The Great bathroom debate, part two: in defense of Jack of Kent

I’m sure I’ll get accused by some of being an apologist for a cisgendered world view for this post so I should state the following, mostly for my own benefit and not because I think it will alter others opinions of this piece: I believe I’m far more of the “we won’t put up with playing nice” world view of the stonewall rioters, rather than the more common trans mainstream “mustn’t upset the community or politicians” view of the early half of the last decade. Following this post some may view me otherwise. To some extent I’m playing devils advocate here, but I believe in the underlying message: I think Jack had a rough ride.

Firstly, let’s look at a recent concept I’m very keen on, Labour on Demand which whilst not initially that relevant does get turned on it’s head a little. I would say this unfortunately does apply when most people end up having the toilet debate as one just wants to carry on with ones employment or go to the toilet while out in public doing the shopping. But here Jack was engaged in a conversation with a member of the trans community before posting his entry and it’s not being forced down people’s throats for comment. Unlike the more mainstream LGB community, the language and identity politics of the trans community has not (yet?) entered the mainstream and twice in the last month I’ve found myself having to explain words and ideas we as activists now all take for granted like “transition”, “passing” and the more recent post-Whipping Girl concepts such as “cisgendered”. Once with a BBC reporter and once, to a lesser extent, to an LGB activist within a political party wanting to know more so that the party concerned can do the right thing when it comes to framing and debating policy. The key point here is I put myself up for it. I spent a year or so after the Toiletgate and S’onewall protests not doing much trans activism for various reasons and would not have needed to engage with this now, but I choose to do so and in that I hold some power, rather than having a demand made of me. Much of the followup debate has happened outside of Jack of Kent’s blog too, so there is reduced power in terms of “home turf” too.

For an outsider, getting involved in trans politics must often seem like walking into a minefield without realising it. As far as you’re concerned, you’re walking a nice safe path when boom – there’s a loud noise in you find, Blackadderesque, your credibility with the community being blown 200 feet into the air and scattered over a wide area. I gave the warning to the political activist I met with that no matter how careful you are, you’re likely to step on one of these landmines. Jack hit one of those landmines and I find it difficult to criticise his decision to back out of the minefield.

So, lets look at the specific critiques made of the question. Firstly, we have Sarah’s initial response, which can roughly be summarised as “This question is framed within a cisgendered world view”. That’s quite valid to my mind as it’s predominantly not an attack on the one asking the question but upon the society which creates the question – there are whole chapters in Social Science 101 texts devoted to the interaction between language and society. I for one am uncomfortable with the term “transsexual”, containing the word “sex” as it does and I’m far more likely to just write “trans”. Similarly, the community as a whole has now rejected the previously acceptable terms “genetic girl” and similar as being inaccurate and inherently transphobic.

But then we come to the word “choice”. This is a touchy word within the trans community because it’s often use to level the accusation that we chose to transition, in the same way people “choose” to be gay or of some ethnic minority, and thus should have to live with the consequences. However touchy that word may be, I do not believe it was used in a transphobic context. I’m not arguing intent here, but context – the specific phrase was “…use the toliet of their choice…” in the context of legal regulation. To my mind, that’s an entirely relevant debate to have because there may be situations where one might not want to use the “obvious” toilet but to choose the alternate one for some reason even if just because the obvious one is full. I don’t think the state has any business regulating that as we already have laws against rape, sexual assault and generally being a nuisance. Another example that springs to mind is the often overlooked group of neutrois folk who reject identifying with either gender. In an imperfect and inherently gendered world, they must make a choice about which bathrooms to use. That does not in any way imply in any way that their situation is a choice, merely that in the world we live in they will have to make choices about what they do.

The way the discussion on that point was put may not, at first reading, come across as a debate about the question but a rather more fundamentalist “using this word at all, in this debate, reveals you as at least partially transphobic”. Jack apologised – possibly mistakenly given the audience invoking the “intent” argument – but it was not the substance of his apology and unlike those who are our true enemies he took the time to apologise and said “look, I realise I had the wording wrong but I’m not comfortable with the implication of transphobia and worried I may not get it right in future so I’ll leave the topic alone, OK?”

He then basically gets told that by backing off, he’s being even more transphobic. Is the community not now guilty of the same thing we accuse others of, namely Labour on Demand? “Because you dared mention us, we demand that you stay here, engage with us while we pick apart your arguments and if you don’t you’re as bad as *insert bad person of the month here*”? Maybe he’s just having a bad day on this topic and doesn’t want to engage further, again something we struggle with ourselves. (Just because I explained some trans point to you yesterday, don’t expect me to spend time on it today when I’m tired or just been given a bunch of abuse, etc) I can see one might claim that there is an attempt to stifle debate here but looking at actions elsewhere that hardly seems to be the case – he’s taken the time to link to the debate from both twitter and his own blog, not the actions of someone with something to hide.

Another angle of attack is the (ironically named, given Jack’s avatar) white knight syndrome – that the majority knows best what’s good for the minority. Now, I hate it when this happens with a passion because the trans community is often excluded from gay debate, such as on marriage equality, on the basis that what’s good for them is good for us so we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads over it and they’ll sort it out for us. I don’t see much white knighting going on here but an opportunity for those who choose to do so to be given a platform to engage in some productive discussion in a largely friendly environment.

People then act surprised that he’s backing off even faster. “But I haven’t been that nasty, really!” No, individually it’s not been an issue but the sum of the whole is greater than the parts and having come in to the debate on the post late in the game and reading it all in one go, I think I get a different impression from those engaged in the debate blow-by-blow.

So what has happened is that a relatively liberal and influential blogger isn’t going to write about trans issues again, when he could well have been an important ally. I really can’t see that’s a victory for anyone except the more isolationist and pro-stealth elements of the trans community and I certainly don’t count myself amongst their ranks.

3 comments

  1. I think this analysis is problematic. Firstly, suggesting he needs “defending” is to suggest Jack is actually being attacked, but he wasn’t. What he did was to take comments that were about society in general (mine and Natacha’s), and other people (Natacha’s), and decide, despite repeated, *patient* explanations to the contrary, that they were all about him.

    What he then did was to cry continuously and loudly about it all over Twitter, constantly repeating how he was being called “transphobic and nasty”. He was being called neither of these things.

    This then created an opportunity for those who *are* transphobic and nasty to start heaping on, pointing to how the horrible trans people were being mean to poor old Jack.

    I’ll come back to this in a moment, but I want to take issue with your description of a white knight as being “the majority knowing better than the minority”, as I don’t think that’s really the point of what a white knight is. In feminist discourse, which is where the term comes from, a white knight is someone from the oppressor class (not the majority – in the UK at least men are actually numerically a minority) who believes they are “not like the others”, has some special insight, and therefore therefore deserves a free pass. They have a habit of mansplaining, and also of going off in a major butthurt sulk when anyone comes close to suggesting that they might not actually have the last word to say on feminism, and that they’re just as capable of doing busted things as any other member of the oppressor class.

    White knights are a pain in the arse because they derail the debate and make it all about them, silencing the voices of those they claim to have a special understanding of, and in the process being more oppressive than if they’d just kept quiet in the first place.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you suggest the introduction of the white knight is an “angle of attack”. I was the one who introduced it into the debate, and I definitely did not do it as an attack on anyone, but instead as an attempt (and quite a patient one, I think), to show Jack why his public defensiveness was busted.

    I hope Jack does continue blogging about trans issues, but only if he’s not going to get butthurt when actual trans people take what he’s said and quote in in contexts he may not be comfortable with. People who do react with said butthurt are, frankly, in the way, and prone to doing more harm than good, regardless of how influential they are.

  2. Adding to this, the reason I think Jack’s response to this whole situation is emblematic of a white knight is because his attitude seems to very much have been, “Hang on, I’m a liberal blogger, one of the good guys, and yet these people are saying I have unconsciously contributed to the dialogue in a way that is symptomatic of its oppressive nature. They must be wrong! Why are they being so mean to me?”

    I mean, I went to great lengths, *twice*, to make my position very clear here, that nothing I wrote was a personal attack on him, and furthermore, I even stated it in plain English in the original post right next to where I quoted him, saying, “I’m not having a go at Jack of Kent here – his framing reflects wider societal attitudes”.

    I don’t see how much clearer I could have been, and yet despite repeated attempts to sooth poor Jack’s apparently bruised ego, and make it REALLY FUCKING CLEAR I WAS NOT CALLING HIM TRANSPHIOBIC, he’s repeated the same shit twice in the last hour.

    Frankly, if he’s going to behave like this, fuck him. He *is* part of the problem, his original post was not problematic or oppressive in my view, but his subsequent behaviour most certainly is, and if he doesn’t want to do more harm than good in this area, he needs to either put a lid on that sort of reaction, or else just stay away.

  3. So, regarding labour on demand:

    The point of that is specifically when you’re in a painful situation where a cis person has said or done something hurtful and transphobic to you, and you say “That was offensive, could you please back off?” and then they protest their ignorance and demand you explain in detail how it was offensive so they can avoid it in the future. And criticize you for being “too angry” because you didn’t respond nicely enough and escalated the discussion into anger when they’d already escalated things with the initial offense.

    That is, the point is that privileged people don’t have a claim on marginalized people’s energy and resources whenever they want, and especially not when the privileged person is being the problem. It’s not the same thing when someone steps in and tries to help a marginalized group, but then gets angry at that group because they don’t like his efforts enough. It’s not too much to ask that cis people try to get their engagement with us right if they want to engage us, you know?

    I don’t want to address the specifics of Jack of Kent’s case because I didn’t read it all, and it sounds like he’s not being much of a prize.

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