Two for the price of one! That might be highly desirable when it comes to grocery shopping, but slightly less so when it comes to offending minorities, as Peter Martindale appears to have done in a blog on HuffPost U.K. I am impressed, but not in a good way.
His central thesis was that recent froth in U.K. media about a transgender man having a baby was just that: froth. The man was really a woman; move along, nothing to see here. I guess this gives something to aim at: a pretty basic piece of biological essentialism.
Let's start with the intersex insult. He says that a trans man giving birth is nothing special, and that a "hermaphrodite" doing so would be more interesting, more newsworthy. Really? As a leading member of the International Intersex Organisation (OII) put it, that's just wrong. There are no human hermaphrodites; the idea that anyone has two sets of sex organs, one male and one female, one perhaps buried deep in the body, is fantasy. Then the piece claims that intersex people are "operated upon at birth to decide their gender." Er, no. A somewhat more apt description of that process might be "intersex genital mutilation." As for the use of the word "hermaphrodite"? Puh-lease! It's a word that gives a great deal of offence to the majority of individuals with an intersex variation, even if a few have set about attempting to "reclaim" it, an exercise on a par with black community activists seeking to reclaim the "n-word." But otherwise, using the word is dangerous territory for anyone unversed in the issues, as Mr. Martindale's two short paragraphs on the topic suggest he is.
Maybe the author has a point on the frothiness of the original story, though. After all, it's sort of technically correct to argue that a "trans man giving birth" is merely someone who has started the "sex-change process," isn't it? Nope. Despite the end of the piece displaying some slight understanding that gender and sex aren't quite the same, the trans narrative presented here is pretty much on a par with decades of the same from non-trans people writing about the subject. Writing about a trans woman's male-to-female transition, for example, they might say:
- "I'm a man. I'm a man. I'm a man."
- "I'm a woman."
As opposed to the rather more accurate (for those who adhere to a binary view of gender, at least):
- "I'm a woman. I'm a woman. I'm a woman."
- "And now my body makes a bit more sense."
Listen very carefully, as I shall say this only once: surgery does not turn men into women or women into men. Surgeons are not modern-day magicians possessed of extreme metamorphic powers. The journey taken by trans men and women toward affirming their gender may involve surgical procedures, but does not depend on it!
This leaves the writer right on just one aspect of the "trans men giving birth" story: it really isn't something to get excited about. Trans men have been having children ever since there were trans men. Some did so before they began to transition, and a not insignificant number have done so afterward. The only real news is that it has taken the media so long to catch up. And while one may decry the sensationalist way in which it has been covered, it is possible that some good may yet come out of this exposure. Because it's only shock and horror if one accepts the non-trans narrative that transition is all about becoming and changing and swapping, as opposed to just being.
The media got it right... sort of. The public were surprised, because it is rare that they are ever presented with anything other than a non-trans version of what transition is all about. But now they have an inkling. A few, even, may now get why it is a source of intense grief -- and anger -- to Europe's trans community that across the continent, at last count, some 17 countries appear to deny legal recognition of identified gender to individuals who had not undergone procedures amounting to sterilisation (0r maybe 16 countries: that position is at odds with pronouncements on Human Rights by the E.U. -- and Sweden has just agreed to repeal its laws on the subject).
Perhaps there's a third issue in the pot. It is unclear whether Mr. Martindale is either intersex or a trans man, and to be honest, that should be irrelevant. I know that I am neither, and I am writing about this topic. So I have taken time to talk to individuals from both groups before venturing into print. That's basic politeness, a quality too often lacking in journalism nowadays. It's also central to the problem of Mr. Martindale's blog. As a former Westminster Councillor, he has a respected track record of dealing with and writing about a range of issues, from international affairs to local car-parking policy. But transgender issues?
Nevertheless, the story and the coverage misrepresent -- unintendedly, I am sure -- what the transgender experience is all about and, by virtue of that misrepresentation, further serve as rationale for legalised abuse of the trans community.
Nothing about us without us. That's a lot more than a slogan: it's a touchstone for good and accurate reporting, which anyone seeking to write about minority issues would do well to bear in mind.