Sunday, April 22, 2007

words, words, words

I believe small talk is for small people

- Alix Olsen, 'I Believe'

This is just a quick rant about language. More specifically, about two terms - 'social abortion' and 'date rape'. 

I've used the latter, although I find 'acquaintance rape' to be more accurate, and I understand that there was a time when it was necessary to push home the point that you can be raped by someone who knows you, even someone that you've been in or have been considering a sexual relationship with. But its continued usage bothers me - it's as though we're watering down the concept of something that can be truly traumatic. Rape is rape - we know that it can be the boy next door, or the guy you're seeing, just as easily as it can be the man lurking in the corner. 'Date rape' is a misnomer, and it can be read as implying a certain amount of consent. And I honestly think that the point where sexual assualt occurs can safely be considered the point where the date is officially over. 

'Social abortion' is a new term, at least to me. Again, it's one of those rather hazy phrases that can mean whatever you want them to. The jist of it seems to refer to any woman who seeks a termination just because she doesn't want the baby. It allows the media to talk about the selfishness of modern women - they would kill babies for the sake of their careers, those ambitious sluts! - and ignore the guys that didn't insist on using a condom, or offering to go with her to get the morning-after pill. 

I remember doing Theology A Level at school and being presented with a case study of a woman who wanted an abortion because the pregnancy clashed with a ski trip she was planning. This is what 'social abortion' is generally seen to be. It never really challenged my opinion, because seriously - baby vs ski trip? Hm, let me think about that one for a moment. 

I don't believe that life begins at conception, and I don't believe that abortion is murder. I don't want qualifiers put on that. If I go to a doctor with the desire to be referred for an abortion, I want them to be making the decision on a purely medical basis, not because they're judging the circumstances in which I got knocked up. If you're willing to perform or condone abortion because the woman's life is in danger or pregnancy occurred in highly traumatic circumstances, why not in all cases? If you don't consider it to be murder, or if that consideration is secondary to the woman's needs, then why not extend that to all women faced with an unwanted pregnancy?

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Why I Believe in Affirmative Action

1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.
2. I can be confident that my co-workers won’t think I got my job because of my sex - even though that might be true. (More).
3. If I am never promoted, it’s not because of my sex.
4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities.
5. I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers are. (More).
6. If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.

- The Male Privilege Checklist, Alas, a Blog

The Male Privilege Checklist, that I have quoted from above (and link to in the links section to the side of this blog) is a piece inspired by Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack produced by Alas, a Blog.

I mention this today because, according to the BBC, "[t]he Association of Chief Police Officers are to discuss plans to give ethnic minority and female candidates for the police preference over white, male recruits." The outcry is predictably depressing. Interestingly, I can't find a single liberal/left-wing newspaper who is covering this today. The Daily Mail has, though.

It seems rare that anyone is speaking up in favour of positive discrimination today. It's too easy to ignore it, to avoid the issue and thus avoid being seen as 'PC'. For the record, I have no problem with political correctness. I'm proud to be PC. In the olden says, we used to call it 'sensitivity'.

The assumption that anyone who has benefitted from affirmative action is inferior to the white heterosexual male who 'should' have gotten the job is offensive, and ignores the fact that race, gender and sexuality do play a part in the lives of these men. The fact that an acknowledged need for a diverse police force is being described as 'racist' by certain (moronic) sections of the population is an indication of how far we have to go. The fact is that women and people from an LGBT or BME background are not getting as far as they could because discrimination is still practised in British society.

I recognise the difficulties here - how do you measure whether someone has benefitted from the current system of privileging a certain race, a certain gender, a certain sexuality or religion? Well, acknowledging that it occurs would be a good start.

I've both benefitted and been discriminated against because of who I am. I may be female and queer, but I'm still white, middle-class and well-educated. In fact, given that I work in the public sector, defining as a lesbian may have helped - my sexuality is literally written all over my CV, given that I've done a lot of volunteer work within LGBT activism. But there will also have been times when I've missed out on opportunities because of that - a recruitment agency recently agreed that I probably wouldn't get taken on by a charity with a religious background, even if I wanted to. And I've benefitted from my whiteness and my class status immeasurably - to the extent that I take it for granted. And it isn't fair. The only way I can change that is by lobbying for other people - all other people - to get the same chances I have had. And that means quotas, that means affirmative action, it means acknowledging that the people the media are defining as 'the norm' in the police force/teaching professions/government have gotten where they are because of their own brand of positive discrimination. It doesn't mean fighting twice as hard to be taken half as seriously.

Speaking at Otelia Cromwell Day in 2002, a day devoted to race awareness at Smith College in the US, Paula Giddings said that "In a community … we're not all going to think alike," she said. "We don't have to construct diversity; we just have to deconstruct its barriers". I don't want to get a job and spend my time worrying whether or not I got it because I'm white. I want to know that I'm the best candidate - or that there were candidates from backgrounds different than mine who not only were better than me, but who got the chance to show it.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

not the church, not the state - doctors, apparently, have the right to choose our fate

[Following yesterday's post, Polly Toynbee has an excellent piece on single parent families here]

The Royal College of Obsetricians and Gynocologists has warned that Britain is facing a shortage of doctors willing to perform abortions. Note that the looming abortion crisis isn't because of changes in the law, or because of increased campaigning from the pseudo-morality peddlers who hang around outside clinics with their photoshopped foetuses and dubious scientific facts. It's because some doctors feel that their personal opinions should stop them doing their job. The buzzword being bandied about the press this week is "the dinner party test" - would you talk about being an abortion provider in a social context? Yes, that's right - people with power over our bodies are dictating what operations we can or cannot undergo based on what the neighbours might think. Forgive me if I'm not overwhelmed with confidence in the principles of the British medical profession. Libby Purves, in what is otherwise a pretty offensive piece, points out that "[i]f there is to be a shortage of abortionists there will be ever longer waiting lists, thus ever more late abortions". This is a can of worms we do not need to open.

In The Independent, one doctor is quoted as saying "I had made my mind up on abortion before entering the medical profession. I am a Roman Catholic and my religious beliefs do form my moral point of view." Well maybe - just maybe, Dr Gerrard - you should have chosen another damn job. Being a doctor doesn't always mean making the comfortable decisions, or the decisions that you'd make for yourself. It doesn't mean imposing your beliefs on other people. He then goes on to say "I think people understand it is a personal choice and respect that." What a pity he can't offer the same courtesy. Bear in mind, he's a GP - he isn't going to be performing the procedure himself, merely referring the woman in question to a hospital where the decision will be taken out of his hands. He does say that he would ask her to speak to another doctor - but out of the six GPs working at his practice, only three of them are pro-choice. I'm guessing he won't be telling her which ones.

The issue here is a tricky one, because the inevitable cry of 'it's discriminating against Christians' will be heard. Honestly? I don't care. I'm not asking my doctors (or my nurses, teachers, politicians) to check their personality at the door, but I don't want their personal superstitions interfering with my life. Because of cuts in junior doctor's hours, their training is no longer comprehensive and increasingly few are choosing to experience a the thankless and unpopular world. I don't want my doctor judging me, but it seems that this is exactly what a lot of them are doing - there is a sense that they are tidying up the mess made by selfish, irresponsible, promiscuous women. Newsflash - contraception doesn't always work.

Personally speaking, if someone I met told me they were involved in the practical side of abortion rights, I'd buy them a drink.

Abortion Rights UK are calling for abortion to be included on the medical student core curriculum. Find out more here.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Papa don't preach

Silly fears about lesbian dads are an irrelevance today, and may never amount to more than science fiction.

- Mark Henderson, The Times

In an article in the Times, a columnist reassures his readership that “the End of Men” is merely mass hysteria with no foundation in scientific fact, and that “the dawn of an Amazonian dystopia” is not, in fact, nigh. What it amounts to, of course, is a backlash to the very hazy potential of two women biologically creating a child by terrified heterosexual men – “[t]he indignant railing against Nature usurped, of course, conveniently forgets that most women are not lesbians and will always find it more fun to breed the old-fashioned way.” God forbid that any woman should enjoy making love (or, for that matter, babies) without the presence of a man. It is a castration complex with parenting as the [supposedly envied] phallus.

By “silly fears about lesbian dads”, Henderson really means that the very idea of a woman taking on a traditionally male role – in this case, co-parent of a child – is at best ridiculous, and at worst unnatural. If my partner and I choose to have kids, there won’t be a father involved, regardless of the genetic make-up of the child. It may have my DNA, it may have hers, it may have neither. It may, due to some wonderful scientific advance, have both. But that child will have two mothers and, in all probability, no father. The use of gendered language to describe the non-foetus-carrying partner is deceptive – and designed to highlight the supposedly unnatural nature of same-sex parenting. It also rams home the idea of a binary gender system, one in which there is only biological male and biological female, with no room for the grey areas between the sexes, for someone to define as one gender but inhabit the body commonly attributed to the other.

It is equally an argument about that old bugbear of the Daily Mail, single mothers. Whilst a positive male role model in child’s life is something to be encouraged – I’d be the first to state that I benefitted enormously by one – it doesn’t have to be the father. Families can exist without the presence of a father, and that existance can be a happy one when the father figure would otherwise be a poor influence or have a detrimental effect on the family. Obviously the gender roles here can be reversed – women are no more natural parents than men are – and whilst no-one would argue that being a single parent is easy, it is often the lesser of two evils. Better to be in a stable and loving environment, no matter how many parents of either sex one has, than to be brought up in an attitude of either violence or indifference.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

girls in tight dresses, who drag with mustaches

When we look into each other's eyes with
That look
That two lesbians passing in the street
I know exactly what I'm looking at look

- That Look, Rachel Jury

I change styles like I change my mind,
I tried to change a tyre but I'm not that way inclined.

- I Won't Change You, Sophie Ellis Bextor

The New York Times has an interesting article on cars and gay stereotypes, that's gotten me thinking about the steretypes I fulfil as a lesbian. Here's a confession - my partner and I had our first date at an Ani diFranco gig. Whenever I tell people that, they roll their eyes and say "Of course you did." However, if she said that - and she probably wouldn't, for fear of looking like a dyke cliche - she wouldn't get the same response.

When I was fourteen, shortly before I came out to my parents, I cut my shoulder length hair into a crew cut. I told my mother I wanted to look "elfin, like Audrey Hepburn." Really, I just wanted my appearance to reflect what I was feeling. I wanted my hair to raise the questions about my sexuality that I was afraid to raise myself. Ten years later I've let it grow out, but I'm not feeling any less of a cliche. My music taste leans towards the 'angsty chicks with guitars who don't shave their armpits' genre. I have two cats who I unashamedly refer to as my children. I watch The L Word and mourn the loss of Buffy, Xena and Star Trek Voyager from our screens - Sarah Jane Smith, the leather jacketed women's libber, is my favourite Doctor Who companion. I eat quorn and read feminist literature and I have three pairs of Doc Martens and more than one rainbow badge. I'm pretty damn gay.

However, that description sums up a lot of straight women I know, and it doesn't come within a country mile of describing my girlfriend (except the cats part. But they love me more). She doesn't define herself as a feminist, but she does define herself as a Conservative. She likes Ani but wishes someone would introduce her to a razor. She's non-scene, and uses the word 'gay' as an affectionate but mocking epithet - but she likes women. If Eddie Izzard is a male lesbian, then she's a gay heterosexual. There's a scene in But I'm a Cheerleader - see, I said I was a cliche - where Clea Duvall's character introduces herself by saying "I like girls. A lot. Oh, and I'm a homosexual." Although this scene is set up to parody your average AA meeting, it says a lot about how queerness is defined. It's about the clothes you wear, the activities you engage in - Megan, the lead character, gives the film its title when she insists that she can't be a lesbian because she's a cheerleader, as if those things were mutually exclusive. Why do some lesbians refute these signifiers, and why are some drawn to them?

In the NY Times article, queer theorist and drag king Judith Halberstam argues that "not all gays want to be normative." We're allowed to relish our Otherness, to have the thing that marks us out be celebrated rather than concealed. Whilst I can pass for straight, I don't want to. The keyring that says 'I can't even think straight', the badge with two intertwined venus symbols, they're all precautions against misinterpretations. The image people may form of me without them isn't offensive to me, it's just inaccurate. I've blogged in the past about how the clothes women wear signify certain things to different people, and that the message one person gets isn't the message that is intended. I'm happy to use my body as a billboard to advertise who I am, because it means that I'm controlling the perceptions people make of me. A gay journalist and former engineer in the article is quoted as saying that “traditionally we are used to being defined by others. Driving a stylish car can be a way of taking control back and saying 'this is who I am'.”

Performance poet Rachel Jury explores this in her poetry collection, Laughing Lesbians. She acknowledges the complexity of the issue - in one poem, the title of which shamefully escapes me, the narrator takes a 'How Gay Are You?' quiz only to discover, much to her surprise, that despite identifying as a lesbian she's actually quite straight. But another poem, That Look (which can be found here, at the wonderful Word Power website) uses the same theme of queer signifiers to give a sense of hidden community and attraction.

Of course there are different types of signifiers for different dykes. I may fulfil some stereotypes, but I fail completely in others. I know all the words to Little Plastic Castles, but I don't understand the offside rule and I can't change a tyre. My girlfriend understand both, and has been referred to as "the son-in-law I thought I'd never have" by my father (although not within my straight sister's earshot). I've frequently heard femme women complain about not being taken seriously by 'real' lesbians, or being assumed to be bisexual - or worse, bicurious.

I applaud the spirit behind the NY Times article, because it challenges the heteronormativity of the mainstream press. Part of me thinks it would be nice to get past all that, to just be people instead of gay, straight, whatever. But part of me enjoys the sense of community I get from being this particular minority - when Tina said in a recent L Word episode that she missed "being part of something secret and special" when she became involved with a man, I understood what she meant. I was also sick a little bit in my mouth, because there really are less nauseating ways of expressing that.

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