Liberty, justice, and toilet freedom for all

toilet

While I was studying for my Masters degree, I worked part time as a janitor.

It was extremely glamorous.

The last school where I worked, Tong High School in Bradford, England, had unisex toilets. I don’t know how common this is, but I’d never seen it in any of the schools I’d been in before (and I’ve been in a lot of schools, as I’m sure many people have).

It’s a given that men and women have to do their private business in separate areas, isn’t it? After all, we are so different from each other that there’s no way we could ever do that in the same place.

I don’t know if it was gender consciousness on the part of the architect who built the school, but I do think that not seeing boys and girls as being creatures so alien to one another that they have to pee in separate facilities has the potential to go a long way towards achieving gender equality.

In the United States, trans children are legally able to use the toilet that fits the gender that they identify as at school. Hopefully someday, gendered toilet usage won’t even be a conversation, the same way different races using the same toilets is no longer a discussion. People will be able to identify with whatever gender suits them, or not identify with any gender at all, and use the appropriate water closet. (I’m really uncomfortable with the number of times I’m having to type “toilet”.) This idea isn’t all that implausible- there are some cultures that have a third gender, and older cultures in which the current, pervasive definition of gender wasn’t a forgone conclusion until colonialism mandated rigid, “God”-assigned roles. Until then, it absolutely has to be a conversation, because in some parts of the world, being gender-nonconforming is a risk that can end your life.

For trans people in particular- although anyone not fitting obviously into their assigned gender category can feel this way- deciding which toilet to use can be a real source of anxiety. some have been attacked for using the “wrong” bathrooms. People think they are justified in violently assaulting people simply for existing (Media Matters explains how the media is partially responsible). It happens too often to just be a coincidence, or just be the work of a handful of sociopathic individuals. Traditional beliefs about gender, although arbitrary, mean that people believe that violence is justifiable to defend them.

If all toilets were unisex, maybe that would just be one step further in eradicating antiquated gender roles. Maybe it would be safer for people who identify with a gender different from the one that they were assigned at birth to inhabit public spaces, and they wouldn’t be attacked for using the wrong toilet because it wouldn’t make any difference.

This is not only a trans issue, although it most likely has the most obvious impact on trans people. The issue is much larger than toilet-usage. Although things like this might seem inconsequential, I believe taking these things for granted can have less than ideal consequences.

If teenagers in Northern England can use the same toilet facilities without incident, is there any reason the rest of us can’t do the same?

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Waiting on my emperor

I’m not a relationship person. I’m 30 years old, and have been in one relationship.

I’ve dated, or at least attempted to date outside of that one relationship, but most of those situations have been unmitigated disasters, the most recent of which was my then housemate and her boyfriend setting me up with his housemate who turned out to be a disgusting, misogynistic creep. It was an awful experience. So, I’ve removed myself from the dating scene for now. Frankly, aside from emotionally, I’m also not geographically in the right place to find the type of person I would like to date.

Something that I keep hearing from African men is say that “a woman is supposed to cook.” A woman is unmarriageable if she doesn’t cook. And to be fair, it’s not only the men that say it- women perpetuate these gender roles. I was with the a couple of diplomats this week, and they said that “no Ghanaian man would marry me” and that “as a woman, I have certain gifts that enable me to cook” and that my husband “pays the bills, so I have to cook.”

Obviously, I did not react well. Aside from the assumption that my greatest ambition is to have a Ghanaian husband (WTF?), men also have hands, and if a man has managed to make it to the age of 25 or 30 or 35 without me cooking for him, why on earth would I suddenly be responsible for his nourishment? I have a Masters degree, and I work- and I… don’t pay bills? Is my money not good enough for bill paying because I’m a woman?

I’m sure this will come as a surprise to no one, but I’m not interested in being in a relationship where my partner doesn’t view me as a human being. I’m certainly not interested in being in a relationship where a partner expects things from me- cooking, cleaning, making less money than him, shaving my legs, being a SAHM, wearing makeup, an engagement ring, or skirts, changing my last name- that he wouldn’t even consider doing himself. I do not believe in “letting the man lead.” And I’m certainly not about to have a man “teach” me that I’m should be submissive to him, because why on earth would I listen to the oppressor telling me that I’m meant to be oppressed by him? I’m aware that I’m limiting my choices in partners by doing that, but I’m damn sure not about to limit my choices in life to please some man’s sexist preferences.

I am interested in a relationship where someone’s expectations of me aren’t based on stereotypes and restrictive roles- one where he would expect me to treat him with respect and compassion, and he would do the same for me.

There was an episode of Sex and the City where Jack Berger was hanging out with Carrie and Charlotte, and said “So basically, guys are just fucked?” when Charlotte said she hated carnations, and Carrie said she loved them- and that Carrie would dump a guy for wearing boat shoes, but Charlotte thought they were cute. A guy is only screwed if he views women the same way humans view dogs- as creatures that universally love having their genitals scratched and eating their own feces, rather than people with distinct preferences, flaws, and strengths.

This metaphor is getting away from me.

My point is that men and women should view each other as equals.

There aren’t a whole lot of models of feminist relationships out there- so when I look at who I would like my ideal relationship to be modeled after, I look to the most egalitarian society that I know of: The emperor penguins.

Admittedly, I am no relationship expert. But I do know what I want in a relationship- and that is a partner, not a master or a dependent. The emperor penguin is the most non-sexist animal species I know of. (There are some matriarchal animal species as well, but I’m more interested in the idea of sharing lives than one sex being subordinate to another.)

Shutterstock
Emperor penguins

I think these arctic birds are a pretty inspirational model for how to treat one another. Before sex, the male bows to the female and she bows back. When she lays the egg, the male incubates it for the winter while she goes off to feed herself- laying an egg takes a lot out of you. He takes care of it for over two months! If the penguin hatches before the mother returns, the papa takes care of it, feeding it with a liquid produced in his esophagus (the penguin equivalent of breast milk) and keeping it warm.

When the mama comes back, she takes over the childcare responsibilities, while the male penguin goes to sea to regain his strength (childcare is exhausting stuff).

I get that penguins are not humans, and that there are physiological differences between us that make certain things impossible- we’re mammals after all, and women gestate fetuses until birth, and men don’t produce breast milk. Still, I don’t see why we can’t take a cue from our tuxedoed cousins and split things more equally– both men and women putting in the work (even the not so fun stuff) to make their lives run smoothly, instead of arbitrarily gendering responsibilities and calling it a day.

So unlike Monique, I’m not looking for a king to whom to submit. And I’m not looking to be treated like a queen. (What does that mean, anyway?) In all honesty, I’m not looking for anything right now, but when someone the time does come, I will be ready for my emperor.

Ungendering language

In 2015, hen will officially enter Sweden’s lexicon as a gender-neutral pronoun.

While some complain that this is “taking it too far” (a concept I addressed here and here), it’s really a step in the right direction. Sure, it may make for some occasionally confusing conversations, but the overwhelming majority of the time, knowing someone’s sex or gender identity isn’t really, or shouldn’t be a factor in one’s interaction with them.

Besides, gender-neutral pronouns are nothing new. The thing is, I’m not sure they make any difference. In Ghana, which is hands down the most gendered society I’ve ever lived in, the lingua franca, Twi, uses a gender-neutral pronoun. It doesn’t make anything even remotely egalitarian.

The world actually goes too far in the gendering of things. In many languages, inanimate objects are gendered. As far as I can tell, the only reason for this is to reinforce imagined differences between men and women by using language. There is nothing bad about removing artificial barriers that are held in place only by blind adherence.

John McWhorter argues that such a thing would be impossible in English, although teens already proving that idea wrong.

Why not embrace gender-neutral language? Although it’s not going to fix everything, maybe it will make us less quick to make assumptions about things based on supposed traits. Maybe I won’t be asked why I don’t wear nail polish or told by someone I’m dating that I need to wear dresses or he won’t be attracted to me anymore if I’m thought of primarily as a person rather than a woman first. Maybe men like Sissy Goodwin won’t be physically and verbally attacked for wearing clothes that they like if we just think of people as being people.

Thoughts?

“You take it too far”

It’s not uncommon for people who have never experienced systemic, institutionalized oppression of a certain type to accuse those who have, and identify it, as being “too sensitive” or “taking it too far.”

For people who have never been on the receiving end of systematic discrimination, or for people who are, but for some reason, prefer it that way, it may not be that obvious. If it’s not something overt, like hanging a human being from a tree, or bombing their home or place of worship, or physically assaulting someone while yelling racial slurs, then clearly it’s not systemic racism, it’s because of something else.

Studies have shown that those who are on the receiving end of racism are the best able to identify it. And why wouldn’t they? While I understand that there are all kinds of discrimination that take place against people based on religion, race, size, ability, gender identity, I certainly can’t pick out anti-Semitism as easily as a Jewish person can, or transphobia as easily as a trans person can. I’m going to defer to the people who are on the receiving end of it to tell me.

Microaggressions, which are all too familiar to people with subaltern identities, are difficult to prove. It is possible for people to behave in a way that’s racist, even if it’s not a conscious decision for them to behave that way, thanks to several hundred years of white supremacy conditioning some people to be seen as smarter, more capable, or more attractive or more “refined” than others based on nothing but an arbitrarily defined set of physical characteristics.

It’s when a white Canadian says that of course white men in China go after local women in a way they don’t in Ghana because “That’s different, because they’re Asian, and they’re hot!”

It’s a “friend” telling saying that it’s not good not to cook because you’re “a girl.” (Two in one-infantilizing and gender policing simultaneously!)

It’s describing East Africans (any people of color with physical characteristics usually associated with whiteness) has having “more refined” features than the rest of Africa.

It’s your cousins and their friends laughing at you and saying “I hope I’m not being sexism” when you point out real, problematic, misogynistic behavior.

It’s me saying something in Japanese (to a table of people who don’t understand Japanese), explaining what it means, and then having them argue with absolute certainty about it- because by definition, as a black woman, it’s impossible that I could possibly know what I’m talking about, right?

It’s having all these types of incidences dismissed with a “You’re taking it too far” by someone who does not understand what it is to live life on the receiving end of this.

The thing is, it’s impossible to prove that (some of) these incidents came from a place of maliciousness, or even prejudice. I can’t prove when a white person sticks their hands into my hair without my permission that they have done it because of my race, because it’s not like I have a recording of them admitting to it. But I know that that’s what they are doing, because I have grown up on the receiving end of racism and sexism my entire life.

So no, it’s not me that’s taking it too far. It’s not the countless other people who are far more educated than I am on issues of discrimination and power dynamics who are taking it too far.

Thoughts?

Further reading:

How to Tell if a White Person is Racist

“People are Nicer to Daddy Because He’s White”

When culture fails

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a widespread phenomenon. In the popular imagination, it’s often associated with Islam, or Africa, even though they both Islam and Africa are varied and diverse. While it is true that FGM is practiced in 29 out of 54 African countries, it also takes place in Asia, the Middle East, and even in developed countries such as the US and the UK. While it’s sometimes justified using religion, no religion officially sanctions the practice.

In reality, FGM is a tradition that is born out of and justified by the basis of culture. The reasons for continuing the harmful vary- it makes women more beautiful, it makes a woman a more desirable partner, or it assuages women’s natural wild, animalistic urges. In one Senegalese village, an imam said that without FGM, “Women would be jumping on top of all the men.”

Unlike male circumcision, which actually has some benefits (although there are plenty of people who oppose this practice as well); there is absolutely no physical, medical, or moral advantage to female circumcision. In fact, risks include severe physical pain, infection, decreased sexual pleasure, urine retention, fistulas, infertility, and even death. It keeps happening solely because of social expectations, and even though it’s normally carried out by women, it is supported by an undercurrent of patriarchal values that place much less value on a woman’s life than on a man’s.

Tostan, a Senegal-born human rights NGO, takes a holistic approach to ending FGM: Instead of just telling women to stop doing it, it focuses on educating whole communities about the importance of respecting the rights of all people. And it works: Malicoumba Bambara, a village near Thies (the country’s third biggest city), officially ended the practice in 1997.

Social norms approaches are another way of educating communities to eradicate harmful practices. In a nutshell, people make assumptions about what other people are doing, and then model their behavior based on this perception. Social norms approaches change people’s ideas about what everyone else is doing. When enough individuals change their ideas, it leads to a group-wide change.

Too often, people justify sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other discriminatory practices with “It’s our culture.” There is a flaw in this theory, though: Culture is something that is created by people. You’re not giving yourself enough credit if you think that you have to do something solely because it’s your culture. People make culture. FGM is a cultural practice, but it’s not infallible. Like I’ve said before, when culture harms people, then it’s the responsibility of everyone to change it.

 

“Sex” with boys isn’t sex

It’s physically impossible to have sex with a child. If you’re an adult and you are “having sex” with a child, that’s rape. Even if you insist that the child consented. The Huffington Post recently reported about a woman who was jailed for “having sex with an eight-year old.” When the story was reprinted in one of Ghana’s newspapers, The Daily Graphic, It was filed under “odd news.”

This indicates a lot that is wrong with how societies in general view male sexuality. A grown woman raping a boy is not odd, it’s criminal. The paper reported that “Loren Morris, 21, was 16 when she first slept with the schoolboy and continued until he was ten years old. Morris… would have regular intercourse with the boy, now 14, and was only found out after he was overheard bragging about it at school.” [emphasis mine]

The judge gave her a two-year sentence, giving the reason that “due to the concern and embarrassment caused to both you and your family that you will not be offending again, let alone committing sexual offences.”

In 2008, Kelsey Peterson, a 26-year old math teacher, pled guilty to raping her 12-year old student. Her defense? “I resent the term ‘child.’ You’re baby-fying this kid. This kid is a Latino machismo teenager.” Aside from the fact that “babyfying” isn’t a word, “machismo” isn’t an adjective, and a 12-year old isn’t a teenager, her defense places the blame on the victim of her predation, throwing in all kinds of gendered and racial ideas about sexuality, and who can and cannot be a victim.

In 2009, Lil’ Wayne disclosed that he had been a victim of sexual assault at age 11. In his documentary, he brags about how he “loved” it, even though when he later appeared on Jimmy Kimmel, he didn’t speak about the experience as though it was a positive one. Because it isn’t.

There is something wrong with what society is teaching both men and women about male sexuality when boys who are victims of a crime find that it’s something to brag about. I don’t believe that it’s their fault- the idea of a man being the victim of this type of crime is seen as a joke. How often do you hear jokes, especially in American media, about “dropping the soap” in prison, like in the Boondocks episode?

We are bombarded all the time with images about men being hypersexual, always wanting it and it being impossible for a man to be a victim of rape, because men always want to have sex with anything and everything. We have not created a world where a boy can come forward and admit to having been a victim; they are supposed to have enjoyed it. As Cara at the Curvature put it, “In cases where a man is the victim of a woman’s violence, rape apologism is strongly rooted in the denial that women’s actions can count as violence at all — and especially that their actions can count as sexual violence against men, who are routinely construed as incapable of being victims.”

When you add racialized stereotypes and expectations of how men are supposed to behave, it makes people that much more resistant to acknowledging that boys (and men) can be victims of this kind of predation.

It’s only when men and women are acknowledged as full human beings with individual desires, agency, and libidos, that survivors will be able to come forward without shame.

Building peace through gender in Dakar

29 students have just completed a Masters program in gender and peacebuilding at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal. The program is run jointly by the university the United Nations Peace University in Costa Rica, and Femmes Africa Solidarité, an NGO that supports the inclusion of women in conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

The 29 graduates are made up of 15 women and 14 men and come from Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, to name a few. According to Vera Songwe, World Bank country director in Senegal, “Africa cannot have sustained growth without peace and without the participation of women, who make up 50 percent of the work force.”

As I’ve written before, even people who have Masters and PhD’s in peace studies think that “gender” means “women,” and fail to consider that men are also gendered. The courses offered as part of the program include gender and human rights, gender concepts and postcolonial theory, history of sexual rights, and masculinities and violence. The nearly 50% distribution of enrolment between men and women indicates just how important it is for both men and women to consider, and be considered, in gender mainstreaming as part of peacebuilding initiatives.

Women are affected by conflict just as much as men- from girls who are abducted and forced to serve as child soldiers to women who have to bear full responsibility for their households when their husbands are drafted. It’s impossible resolve conflicts without considering what women go through and how what women need differs from what men go through and what men need after the end of a violent conflict.

Djenebou Diallo, an Ivorian graduate of the program, says “Today, thanks to this master’s, I’ve become a different person, with new ambitions for Africa as a whole and my country in particular.”

The revolution begins… with menstrual pads

It seems as though women’s bodies have always been a source of controversy. Through media and daily interaction, I’ve learned that women’s bodies are disgusting and shameful, and need to be hidden. (That is, of course when we’re not supposed to have our bodies fully on display, but only after we’ve completely altered what we look like to fit a non-human ideal.)

Once, I used the word “clit” in conversation, and my white, male friend flipped out. “Do you kiss you mother with that mouth?” he exclaimed. “I would say dick around my mother, but never clit.” “Oh really?” I asked. “So male body parts are fine to talk about, women’s bodies are too dirty and vulgar? I get it.” He said that it was “different” because men’s body parts are funny. And what, women’s parts are disgusting? On another occasion, a black man (that I would most definitely not call a friend) kept trying to force a conversation about sex, even after I had repeatedly told him that I was not interested in discussing it with him. At some later point, he tried to make the assertion that I was responsible for cooking as a woman, and I said “really? You think having a vagina has something to do with cooking?” He freaked out because I said the word “vagina.” Interesting, how he someone preoccupied with trying to force a conversation about sex was so affronted by the use of the word “vagina,” the female sexual organ! The name of a body part, just like a cornea or tibia, was too disgusting for him to have to hear because it’s a female body part. I can’t count the number of times I’ve witnessed someone mentioning the word “period” or “menstruation” and seeing all men in the room grimace and cover their ears. Women’s bodies are just so disgusting.

Arunachalam Muruganantham, a man from rural, southern India, has spent the last 15 years trying to make sanitary pads affordable for women, starting with his wife, after seeing the rags that she used during her period. Women make up half of the world’s population, yet for so many, access to pads (much less alternative forms of menstrual sanitary accessories) is completely out of reach, sometimes meaning they end up dropping out of school and severely limiting their income potential; trapping them in a cycle of dependency.

Muruganantham ended up being completely ostracized from his community– his wife left him, his mother left, and he was run out of town, facing vitriol from both men and women- simply for trying to find an affordable method to provide with a basic health provision.

Fortunately, thanks to Muruganantham’s perseverance and his invention to allow women to make and sell affordable pads, women in over 1,000 villages have access, and stigma around a natural biological process is disappearing. He says of his success: “My aim was to create one million jobs for poor women – but why not 10 million jobs worldwide,” and is planning to expand to over 100 countries around the world, including Nigeria, the Philippines, and Mauritius.

Although the initiative is by no means a panacea for the vitriol that is directed towards women’s bodies on a daily basis, just imagine, all those attitudes changing, all that income potential for women, and all those pads, thanks to one man from a rural Indian village.

How to be/not to be an ally

I am no expert on trans rights, but over the past several years, trans activism- blogs, videos, magazine articles- has taught me a lot about my privilege as a cis-woman, and how to be a good ally to those who are not.

Among those great teachers are Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and TransGriot.

A few weeks ago, Cox and Carmen Carrera were on Katie Couric’s talk show, Katie. As Sunnivie Brydum wrote on Advocate, they were subjected to Couric’s “spurious line of questioning wherein the host seemed fixated on the trans women’s genitalia, and the details of what gender-confirming surgeries the women may have undergone.”

Both women explained why it was harmful to trans people to constantly fixate on their “private parts”, rather than on real issues that affect the community. Cox said:

There’s a preoccupation with that and I think that the preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people and then we don’t get to really deal with the real, lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average. If you’re a trans person of color, it’s four times the average. The homicide rate in the LGBT community is highest amongst trans women. And when we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.

Couric reacted exactly how an ally should- she left the moment in when she aired in what she called a “teachable” moment, and thanked her guests for the correction, saying “You’re so well-spoken about it. That’s very well put. Laverne and Carmen, thank you both so much for being here.”

By contrast, Piers Morgan demonstrated exactly how not to be an ally when Janet Mock was a guest on his show, Piers Morgan Live. After her appearance, Mock sent out three tweets expressing disapproval with the way the show said that “she was born a boy” and that she “used to be a man.” Morgan then invited her to return to the show to explain.

Morgan made the second interview entirely about himself, how he had done nothing but support the LGBT community, how he had told Mock that she looked like Beyonce, how Marie Claire had run an article about Mock called I Was Born a Boy and therefore Mock had no right to object to being misgendered by his show. Morgan is now calling himself a victim of “cisphobia,” something that’s so absurd as to be laughable. Trans people do not have power over cis people, and the idea that an underprivileged community can pose any kind of a threat to a member of the most privileged one (white, straight, cis, upper-class, male) illustrates exactly how much Morgan has no desire to learn.

Something that Couric, Morgan, and many cis people (including me!) have in common is that we all have to shut up and listen if we really want to understand issues that affect trans men, trans women, trans POC.

 

A crazy way to live

I don’t really have anything new or constructive to say on the subject of violence against men of color, except that I am getting weary of hearing about young boys being violently assaulted because of their race. February 5th would have been Trayvon Martin’s 19th birthday, and it’s almost exactly two years of the anniversary of his death. Boys and men of color are so often victims of both extrajudicial violence for existing the way they were born.

Following Martin’s murder, a chain e-mail claiming that the media was not accurately representing his appearance, and that he was in fact a tall, muscular, tattooed black man made the internet rounds. Not only was it a photograph of rapper The Game and not Martin, those perpetuating this rumor seemed unable to comprehend that the mere fact of being black, tattooed, tall, and muscular and male does not make you any less of a human, and certainly does not justify someone murdering you in cold blood. Continue reading