I’m not sure what the hell is happening to the world – when I think of progressive rights, I think of a board game: two steps forward, eight steps back. A few days before Illinois finally is celebrating marriage equality, the Chicago Sun-Times publishes an op-ed piece by Kevin Williamson, titled “Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman,” in which the “writer” pretends he’s an expert on trans issues.
Full disclosure: I’m not an expert on trans issues. I’m a white cis male, which tons of privilege, so if I want to speak about a population that through no work or effort I have privilege over, I don’t assume that I can speak for them or at them. But Williamson does because in his world trans folks don’t fit –
So Williamson starts off by noting that Cox will be on the cover of Time magazine. He writes about Chelsea Manning, still referring to her as Bradley, by the way and lamenting that “we are expected” to call her by the name she chooses.
That’s the first thing that pissed me off royally. There’s nothing that gets me more annoyed than privileged people lamenting when they have to shift or move their world view and their language when social progress occurs. It’s like those dummys who still want to refer to women as “broads” or “chicks” – yeah, times change and so does language. It reminded me of a neat interview Sarah Silverman worked with Andy Borowitz when she talked about “retarded” and its use, and she discussed how she felt it important for people to change and evolve – she likened it to when people used “gay” as a pejorative (more on that in a bit when I discuss Jonah Hill).
Anyways, back to Williamson, so the dude’s decided that he’s an expert on what makes a woman a woman – and listen up folks – all it takes to be a woman is to have the “right” plumbing. It’s that simple. Williamson repeatedly uses the wrong gender when referring to Cox – again, he knows he’s being an ass because he even snidely writes “God help [Katie Couric] if she had misdeployed a pronounc, which is now considered practically a hate crime” (more on hate crimes and trans folks in a bit). He referred to the awful interview that Couric conducted with Cox and Candace Carmen Carrera. Williamson wrote “Couric famously asked [her] about whether [she] had undergone surgical alteration, and [she] rejected the question as invasive, though what counts as invasive when you are being interviewed by Katie Couric about features of your sexual identity is open to interpretation” (I’ve corrected Williamson’s hateful pronoun errors). Again, this line shows that poor old Williamson just doesn’t “get” it – and I won’t assume that he’s never met a trans person, but if he has, he certainly never listened to her. What was so offensive about Couric’s line of questioning – which by the way, Cox handled with grace, intelligence, and wit – was that Couric seemed to sum up most of mainstream America’s understanding of trans issues by reducing it to physical body parts – when it’s so much more. Some trans folks opt for surgery – some don’t, either by choice or through circumstance. When we talk about trans issues, we shouldn’t fixated on the body, but more on what’s going on with the trans community – because as Cox pointed out, when we’re so fixated on genitalia, we’re forgetting that trans women of color are arguably the biggest targets of hate crimes.
Then Williamson writes about language – and he seems to have an issue with the difference between gender and sex. And you know what? That’s okay – instead of pontificating as if he was an expert on these issues, he could’ve admitted, “hey, all this is stuff is still all new to me, and I’m trying to wrap my head around it.” But instead he writes that the difference between gender and sex is merely a “mystical exercise in rearranging words to rearrange reality.” The problem is, Williamson is assuming a lot of things – mainly that he can speak for Cox’s reality, or the reality of any trans person.
The other issue I have with his argument is that words can’t change reality – well, no they can’t, but they can reflect a growing understanding and tolerance. No one is arguing that saying faggot will eradicate homophobia – but (thankfully) using that word is becoming less acceptable, because the growing mainstreaming of gay folks is making the word seem distasteful. And so I don’t understand why we can’t expand our definitions and ideas of man and woman – after all, we’ve been doing that for centuries – we cannot, with full honesty say, that our concepts of gender and sexuality stay static – and we cannot say that societies haven’t dealt with (in one way or another) with variations (either with persecution or tolerance).
Williamson writes, “Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman. Sex is a biological reality, and it is not subordinate to subjective impressions, no matter how intense those impressions are, how sincerely they are held, or how painful they make facing the biological facts of life. No hormone injection or surgical mutilation is sufficient to change that.” Sex might be a biological reality, but gender isn’t – and thank god (or whoever) that more and more people are seeing that – and thank god that we can turn to medicine to see about changing our bodies if we have to.
And Williamson is trundling on, writing about how trans folks are “deluded” and that pushes to make trans rights civil rights is to “to treat delusion as fact, or at the very least to agree to make subjective impressions superordinate to biological fact in matters both public and private.” He later writes, “As a matter of government, I have little or no desire to police how Cox or any other man or woman conducts his or her personal life. But having a culture organized around the elevation of unreality over reality in the service of Eros, who is a sometimes savage god, is not only irrational but antirational. Cox’s situation gave him an intensely unhappy childhood and led to an eventual suicide attempt, and his story demands our sympathy; times being what they are, we might even offer our indulgence. But neither of those should be allowed to overwhelm the facts, which are not subject to our feelings, however sincere or well intended.”
I thought about Williamson a lot after reading this article – and have yet to figure out what would be the reason for writing such an article – I mean is he just a jerk? That’s the only reason I can see for someone to write an op-ed piece like this. Hear me out: let’s say, I don’t understand trans issues – I don’t “get” it – hell, I don’t even agree with it, nor do I think it’s right. Why would I publish an op-ed piece attacking trans folks – because let’s not shit ourselves, all the fancy journo-speak aside, this is an attack – I mean, he couldn’t even bring himself to refer to Cox as she. There are lots of things in this world that I have to deal with that I don’t like: I’ll give you an example: religion. My opinions on religion, its followers, leaders and its teachings would offend lots of people, I know it…The only time I would write about religion and attack religion is if I had to defend some kind of position that was directly affecting me or the people I care about – so for example, I wouldn’t just randomly start crapping on Christians, but if they’re funneling lots of money in support of anti-choice politicians or anti-Muslim policies, then I would have to step in – if the enemies use religion as their weapon of choice, then I have to dismantle that weapon. Otherwise, I couldn’t care less.
But Cox’s work and the work of all trans rights activist doesn’t adversely affect anyone – there is no downside to recognizing trans folks, nor is there a negative to honoring the way they want to identify themselves. People have tried this tactic before with gays, women, blacks, Jews, etc – and lo and behold, one finds out that nothing bad will happen if you just live and let live. Williamson, like a lot of people with privilege feels attacked – the status quo, one that benefits him (and me, by the way) is being challenged, and he doesn’t like it. Well, that’s too bad. He thinks he has it bad because he’s “expected” to refer to a trans woman as “she” – he should think about that trans woman’s life, and then maybe he’ll realize he got the bargain in the deal. Trans people not only face discrimination, but unemployment, violence, and are ostracized from their families and communities – both the straight and gay communities often treat them as freaks.
I guess I don’t understand what was Williamson’s point. I don’t understand what was Chicago Sun-Times‘ point for printing that article. Was it just to be a dick? I can’t fathom another reason behind it. I have lots of religious friends – one is a missionary in Asia, one works at a chapel, another is a minister – I would hate myself if I started a falsely intellectual debate with them predicated on my intolerance of their faith – without even a tangible goal at the end of it. I’m trying to figure out, what was Williamson’s goal for his op-ed piece? Right now, it feels like it was written just to mess with people.
Now, I mentioned Jonah Hill earlier, because the actor’s in the news for calling an obnoxious journo a faggot. It’s a terrible word, awful, and obviously because Hill used the word in a moment of heated anger, it speaks volumes to how insidious homophobia is: even “nice” folks like Jonah Hill or Alec Baldwin, both guys who are friends of the LGBT community, use the word when their restraint and self-control are down. Hill went on Howard Stern’s show and apologized. I believe it was sincere and I feel for the guy. It wasn’t a gross “I’m sorry if I offended you” or “I’m sorry if you were able to become offended” – it was a straight-up apology (though Hill pulled the unfortunate “my best friends are gay” defense, which should never, never, never be used).
I thought a lot about the word faggot, because I was listening to Louis CK, a comedian I admire. He’s pretty cool with his politics, as far as I can tell, but he does use the f-word, in that way that a lot of guys use it – “I don’t mean it as a homosexual” kind of way. Lots of straight guys, who may not think they’re homophobic, think they can appropriate the word and twist its meaning around and still use it. When Louis CK was ruminating about the word he claimed that the word “never meant gay.” He instead said that when he used the word it was because someone was being “faggy” – but never really explained what “faggy” meant (aside from being pedantic, maybe?)
So Hill, like Louis CK, grew up in an environment when fag was used and even if its roots were anti-gay, it became a catch-all slur for everything – Kinda like gay. So without thinking, and pissed off, he used it. He shouldn’t have, but he did.
It’s a weird time for the LGBT community – there have been crazy fast strides, but also some really weird backlashy stuff, too – and while we can celebrate marriage equality, the fall of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and fight for ENDA, we also have to deal with crap from folks like Williamson.