Queerphobia and the pandemic: LGBT communities around the world targeted
May 2020 – Since nothing much was going on, I decided I’d take a wee vacation from the web site, but with the tulips in bloom in Ottawa again and some restrictions being lifted, life is returning to the city, and I too have returned.
I’ve read a lot in the past few months and news that the pandemic has not been kind to LGBT communities around the world is not surprising. They join an already long list of vulnerable communities that have been hit hardest by Covid-19, or its consequences. Here’s an incomplete survey of recent international news affecting trans and queer communities.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán finagled legislation to allow him to rule by decree. Orbán said he needed emergency powers to fight the pandemic, but there is no time limit on when they expire. According to The Guardian, Orbán is set “to push through legislation that will end the legal recognition of trans people by defining gender as ‘biological sex based on primary sex characteristics and chromosomes’ and thus making it impossible for people to legally change their gender.”
“Orbán’s government has become more hostile towards the LGBTQ+ community in the past two years, moving from generic language about traditional values and the benefits of heterosexual marriage to openly discriminatory language, such as comparing homosexuality to paedophilia.”
In Turkey, teachers encouraged kids to paint pictures of rainbows and put them in windows to cheer people up during the pandemic. You can guess what happened. They were ordered to stop, rainbows being part of a giant gay plot to turn kids into homosexuals. While “homosexuality is legal in Turkey, the LGBTQ community still faces huge stigma and is often the target of bigoted ire from conservative politicians and pundits. The furore over children’s rainbow drawings, combined with dogwhistle remarks by the head of the religious affairs directorate during a Ramadan sermon that gay people “spread disease”, were met with concern by human rights and legal advocacy groups.”
In Colombia, trans folks were put in peril by directives issued in Bogota that men and women should leave their residences on alternate days. The policy became an ideal opportunity for transphobes to take it upon themselves to police gender and brought on the inevitable attacks on trans people who were accused of being out on the wrong day. According to trans woman Juli Salamanca, “The city has given the police the weapons to control and do gender profiling of trans people, and now this is translating into the same from people in supermarkets, banks and society in general, where trans people are being prevented from entering places because they don’t conform to the stereotype of what is a man or woman.”
A similar policy was in place in Lima, Peru between April 2-11 but was dropped after it was reported that abuse of the LGBT community, and particularly of transgender women, had become common.
In South Korea, a new outbreak of the Covid virus was tracked to clubs in Seoul’s Itaewon nightlife neighbourhood. Unfortunately, some of these bars were known gay clubs and those visiting them are terrified of being outed in a society that is still largely homophobic. Officials were using telecom information and credit card transactions to track down unknown individuals. “Given the sensitivity, authorities have introduced what they call “anonymous testing,” with people only needing to provide a phone number and not a name.”
There seemed to be a bit of good news out of Egypt where Hisham Selim, a prominent Egyptian actor, was praised for his acceptance of his trans son. Egypt is a religiously conservative society and it follows that the LGBT community is widely stigmatised. Trans people are comparatively more accepted by society and government than gays, who are periodically subjected to crackdowns on the grounds of “debauchery”, despite there being no legal prohibition against homosexuality.
Ah, but there’s always a fly in the ointment. Selim admitted that his reaction would have been different if he had a trans daughter instead. “I thought, ‘Thank God, it’s not the other way around. Although I believe both are the same, as an Arab and an Egyptian who’s raised believing that men are stronger or have higher status, then it would have definitely been different for me.”
Ottawa Trans Library Digital Archive
Since Covid-19 has shut down much of the world, including whatever fledgling plans I had for moving the Ottawa Trans Library out of my basement, this is an ideal opportunity to put some of the collection online. This will be an ongoing project, but here are a few titles to get started.
NFTU was the newsletter of Gender Mosaic, Ottawa’s long running trans social and support group. It was published from December 1988 to December 2004. I previously uploaded six issues only, but have now put up the complete set of issues my friend so kindly scanned for me.
Gender Mosaic was originally called New Ottawa Women (NOW) and was a chapter of the California heterosexual crossdresser organization Society for the Second Self (Tri-Ess), although it disregarded Tri-Ess’s narrowly defined membership criteria from the outset and welcomed all trans folks.
NFTU provides not only a running history of Gender Mosaic, but also an interesting historical perspective on the evolution of the trans community and shifts in trans thinking. See the NFTU page for issues uploaded so far.
Triple Echo is the ‘zine I published from 1999 to 2003 and, incidentally, the original name for this web site. Here are two of my favourite issues. I hope to put up the entire run in due time.
This issue is what I hoped the ‘zine would be, but which I achieved only rarely. It has a mix of reporting, history, personal stories and commentary.
Contents include Micheline Montreuil’s battle with Quebec’s Registrar of Civil Status to get her name changed, a piece on Ed Wood, and an opinion piece on trans fantasy fiction, “the erotica of our people”.
My friend Rachel Steen had a big impact on the look of Triple Echo through the collages she put together for me. Some of these illustrated articles, but mostly I just let her do her thing. The cover of this issue is one of my favourites, but the black and white reproduction didn’t do justice to her art. (Here is some of her work in colour.)
There are good stories in this issue too, including one on gay and lesbian history and what trans folks could learn from it. Also, did you know Ernest Hemingway’s born son was trans? Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly considering the times she lived in and whose daughter she was, hers is not a very happy story.
I’ll create a separate page for Triple Echo after I upload more issues.
Drag Queen: A Study of the Life Style of the Drag Queen
The current definition of drag queen as a performer is not what it was historically. In 1972, when this booklet was published, a drag queen was a trans woman living within a gay milieu and generally surviving through prostitution. The author of this “study” regards the drag queen as male, which was typical of the time, despite her living as a woman. (She probably identified that way also.)
Superficially this is a fairly straight forward publication, but the passage of time leaves it open to many layers of interpretation. For example, are drag queens living this way freely (as the author suggests) or is it simply because they have no choice?
This booklet was published by Seattle’s Empathy Press, which was a prolific trans publisher during the 1970s.
There is no publisher nor date to this booklet, but my guess is that it was published in the early 70s also. This publication has the requisite educational component that seeks to explain the causes of transvestism, but it also has a number of case histories, which are always fun to read despite being pilfered from other sources.
The educational aspect to the publications of this era is problematic. While it’s laudatory that trans folks, who are clearly the intended readership, would wish to understand themselves, inherent in this wish to understand is an acceptance of the transphobic notion of the time that trans folks are strange and need to be explained. That these publications regurgitated the psycho babble of the time was probably not helpful.
The Transgender Media Portal
March 2020 – A very long time ago when I was a deeply frustrated and closeted trans woman I would go to any movie that had a trans character in it. All trans characters at the time would either be psychotic murderers or victims of violence which – the audience was led to believe – they somehow deserved. I’d come out of the theatre gritting my teeth, but such is the human need for seeing ourselves represented in stories that the next time a trans character appeared on film I paid my money again hoping for a different outcome.
While film has finally evolved from the dark ages, the only way we can be sure our stories are told authentically is to tell them ourselves. Finding and accessing our films can be a problem, however. The Transgender Media Portal (TMP) is an initiative headed by Laura Horak, an Associate Professor of Film Studies at Carleton University, and when completed will be a public online database of films and other audiovisual works created solely by trans, nonbinary, gender non-conforming, intersex, and Two Spirit artists.
I was invited to attend a usability test on March 7th of the early version of the platform. I was impressed with the amount of work the team had already done and how well thought out it was, but the longer I navigated the site and then engaged in discussions afterward I was struck by how much work they had left to do. Besides the immense amount of research required, there are the challenges of creating a functional, intuitive and interactive database while still considering the inevitable issues of confidentiality, inclusivity, and transphobia that trans related sites attract.
It’s a cliche, but nonetheless true that human beings do not survive on bread alone. Even under the most dire circumstances, we have a need to create and to hear our stories. Happily, the days of trudging to a theatre to watch a trans phobic film are over. The Transgender Media Portal is an opportunity for trans people and those interested in our reality to locate films that speak the truth about our lives. Thanks to the team at Carleton for undertaking this worthwhile project. I wish them luck and look forward to its launch in 2022.
More info: Transgender Media Portal.
Book review: I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, by Kai Cheng Thom
February 2020 – This book consists mostly of essays and some poems that range from the personal to the political. At the end of one worthy essay on sexual harassment and violence in the queer community, Kai Cheng Thom writes: “I want to live in the real world now – an uglier place, to be sure, but I hope, a more honest one. I have spent my entire adult life searching for the Truth. It’s possible that I’ve been looking in all the wrong places.”
This suggests that perhaps she’s grown beyond what often seems to be the insular worlds of her queer community and the radical left social justice movement. There are truths in those worlds, to be sure, which she expresses in the essay Righteous Callings when she affirms the principles in which she believes. However, insular communities also suffer from the things she’s often critiquing here. She lists these in the same essay, and they include, as two examples, “Performance of Virtue”, which “often relies on adherence to startlingly simplistic slogans that are applied rigidly across situations regardless of context” and “Bullying and Call-Outs” a culture in which “the majority of political education is done through public shaming.” Indeed, the social justice movement is sometimes its own worst enemy with some of its ideas being easy targets for ridicule.
An essay called Stop Letting Trans Girls Kill Ourselves provides a good example. In it, Thom argues against the idea that suicide is “an act of personal agency that should be upheld and supported by the ‘community'”. In other words, the idea that if someone wants to kill themselves, step aside and let them do it. I would never have thought such a notion would be remotely defensible, and yet evidently there are enough people in the “community” who think so, enough that Thom felt compelled to write an essay against it. Although Thom dismantles the argument, she may be a little generous in her analysis of how anyone could arrive at this dubious position. Issues of consent and body sovereignty are undoubtedly important, but when you are effectively saying, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, so go ahead and kill yourself” you’ve gazed so long into your navel that you’ve misplaced your moral compass.
For this reason, I preferred the personal essays that made their point through stories from her life as a Chinese trans woman. There is a delightful and insightful essay here occasioned by the death of her grandfather and another titled The Chinese Transsexual’s Guide to Cheongsam – the instantly recognizable dress linked to Chinese women – which for a time she became obsessed with wearing. Both these are entertaining, educational and insightful.
Underlying all these essays and poems is a trans woman aware of her own growth and deliberating upon the communities which nurtured her, but which she is reluctantly discovering may now be limiting her. I didn’t enjoy all of it, but she’s a good writer and I appreciated her courage in sharing her concerns about herself, her communities, and the future.
I Hope We Choose Love is available from the Ottawa Public Library.
Ottawa Trans Library
My plea for donations in my last Ottawa Trans Library update proved fruitful. I received a gift from my friend Joanne of several interesting old publications, one of which I’m especially excited to receive. It is The 1991 Crossdresser’s Resource Survival Guide, With Listings from Montreal, Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton.
Some companies now advertise their trans friendliness – Starbucks is the latest to do it – but the Guide is a reminder that businesses were not always so eager to take our money. It listed trans friendly shops and bars where novice crossdressers and trans women could shop and mingle without fear. The Crossdresser’s Resource Guide was a collaboration between trans groups Club M.E.T. (Montreal), Gender Mosaic (Ottawa), Monarch Social Club (Toronto) and Illusions Social Club (Calgary). It was a project originated by Gender Mosaic’s Belinda Doree, who also served as editor and artist.
Joanne also donated several issues of Transgender Tapestry and Monarch: Canada’s Transgender Reader. Transgender Tapestry – it went through a number of minor title changes all with the name “Tapestry” in them – was published from 1979 to 2008, and was the major trans magazine for many years. Many issues are available through the Digital Transgender Archive, but the paper copies make for fun browsing and I hope to accumulate more.
Monarch was published in Toronto by Xpressions and is also an interesting read. I had to closely examine the two issues I received to figure out that they were published in 1999. Why so many trans publishers refused to put a date on their publications is utterly beyond me, but it drives me nuts.
The Ottawa Trans Library started as a wild aspirational idea, but the more donations I receive and the more I talk to people about it, the more I think it may be possible after all. A library is more than just books and documents, although that alone is worthy. It’s also a social and cultural centre that allows us to hold meetings, lectures, and book launches, invite special guests, and develop programming that will interest trans folks and our supporters. It’s a community builder, but if it’s to be successful it will require the collaboration of our fractured and often fractious community.
Sometime this year I hope to put together a working group to explore the viability of this fledgling project, but in the meantime, I’m still accepting donations. If you are going to dream, you may as well dream big!
Book review: This One Looks Like a Boy, by Lorimer Shenher
January 2020 – The more trans memoirs I read the harder I find it is to review them. Where once I may have taken comfort in reading a story that in its broader strokes is similar to mine now I want something more.
The first half of Lorimer Shenher’s book This One Looks Like a Boy will feel familiar to many trans folks. The story itself is different from yours, but the echoes in your own life are probably undeniable. It is a fairly straight forward trans narrative that works best for people new to the reality of trans lives as it effectively conveys our sense of alienation.
I’m looking for something more, however, and for me that only happened half way through the book when Shenher joins the Vancouver Police Department (VPD). It’s here that his trans journey intertwines with a police culture I knew little about. That his time with the VPD coincided with the horrendous disappearance of women from Vancouver’s Lower East Side and the subsequent arrest of Robert Pickton makes for interesting reading and raises questions about the VPD itself. Nonetheless, his feelings of guilt and the other negative effects the investigation had on him are muted here and probably better explored in That Lonely Section of Hell, the book he wrote about case. The emphasis here is on his trans experience. His interaction with fellow officers in this regard is revealing.
Shenher is a good companion through these pages. When I closed the book I realized the first half of it, which I personally didn’t find as interesting, nonetheless had value for it provided the necessary background to explain the good man he’d become. Ultimately a worthwhile and readable memoir.