Sunday turned into a huge writing session. I finished my post about the Linehan story and then, instead of cartooning, I wrote an article about US politics, which was considerably easier than either. I’m in the writing zone. I should probably stop. However, whilst I have the energy and before I go binge on Brooklyn 99, I wanted to write a postscript to my previous piece.
I realised after writing it that it lacked some concrete examples of the kind of world I envisioned. Shifting the terms to equality and equity felt like a cop-out. I know people like to know where we all stand in these either/or questions. So, where do I fall in the whole transgender debate? Am I for gender or biology?
The easy answer is biology… but only for the moment. It’s more a matter of what is pragmatically possible and where the bulk of popular opinion lies. The rest depends on how much of this poststructuralist world sticks.
We spend so much time arguing about gender when these things are almost entirely out of our hands. If I had to guess the future, I’d say the most powerful of all identity dynamics will be that of the individual. The future will increasingly be about reclaiming the self from the various hegemonies of the past (left/right, nation/world, straight/gay, male/female). We’re a postmodern people and I think playfulness will be a hard habit to kick. It’s why I was never convinced by any arguments for Brexit. I don’t believe that our future lies with isolationism and returning to older narratives of nationhood. I might be wrong but my decision was moral as much as it was based on my powers of prediction. I’m a hippy. I like the global community. I enjoy knowing people of other nationalities. I’m naïve enough to think Putin hates European cooperation because he also knows it makes us more powerful.
Personalisation already comes at us thick fast and it wouldn’t surprise me if gender didn’t continue to evolve in the medium term, if not longer. That doesn’t mean that traditional male and female relationships won’t be any less dominant, but I doubt if we’ll get quite so hung up with other people’s identities. It will be increasingly “none of our business” and that’s surely a good thing. This is the problem with living inside history. We tend to assume that our norms are permanent when history teaches us something else entirely.
If you really want to go grey before your time, I suggest books on anthropology that explore the full range of human culture. Begin with the Aboriginal practice of subincision, which involves slicing open a young man’s penis the length of the shaft as a rite of passage. Makes me feel sick just describing it but there you have another thing that in a different culture was considered a “norm”. Read too Christopher Hitchens’ brilliant polemic about circumcision and try to square the circle that has us condemning female circumcision yet are queasy about condemning if for males.
It might also boggle the mind to consider that not all cultures have two genders. Some have three. Some have four. Other cultures have different ideas of masculinity and femininity. So much of what we assume is “natural” is merely custom. Lord Byron admitted to sodomizing young boys during his tour of Albania in 1809. Today he’d be classed as a paedophile but at the time he was exploiting cultural norms in other countries in order to explore his own homosexuality. It continues to this day. Afghans have a custom of “bacha bazi” which involves sexual relationships between older men and adolescent boys. Most famously, in parts of Columbia there’s a tradition by which young men learn about sex by having relationships with donkeys. And, yes, that involves exactly what you think it involves. Possibly stood on a small stepladder. It was even featured in one of the old Top Gear specials so it’s probably available on Youtube if you really want to confirm that it’s true (it is).
None of that is to say “anything goes” because like most western Europeans, I find many of these practices abhorrent. What I am saying, however, is that giving oneself a headache trying to solve the logic of trans rights vs women’s rights is essentially pointless once you get past the pragmatics of the here and now, which are usually become hard and fast matters of law.
First: there is no answer. It’s like adding 1 to 1 and hoping to get 3.
Second: it overstates the power of any individual in shaping our destiny. Quite literally: if J.K. Rowling can’t shift the needle, what chance anybody? Mary Whitehouse devoted most of her life to stopping people writing words like “fuck” in print. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Yes. There were probably better things she could have done with her time. She also worked to prevent the spread of pornography with almost no success. (And, incidentally, since we’re talking of cultural attitudes, has the easy availability of pornography on the internet raised the number of sexual crimes as was long predicted? I’ve seen studies that suggest it hasn’t.)
Third: cultures develop according to their own logic. I’ve written about this before. The sum total of human actions direct history’s needle but individual men or women barely influence it. Hitler is huge in our history. Churchill too but look how he’s been revised in recent weeks. Inventors and scientists perhaps have the greatest claims to influence but even this is questionable. History diminishes everything.
Fourth: we are ultimately left alone with ourselves and judging our own actions. The only motivation I have is to harm the least number of people and to afford pleasure where I can to the maximum number of people. That’s impossible to achieve but I still think it’s important to try. It’s painful to think that by arguing for “biology” you condemn some people to lives of considerable pain. Yet it’s equally awful to contemplate arguing in favour of “gender” knowing that you might place women in danger from predatory men. All you can hope is that we treat these things with the required sensitivity or strength where necessary. Culture evolves and so too, I hope, does our capacity for kindness.