriginal woman I met through work when I moved to Sydney.  I didn’t make friends in the queer community, but Judy asked me home for dinner.  She served roast beef like my mum used to make, and talked to me about her life.  She had grown up among white people.  Her real mob, she said, were “all gone now”.  Judy knew a lot about racism.  “Education is not the answer,” she said.  “And yet it’s the only answer.”

Those kids that I went to school with, I’ve since learned, came from some of the great Aboriginal families of Victoria.  Their ancestors survived the diseases and the massacres and were herded onto reserves and missions.  Their grandparents had been at Corranderk and Cummeragunja.  They started the Aboriginal Advancement League.  In 1939 they walked off Cummeragunja and some of them headed south to Shepparton where they could get work picking fruit.  They camped on the river flats between Shepparton and Mooroopna.  Those camps were gone by the time my family moved to Shepp in the early 1970s, but the parents of my schoolmates had grown up there.  That’s how they knew where to dive for mussels.

In 2006, when my father was very ill, I travelled to Shepp.  In the waiting room at the hospital I heard a voice behind me.  “Excuse me, but are you Abigail Groves?” 

I didn’t recognise the speaker.  It wasn’t any of the women from the school reunion. 

“Don’t you remember?” she asked.  “It’s Jo. Joanne West.” 

Joanne West greeted me like an old friend.  I told her my dad was sick.  “Oh bless him, poor bugger!” she said.  She gave me her phone number but I never called.  To tell the truth, I was scared. 

Once I wandered into the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney to find an exhibition by an artist called Lin Onus.  He painted huge canvases, of tall gum trees and ghostly rivers.  Ethereal, they transported me to another place, another time.  When I got to the end I read his bio and it turned out that Lin Onus was from the river country on the Murray.  He was one of the Yorta Yorta people, the same mob that I had known at school. 

I don’t go back to Shepparton much anymore.  My father is gone now.  His ashes are in that river.  The water is muddy and running with carp – another plague brought by us Europeans.  But the river winds its way north and then west and then south and some of that water, somewhere, will find its way to the sea.



Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Don't forget me, cobber.

Travelling in country NSW recently I was struck, not for the first time, by the war memorials that sit in each town.  There are a few variations in their 1920s architecture: the soldier, the cross, the plain obelisk.  To me they seem archaic and pompous.  They are always engraved with names, of those who ‘made the ultimate sacrifice’ or whatever.  The dead.  Every town, no matter small, has one.

If you linger for a moment and read the names, you will see that often there is repetition.  Like, Woolcott, J., Woolcott, M., Woolcott, W.  What are the chances that three men named Woolcott were not related?  These towns are small now – they would have been tiny then.  They must have been brothers, or cousins.  What a loss!  These little towns - just a handful of families that all knew each other - must have been devastated. 

It’s not very fashionable, in the circles that I move in, to write about wars.  Unless you’re horrified about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, I suppose.  It’s easy to lay blame in these fuck-ups.  But remembering is not so easy.  ANZAC Day, that annual orgy of remembrance, is soaked in ideological nationalism – thinking people, including me, often find it repulsive.   
Nonetheless, I would like to sound a note of remembrance for those who died in a less publicised episode that took place a hundred years ago today, at Fromelles in northern France.  This battle – and it was only called that later – was part of the Battle of the Somme.  It was someone’s bright idea, to conduct a ‘diversionary action’, to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their troops on main Somme front. 

This task fell to the Australians and was, in military as well as human terms, an unmitigated disaster.  The attack was delayed by two days by the weather, but the artillery bombardment had already started.  It was supposed to destroy the barbed wire that lay in front of the German trenches but served only the warn them that the hapless Australians were about to attack.  The Germans were well dug in, safe throughout the bombardment in deep trenches.  When the Australians did attack, in waves at five minute intervals, they were slaughtered by machine gun fire.  Nearly 2,000 Australian soldiers died; another 3,000 were wounded, in a single day.  Many of the bodies, left hanging on the barbed wire, were never recovered.  News of the debacle was covered up, and only came out much later. 

I wondered, as I travelled around northern NSW, what such a disaster must have been like then.  A hundred years ago Australia’s population was much smaller, obviously.  I try to imagine such a thing happening today.  Adjusted for population growth, it might mean perhaps 14,000 people dying, in one day.  It’s hard to imagine what that might look like, or what it might be taken to mean if it happened now.  And I try to imagine the impossible, and think what it must have meant then, in some little town that was really just a handful of families where everyone knew each other.  It’s no wonder they built their obelisks, and I hope it brought those wives and mothers and sisters and fathers and friends some comfort.


Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Shithouse politics

I learned a new word the other night:  terf.  It stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.  Apparently it’s been around for years but I had no idea because I don’t move circles of people who care about such things anymore.  But last weekend my friend Peter Hyndal rang and said that he was going to be in Sydney to speak at a trans event and would I like to come?  It was a public debate run by the Ethics Centre; the topic was “Society must recognise trans people’s gender identities”. 

I would rather stick hot needles in my eyes, I thought.  I know enough about trans politics to know that it would be just awful.  Even the topic was offensive:  how is it that trans identities are even in question?  Can you imagine a question like “Society must recognise Aboriginal people” being considered a legitimate topic for a televised debate? Nonetheless, Peter was earnest about his reasons for doing it and he is my friend so I said I would go and I did.  

And it was awful.  The Ethics Centre had done its work, lining up a man and a woman to speak on each side.  They imported a glamorous transwoman – Andrea James - from the US to speak with Peter on the Yes side.  For the ‘no’ side they had an old white male philosopher, a chap named John Haldane.  And to speak for radical feminists, they had a Sydney-based academic named Bronwyn Winter.   
Each played their part exactly as expected.  Peter and Andrea made eloquent, impassioned pleas for trans acceptance.  The philosopher dude split hairs about the question and scored a few points about political correctness.  And Bronwyn Winter ran the trans-exclusionary-radical-feminist line. 

I won’t claim to represent everything that Winter said with 100% accuracy, but basically she thinks gender is terrible and wants a society where gender doesn’t matter.  Nice, eh?  But in the meantime, before we get to this post-gender utopia, she has a big problem with transwomen.  She doesn’t want them in women’s “space”.  Because they are different from other women.  Because they look like/used to be/were raised as/still are/men

This argument has been going around for nearly forty years, ever since the publication of Janice Raymond’s ‘The Transsexual Empire’ (1979).  Raymond essentially argued that transsexuality is a patriarchal plot, for the male medico/psychiatric establishment to eliminate gender deviance and men, pretending to be women, to ‘colonise’ women’s bodies, space, culture, etc. 

Apart from anything else, Raymond’s argument revealed a profound (and possibly deliberate) ignorance of what it’s like to be a trans woman in this society.  I can’t claim to be an expert on that myself, but I have noticed that transwomen aren’t exactly lauded as heroes.  Winter exhibited the same ignorance the other night.  “This debate has got to the level of toilets!” she sniffed at one point.  I’m thinking that she doesn’t know what it’s like to fear that you are going to have the shit kicked out of you or be publicly humiliated every time you go into a public toilet.  If she did, she might be a little less dismissive of these women’s priorities.

Winter is just one of the women who picked up Raymond’s rather bizarre strain of transphobia.  This transphobia has poisoned feminist debates about who is welcome in ‘women’s space’ since the 1970s.  In the US this debate was played out around the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and in Australia over it was fought out over access to women’s services and the Lesbian Space Project that briefly exercised feminist lesbians in the early 90s. 

Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think the preoccupation with women’s ‘space’ or indeed separate spaces for any marginalised group, was fundamentally misconceived.  A waste of time and energy.  I thought we wanted the world to be different?  I thought we wanted men to be different?  How is sitting at a music festival in the bush going to achieve that?  And who is it for, this women-only space?  It’s going to have limited appeal for heterosexual women, which rules out most of that 90%.  And trans women – they are a big no-no.  And any lesbians who like hanging with their straight or trans friends…so that doesn’t leave a lot.  The history of women’s space is a history of cancellations due to lack of interest, which is how the Michigan festival finally met its inglorious end.  Oh, and who is to rule these micro-empires?  Obviously none of the rules or processes from mainstream society can apply, because they are all patriarchal and corrupt.  So who does that leave?  I’ll tell you who: the mob.  The angry, bigoted, ignorant mob. 

I had a vague impression that this strain of radical feminism had gone away.  I don’t know why I thought that: perhaps because of the growth of trans visibility and the number of amazing young women that I meet.  It hasn’t, as Germaine Greer’s “just because you lop off your dick and then put on a dress doesn’t make you a woman” comments last year proved.  Greer may not have had an interesting insight since the 70s, but she still has the public profile to set the internet alight with her brand of dog-whistle feminist politics. 

And Winter was there to run a more sophisticated version of the same line.  She was afraid, she claimed.  Terfs (a term she says is ‘extremely damaging’) have been bullied and threatened in this debate, she said.  Quite possibly some of them have.  But these women never hesitate to play the victim and they will happily use their victimhood to deny someone else their human rights.  This logic took Winter’s argument back to the toilet. 

“Women,” she said, “have certain bodily processes that are exclusive to us as women.  Most women menstruate, for example.  And we need to have safe spaces where we can do that by ourselves.”  Spaces without transwomen, she meant. 

This is where radical feminism has got to, I thought sadly.  Forty years ago women were throwing away their bras and challenging stereotypes.  Now they are whingeing because there might be a tranny in the next cubicle. 


I have been reflecting on her comments, and on the history of radical feminism’s engagement with trans women, since.  And it made me suspect that perhaps separatism is not such a bad thing after all.  Then at least there would be somewhere that Greer and Winter and their friends can go and feel safe.  With lots of lovely toilets, of course.  And maybe, with a bit of luck, they just won’t come back.  

Monday, 9 November 2015

Why not?


My buddy cancelled dinner.  She messaged me last night and said, ‘I just realised I have a dinner tomorrow night.’  I thought, ‘Yes, with me.’  But obviously she was referring to a different dinner.  That’s ok, I can go to my Buddhist class tonight and tomorrow I will go to the shrink and talk about my feelings of insignificance, which I would have done anyway.  It helps to have fresh examples. 

There’s no shortage, because things like this happen quite a bit.  Most of my friends are middle-aged and they are busy people with responsibilities. Energy levels also aren’t what they used to be.  One of the popular excuses is ‘I’m tired from work’.  This would be annoying if my response wasn’t one of relief: phew, so am I.  But more often it’s something to do with the kids or the partner, neither of which I have.  Generally their priorities look like this:

1.       Kids
2.       Partner/spouse
3.       Family of origin
4.       Job
5.       Close/old friends
6.       House
7.       Mid-range/work friends/exercise
8.       Hobbies.

That’s a lot to juggle, especially when your job takes up most of the week. And it’s prone to the wrecking ball of health problems – yours or someone else’s - which can erupt at any time shoot straight to the top of the charts. 

It’s depressing, of course, to rate so lowly on that scale and hence the visits to the shrink.  It’s also difficult to separate those feelings of insignificance from the larger question of: how did this happen?  How did I miss that freight train of normativity that rumbles through all our lives?  Was I asleep when it stopped at the key stations of Partner, Kids, and House?

It’s not like I wasn’t trying.  On the contrary, for thirty years my earnest wish, ambition, and expectation was to obtain a seat on that train.  Much of my energy was directed toward that goal and I organised my life around that expectation.  The complication of queerness was just an inconvenience of scheduling. Most of my friends faced the same obstacle but they still got a seat on the train.  I missed out.  I failed.  Let’s not beat about the bush, because that’s what happened.

Not everyone will agree, of course.  One of the key principles of being queer or a feminist or even just vaguely left is that you are supposed to be very critical of this normative package.  Sometimes people remind me of this if I express feelings of inadequacy, disappointment or grief.  Such reminders, I’ve noticed, usually come from heterosexual people.  They seem to feel that they were forced to board the train and had little choice about where it stopped. 

I find that it’s best not to speak about these feelings or indeed, any of the things that my life so conspicuously lacks.  Unfortunately that doesn’t stop other people from bringing them up, usually in the form of unsolicited advice or questions.  These can be summarised as a single question: why not?  Why don’t you have these things that everyone, queer or otherwise, really wants?  At least some of them?  Why don’t you want them?  Oh, you do?  Well, why don’t you have them?  What’s wrong with you??

Why don’t you have kids?  This is my personal favourite, as it leads to the most bizarre contortions of logic or rationality.  Like the twentysomething lesbians who assured me that ‘it’s not too late’ to have children – I guess they missed the biology class.  Or the earnest suggestion (remarkably common) that I, as a single 48 year old genderqueer, would be an ideal candidate to adopt one of the 11 babies relinquished in NSW last year.  Or the implication that I can’t have really wanted children if I wasn’t prepared to fly to Malawi to buy one. 

Why don’t you have a partner?  What’s interesting about this particular failure is that the more people know and like you, the harder they find it to accept.  Strangers barely register if you don’t have a partner. Sometimes they throw in a condescending ‘Awww,’ but you’re just one of thousands.  Friends, by contrast, like to offer suggestions.  I’ve lost count of the number of people who were convinced that my failure to couple up was due to my refusal to join a lesbian book club.  Disliking novels is, apparently, no barrier because everyone is just there for sex anyway.  Over the years the suggestions have become more desperate. Recently a friend suggested I enter into a relationship with an ex who I am friendly with.  In an approach that I call “skip to the end,” the fact that I am not attracted to her was considered no barrier.  I’ve yet to apprise my ex of this plan for her future.

At the very least, why don’t you have a house?  Not surprisingly, most of the people who ask this question don’t come from Sydney. Like the old friend from Melbourne who asked if I had ever considered buying a property and assured me that it would be no problem for ‘someone of your intelligence’.  I must try this approach at auction.  $750,000?  $760,000?  Would you accept $30k and some intelligence?

I have found that responding to these questions with honesty or sincere emotion does not work.  It will not produce validation but more unsolicited, unhelpful advice.  Likewise, responding with anger is not helpful.  Sneering at drivel about multiple, fluid and de-centred sexualities from some monogamously-coupled lesbian with phrases like ‘fucking hypocrite’ will de-rail an otherwise pleasant brunch date.  It’s really best to avoid the whole business and if they bring it up, try to shut it down as fast as possible.

Curiously, the easiest people to be around are often straight women.  The same people, as it happens, who are critical of the whole marriage-and-kids construct.  Their problems with the heterosexual package are always about their partner.  Got a shitty partner - bugger!  This package isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, sugar.  Their lives are ridden with disappointment and an acute awareness of the roads that they could, and perhaps should, have taken. 

Queers can be full of denial and judgement. Having had to try harder to get a place on the train, they find it hard to understand anyone who didn’t.  It is not easy to acknowledge that every good choice you’ve made was accompanied by good luck or sometimes bad luck which still turned out ok but sometimes didn’t and that every bad choice was accompanied by good luck or often bad luck and every combination thereof.  Sometimes we can’t even be sure if our choices were really our choices or not.  To admit these things is to admit that we don’t have control over our own lives.  And the fact is: we don’t.  Some of us have a bit of control over some parts of our lives, sometimes, if we’re lucky.  And our luck can change.  And sometimes it does - perhaps mine will.  But wouldn’t it be more fun to talk about all the things I could do instead?