(Warning: This review makes occasional use of 'the f-word'. I don't use it OFTEN in life, but once in a while it finds it's way in. Sorry if I offend :/)
I recently read Luna, a book about about a transsexual girl - originally I had intended to write a more extensive conversation about it, but I don't think I could do so while maintaining my composure entirely (it was that good). And nobody needs that. I will only say that it was a beautiful book - it has it's faults, but fuck that, because it was beautiful and made me feel more awake than many a far more 'perfect' book. I don't know if it will affect everyone the same, but it did for me.
That being said, and my little store of comabtiveness being worn out...
I've actually had a number of places lately where I've been in contact with liminal things - those things which are neither this nor that, one thing or the other in our mind, and it has made me thoughtful on the idea.
Let me start with something that isn't as emotionally charged for us now: Victorian Manchester.
Having just started a history of Manchester (Manchester in the Victorian Age: The Half-Known City, by Gary S. Messinger), but having long been fascinated by the city, I found one of the early statements he makes very intriguing. Manchester (if you're not familiar with it's history) was the world's first truly industrial city, the first city that was built entirely around factories and industrial production (during the Industrial Revolution of early 19th century England). The city was a sort of shorthand for the horrors of modern living, as a result, for most of the Victorian period. And with good reason - people there lived in dire poverty, the rivers stank of chemicals and shone strange colors, the air was mired in endless smoke, the people were a mishmash of displaced immigrants, and the city government was forever trying to deal with problems it simply could not understand. This was early 19th century England - 'city' meant London, a mercantile city resting largely on the arms of merchants and tradesman, containing a (literally) medieval governmental structure. Manchester was something different, and it took a long time for people to find a paradigm to understand it:
Growth [in Industrial Manchester] posed fundamental problems of perception.... Educated Englishmen could have cited ancient Athens and Rome as more impressive than Manchester on all counts. Even easier were comparisons with the cities of the Low Countries... [or] London. Nevertheless contemporaries could find no complete precedent for Manchester.
To the present-day historian the reasons for this perplexity are clear. A modern observer can see that Manchester was the first predominantly industrial city in the history of the world... Contemporaries, of course, could not view matters in this perspective. But they did sense that Manchester's growth posed a challenge.
This challenge was, in many ways, a challenge of naming. People did not know what industry WAS, because they did not have the vocabulary we have now: simple words like 'blue collar workers' and 'urban growth'. Even words like 'industry', and 'wealth' had meanings that simply were not equipped to deal with these huge changes (consider that 'the spinning industry' pre-industrial revolution was something women did in the evenings in their homes, to earn extra money for their families, and a wooden spinning wheel was a complex, expensive piece of machinery).
The results of this phase shift are too complex to list hear, but they were deeply coloured by fear. Consider this is the period of the Luddites, who tried to destroy the machinery because it made it too easy to produce goods, reducing labor costs, for example. When the thing was an unnamed, belching smoke and displacing cultures, the thing was a monster, eating the green fields of England even as it bankrolled the empire. William Blake epitomized his horror in one of his poems, written as he calls for a struggle to return England to a state of New Jerusalem:
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
That which is unknown and new is evil. The Faustian connection with science, progress and discovery is as old as the hills, and continues to hold resonance today (name me a movie about cloning that approaches the subject differently than a movie might approach a demon...). It was only, later, when we as a world had lived with the thing long enough to know it and to name it, and to learn what we meant with the name, that we could accept the new thing, and make it into something at least LESS disorderly. And in the end, industrialization has certainly had it's faults, but people live longer, more comfortably, and with a greater degree of equality than they did before the 'dark Satanic Mills' sprang up.
Before this could happen, though, people had to make a human, intuitive relationship with their new world. All the science, all the reason, all the evidence of the world couldn't win out UNTIL people had words and thoughts and history to understand themselves with.
Which is not to demean the science, reason and evidence - after all that's wher ethe words, thoughts and history CAME from. The industrialisation of England was accompanied by education - often feared and opposed by those in power, but in the end inevitable, and powerful. Common workers, put together in a small space, could take classes, discuss the world, come up with ideas, and make decisions about things larger than their own house. And for all that factory owners frequently feared that an educated populace was a cauldron of discontent, it was education that eventually saved the factories from public hatred. Education, after all, taught people to write and spell the names they had created, and taught them what the names meant.
So, I know, that's oversimplifying a very complex issue, but turn now with to an (equally) complex issue that is more contemporary. In 1999, Barry Winchell, a PFC in the US Army stationed in Tennessee started dating a performer from Nashville. The two loved each other, they were happily dating, good sex life, the whole bit. The difference, the woman Winchell was dating, Calpernia Addams, happened to have a penis.
At this point, I find myself, paradoxically, in the same position that 19th century thinkers were in over Manchester: namely, what do I CALL Ms Addams? Is she a woman? Is she gay? Is she a she? I don't struggle with these names because I dislike transsexuals, but simply because there ARE no names that aren't terrifically loaded with meaning that I don't necessarily want to carry in what I'm saying. If I say gay, that implies something that doesn't exist in this case, for instance. Winchell was attracted to someone who he, and the other party, considered a woman. Winchell was asked, point blank, if he was gay, and responded 'no.' The same issue occured in Luna: the father asks if his son is Gay. Well, from the son's point of view? No, not at all. She's attracted to men, and in her mind, she's a woman.
With other words, there is just too much baggage. 'Transsexual' as a word, to me, feels either clinical (like a diagnosis) or derogatory (ie, the root of the word 'tranny'). Of course there are many transsexuals who don't feel this way, and in fact many words in a lot marginalized communities are derogatory terms that are being reclaimed as badges of pride (queer is a good example). But that's the thing: until the world has time to settle in, the world HAS baggage - negative or positive depending on the readers point of view, but baggage nonetheless.
This can make it uncomfortable, even dangerous to have the conversation. If I don't LIKE the word transsexual, then when you say it to me, the meaning of what you're saying changes, unavoidably. If the word Drag Queen has associations of ridiculousness to you, it's difficult to discuss someone who likes to wear women's clothing without marginalizing them, EVEN IF YOU DON'T WANT TO, simply because our vocaublary is designed to marginalize people.
And the marginalization is sadly very effective. After being harassed by some of his fellow soldiers for his relationship, one of the harassers pounded his skull in with a baseball bat as he slept.
The immediate reaction in this situation is, for me at least, horror, abject and terrible. Followed by a deep desire to believe the murderer is, simply, a monster. But the problem is, believing men to be monsters is what created the situation in the first place. This isn't to remove any personal responsibility from the situation. The murderer is, DEFINITELY a murderer, and the act he committed is horrific. But, to make actions like this stop, just like making Luddite riots stop, we have to be able to name things, we have to be able to give people a vocabulary, because without a vocabulary, there is no world of ideas and thought, there is no change. You cannot get rid of monsters by killing monsters, you can only get rid of monsters by teaching them to be human.
Names are very powerful things. Consider the history of the last 10 years of the United States without the word terrorist, or the history of the holocaust without the words holocaust and genocide. Words DO matter - that's why I love to read, after all. The problem is that, naturally, the past has an advantage in loaded words over the future. When homosexuality became more public, it was the old word, first, that people knew: sodomy.
The trick is the future must find a way to make a new word. Sometimes, this is done, again, by subverting the old words, taking them back to make new meanings like I mentioned earlier. Sometimes it isn't - perhaps the old word is unreclaimable, perhaps the people affected want a fresh start. One way or the other, new language is created: 'Negro' becomes 'African American', 'sodomite' becomes 'homosexual'.
Of course, this new-word attitude is easy to lampoon, and can be overdone. This is where a lot of the animosity towards political correctness begins. If *I* say Negro without bias, why shouldn't I say it? Frederick Douglass said Negro. WEB Dubois said Negro. MLK said Negro. Why make a new word? Why be upset when people don't use your new word? It's a tricky balance, of course, but you have to remember that while you can control how you say an old word, you CAN'T control how someone else HEARS it. And even if using an unloaded word, using careful language feels awkward now, and even if it changes noone's mind, it educates a new generation with a new, more compassionate vocabulary - just as the old Mancunians had to learn a new way to describe a city, a factory, a world.
One of the truly painful things in the story about Addams and Winchell to me was that the two men most implicated in it were not designed to be bigots. One of them had a transvestite fetish and may have been homosexual. The other had known homosexuals in high school and had no problem with them. The issue is that the words still carried the weight of bias, and the stiuation provided no vocabulary to talk the situation over like humans. The argument: "You're a faggot!" "No, I'm not!" is, if you tease it apart, an argument over labels, a war of definition. The argument never made it beyond definition into conversation - partly because there IS no general definition for the situation Addams and Winchell found themselves in. Would the murderers have magically been nice guys who could have overcome their fear if there was a way to define the situation? Perhaps not. Perhaps the conversation would have solved nothing, perhaps it would have revealed only an irreconcilable hatred. But I wish they could have had the conversation, that they could have tried. And I wish WE could have the conversation, as a society, without having to struggle to define what it is we're even talking about.