Whose Rights?

Photo: Nicolas Harter

Just now it’s radical to claim the right to exist.

For the last two weeks I have been deeply involved in researching human rights, especially for a new exhibition about my Central Asian journey. I wanted to be clear about the transgender politics in the countries I had traversed. At the same time I hosted a gathering of Amnesty members dedicated to stories and tellings about rights across a wide spectrum of countries. The perspective I gained from these commitments was very telling. I feel more able than before to put some of our recent confrontations about women’s rights and transgender rights into a wider context and I have, you know, felt quite ashamed of the narrowness of our disputes.

A video-producer friend of mine last week told me that someone had approached him from the local trans community to video a staged debate between transgender people and TERF’s as part of the International Transgender Day of Visibility this year. “Noooooo!” I said, and was relieved when he said that he had declined the commission, for pretty much the same reason as I would have given. There are some differences which don’t need rehearsing because they’re false differences based on bogus distinctions and rehearsing them simply aggravates and sustains the untruth of it all. As far as I’m concerned this confrontation is based on such a difference.

If we have good debating time on offer we should be using it to discuss an issue creatively and constructively to reach some resolution of differences. To use transgender people and feminists as adversaries is to follow the worst media practice. What we need is to question the nature of rights. The question we need to ask is the one I ended my last post with, - What do we, as transgender people, have a right to which will also support the rights of others?

So, back to Central Asia. The “istans”, the post-Soviet republics beyond Russia, have little that’s positive to offer trans individuals, so much so that in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, for example, there is nothing to suggest even the makings of a publicly apparent trans community. This is against the background of a general hostility to LGBT individuals and communities. In some republics homosexuality is illegal and punishable by imprisonment. In others, it is technically legal, but social attitudes are negative and violations of personal safety and lifestyle mostly go unchallenged. All of the republics have a Muslim majority but this hostility is hardly to do with religion. Rather it is the outcome of decades of Soviet suppression coupled with the instability which resulted when that domination was removed at Independence. Older Central Asians are mainly wedded to conserving economic and social stability against the threat of difference. LGBT is a dimension of that threat.

"...THERE IS NO PUBLIC TRANS PRESENCE AND SO NOWHERE TO COMMUNICATE AN ALTERNATIVE SENSE OF SELF."

In transgender terms it is legal in several republics to transition, but this concerns full medical transition, often involves compulsory sterilization and is made difficult by the lack of medical expertise in conducting the necessary surgery. There is almost no flexibility in legal transition and the idea of self-nominated gender identity, of gender-fluidity and non-binary selfhood is, at this time, only a preoccupation of younger individuals in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Elsewhere, there is no public trans presence and so nowhere to communicate an alternative sense of self. Even in those republics personal scope is limited. Alteration of identity cards and certificates is not allowed.

Photo: Nicolas Harter

It’s a complex situation which needs further research but for the purposes of this post I would suggest that if any transperson in this region of Asia were asked what human right they would ask for they would say, the right to exist. True existence has a social dimension, and it requires recognition to be valid. What those individuals would be requesting, I suggest, is that their self-chosen difference from the social and cultural norms be, first, accepted, then, second, welcomed, and, third, encouraged. Against a background of a capitalistic suppression of all but consumer choice, and state-based promotion of an unchallenging (and often undemocratic) conformism, such a request is unlikely to be granted. It may not even be acknowledged publicly. That though is what the right to exist means.

I have no doubt that these trans individuals would also petition for bodily alteration to be legal and available. Above all, however, they want tolerance – they want to live in a tolerant society. And they recognize, I know, that the tolerance they want would apply to a wider area of difference, to sexual preference, to ethnic variance, to shades of religious belief and to wider spiritual commitments. To have a genuinely liberating right to something will be to have a right which is shared by many, and, in fact, by all.

That’s rights for you. If we can accept the “human” as a defining category, then we are all in this together. Rights are underpinned by laws and by enforcement and sanctions for violations. That, maybe even more than Bretton Woods, was the nature of the post-war consensus. And now consensus seems to be an impossibility, does it? Everyone seems to want rights tailored to their individual preferences, or so we are led to believe by many media outlets committed to newsworthy difference. Through this perspective I find myself closing in on our own local dispute.

The right to exist, to be accepted, welcomed, encouraged – to which many interested groups would add, empowered – in all of our difference. Is that what we all want? Or, to put it another way, do we want our relations with others to be open, understanding and accommodating? We can’t expect rights to exist in a valid way – that is to say legal, applicable, enforceable and sanctionable – unless we have a web of human relations which is positive. And that is what we – trans, feminists, gays, queers, blacks, the differently able, the differently everything – are fighting for. Until we get the wider world right, it won’t be right for any of us.

"IF WE CAN GET BEYOND THE DEFENSIVE FEARS WHICH ARE INFILTRATING OUR DEBATES AND DISCUSSIONS WE CAN ATTEND TO THOSE TASKS."

Realistically we may find that some rights need to be harmonized with other rights – there’s no need to foment division. And it would be unrealistic not to admit that there are some deeply self-conflicted and emotionally deficient individuals out there who can’t commit to a common set of rights, who relish division for the sense of power it gives them or as confirmation of their failure to embrace ideals of co-existence. What do we do about them? Well, we have a lot to do about developing human relations and defusing conflict. If we can get beyond the defensive fears which are infiltrating our debates and discussions we can attend to those tasks.

Photo: Nicolas Harter

Someone at the Amnesty Story-Night said, “Love is a human right”. What would it take, I wonder, to awaken some kind of love in the radicalized feminists and transactivists, towards each other and the wider world? That was what Robin Morgan ended up by advocating in 1973. All I can offer in the way of an answer to my own question is to propose is that we all meet more often to draw up a shared petition, that we work to identify who might grant those requests and that we offer robust and creative resistance to those who would pretend to tell us what we are thinking.

Meanwhile we will all do ourselves a favour if we can make some distinctions between different levels of public expression – between, say, public speech which advocates acts of violence, and questions asked in genuine confusion about complex issues, between careless use of misapplied terms and peremptory insults, between ideas we disagree with and expressions which offend a common sense of humanity. And we will need to relearn the skills of judicious response so that we can offer up everything from reasoned rebuttal to interest and understanding to cautious agreement to justified outrage to complete withdrawal of attention and concern.

We need to be able to appreciate the extent to which an action is symbolic and estimate its power to divide, disrupt or unite. That’s a lot of progress we need to make if recent confrontations are anything to go by. How to achieve this? By example, maybe? If we as trans people can’t demonstrate an enlightened and well-modulated attitude to others we can’t really expect it from others.

And on that note my self-guided exploration of the current tangle of gender-argumentation ends – for now.

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