Saturday, 18 April 2015

Michael Bublé teaches consent

Michael Bublé has been blasted for posting a Twitter picture of a woman's bum, with leery racialised commentary, without her consent.  She's a woman of colour.

He's since posted his take on the issue: 
"Anybody who knows me would never misinterpret the message of the photo my wife took in Miami that seems to have caused unexpected rage by some people. I do not court controversy. But I realize that a photo that was meant to be complimentary and lighthearted has turned into a questionable issue. For the record, It hurts me deeply that anyone would think that I would disrespect women or be insulting to any human being.. I was not brought up that way and it is not in my character. I regret that there are people out there who found the photo offensive. That was not and is not my intention. Women are to be celebrated, loved, respected, honored and revered. I’ve spent my life believing that and will continue to do so."
He could not have written a more revealing aide to critiquing rape culture and consent if he tried.  He was meaning to compliment her; he doesn't disrespect women, he loves them; he's hurt because his intention has been misunderstood.

Any of that sound familiar?

He doesn't get into the woman's short shorts "asking for it" - that element of rape culture is nicely taken up by others on Twitter.  It would be easy to criticise Mr Bublé for this - too easy, to be honest - I'm far more interested in exploring the things it shows us about consent culture.

A few weeks ago, I was talking about Friend B with Friend A.  Friend B has a history of not asking for what they want directly, and even when others around them are explicit in saying what is not ok, repeatedly testing that through indirect actions.  None of this is sexual, it's about living stuff, friendship stuff, activist organising stuff.

I said to Friend A, as we discussed a recent situation, that Friend B was "naughty." 

It's been bothering me ever since.  The minimisation, the flippancy of my comment.  Because were the content of these interactions different, we would be talking about sexual assault.  Friend B is repeatedly disrespecting other's boundaries in order to do what they want.  And because they are clever, and because life stuff is complex, they do not take responsibility for what they are doing, and they would be absolutely horrified to be called on it as an issue of consent.

So it's been bothering me because I've been excusing behaviours that undermine consent, albeit in a non-sexual context.  To create a consent culture we have to do so, so much better.

Back to Mr Bublé.  What if he'd asked the woman concerned if he could photograph her, post the picture on social media to millions, make comment on her arse?  That would have been better, obviously, than what he did.  But it still would be chock-a-block with the power dynamics that he, as a rich, white, famous man, benefits from.  Could he borrow the racialised "baby got back" about an anonymous Black woman in the context of North America, slavery and the ongoing objectification and violence towards women of colour?  It's hard to see how it could be a free agreement to enthusiastic participation.  Consent processes are complicated, and sometimes need revisiting to get them right.

A few years ago now, I was arranging a conference, and one of the people I wanted to speak - because they were the best person in Aotearoa on a particular subject - said they were busy that day.  I remember noticing something in their voice, and stopping, noticing that I would usually have suggested helping them with travel costs to ensure they could do both things, trying to work out a way that would work.  What stopped me was knowing the person was a survivor, and hearing in their "no" something uncertain.  They were not sure I was going to listen.

It was a horrifying moment, because I realised that many times in the past, I might not have.  I might have continued to seek what I wanted, because I wasn't reading their "no" as definitive.

A consent culture, I believe, is only something we can work towards imagining at the moment.  Because consent culture would make neo-liberal capitalism impossible - why would workers consent to the greedy CEOs having so much?  Consent culture would dismantle colonisation and the ongoing harms to indigenous peoples and use negotiation, justice and equity as a basis for sharing space on the earth. 

In addition to organising for consent structurally, in all the ways that happens, we can and should be interrogating the personal spaces where negotiation and power sharing live.  We can and should be honest with ourselves about when we are over-riding someone else's consent.  We can and should ask for help from people to listen to us, even when we are having trouble saying what is ok.

And Mr Bublé, in your case, a genuine apology would be most welcome, acknowledging that whatever was going on for you, in the moment of posting that picture you were not thinking about the woman pictured having any needs or wishes that didn't suit you.  And that, ultimately, coupled with power, is the abuse of consent.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

NZ Abortion Access Back in the Dock

  
What if you had a way of providing an essential medical service that was safer, cheaper, less traumatic for patients, and meant they didn’t have to travel more than an hour each way to access it? Well, if it was for anything other than abortion, you’d be its champion. But this is abortion, and now the pioneering Tauranga Family Planning clinic, which has been providing early medication abortions in the Bay of Plenty since 2013, is under threat by anti-abortion court action that could worsen New Zealand’s already poor record on abortion access.
            The court action by the Catholic anti-choice group Right to Life is a direct result of our now 38-year-old abortion laws, which criminalise abortion and continue to block the use of newer and better ways of providing it. And it’s not the first time our backward laws have been recruited for the purpose of banning or restricting abortion access. A 7-year case by the same group seeking to wind back access went all the way to the Supreme Court, where in 2012 Right to Life lost by a frighteningly narrow 2-3 ruling. The fact that abortion access in New Zealand was one justice away from being severely restricted in 2012 should have been a wake-up call that our criminalised abortion laws need urgent change. But, again, this is abortion and if there’s one thing (almost) all politicians agree on, it’s that they’d rather do nothing than wade into a debate about reproductive justice. 
            So nothing happened, and so here we are again, with abortion access back in the dock. The implications of this case are significant (more on that below), and underscore the urgent need for supporters of reproductive choice and access to press politicians to take action to give our fragile abortion access a secure foundation.
 MPs have been on notice for decades that our laws are barely able to function: the Abortion Supervisory Committee has said so, the courts have said so, even the United Nations has said so. And still there is silence. To quote Prime Minister John Key during the 2014 election campaign: “I’m opposed to changing the law … I think the law broadly works.” And that’s been the standard line from the abortion liberals in Parliament for decades now – apart, that is, from a few stand-outs in the Green Party, which became the first-ever major party to adopt a pro-choice platform in 2014, some impressive Young Labour activism and a bold stand in 2010 by former Labour MP Steve Chadwick.

Importing U.S.-Style TRAP Laws


            The new case at hand was publicly announced on Sunday, when Right to Life said it was headed to the High Court to challenge the Abortion Supervisory Committee over granting a licence to Family Planning to provide early medication abortions at its Tauranga clinic. (Family Planning is only an “interested party” in this case, and it will be the Crown Law Office that plays defence.)
Though we haven’t yet seen Right to Life’s formal arguments, the media release and RTL’s previous posts about the Tauranga clinic indicate this effort is straight from the American TRAP law playbook (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers). In this case, RTL plans to argue that our law requires any institution providing abortion have “adequate surgical and other facilities” for the performance of safe abortions. As even RTL acknowledges, when the 1977 Contraception Sterilisation and Abortion Act was enacted, there were no medical abortions. Since Family Planning’s Tauranga clinic isn’t a hospital or a surgical facility, I’m assuming RTL will claim it doesn’t have the “adequate surgical and other facilities” needed to hold an abortion licence under the law so the ASC shouldn’t have given it one. (A hearing will take place at the High Court in Wellington on 2 June starting at 10 a.m. According to the court, it should be open to the public.)  
It’s important to explain a bit about what early medication abortion is. At the Tauranga clinic, medication abortions are available only up until 9 weeks of pregnancy (63 days), and involve bringing on a miscarriage using two medications usually taken 48 hours apart, Mifegyne or Mifepristone (formerly known as RU486) and Misoprostol (also known as Cytotec). You can read more here from Family Planning itself about what an early medication abortion entails. It’s also worth a reminder that people seeking abortions in the Bay of Plenty – as elsewhere – must still meet the requirements of our criminal statutes: Before you can get an abortion, two doctors (certifying consultants) must agree that your case meets one of the half dozen criteria listed in the Crimes Act. 

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Telling stories about rape

Former All Black Mils Muliaina was arrested last night in connection with a sexual assault in Wales in March.  It's very early days, with no information about the allegation having been made public yet.  When sexual violence is reported in the UK, their justice system does a better job than ours, with 63% of rape cases and 76% of other sexual assault cases resulting in conviction.  (Just to remind ourselves, in Aotearoa just 13% of sexual violation cases reported to Police result in conviction).
This post isn't about that though.  It's about how we tell stories about rape.

In 2013, research from the specialist sexual violence sector looking at how the media report on sexual violence in Aotearoa showed some disturbing stuff: journalists do not understand the law and they do not interview experts, with no articles featuring commentary from specialist academics or researchers and just 8% featuring commentary from community experts.

This means that our news is full of rape myths, because journalists are like everyone else - they grow up in our rape culture.  Despite the importance of the role of the mainstream media in educating the public about sexual violence, the only compulsory reading for student journalists in New Zealand features just three sentences about sexual violence in a 453 page book, and they are not helpful for unlearning rape myths (my emphasis):
“It is illegal to report the victims’ names in any sex crime; it can be unethical and untasteful to describe a sexual crime in graphic detail. It is particularly important to be cautious about taking sides in the reporting: with emotions running high, false complaints are often made regarding sexual offences. Both sides can be very believable in their differing accounts.”
For the record, Police estimate 8% of reports about sexual violence they receive are false.   It's far more common for people to choose not to report to the Police - just one in ten survivors report.  Both of these figures come from New Zealand Police, that bastion of feminist activism.

The media research identified six key areas where newspaper reporting could be more accurate.  As the most fulsome report is at Stuff, that's where I'm looking.
  • Sexual violence is not “just sex”
  • It is rare for a survivor to lie about being raped
Stuff doesn't call what has happened "sex".  Yet.  Watch this space.  It does, however, set the scene for the night in question like this:
 But rugby-mad Cardiff is a renowned party town, and the Welsh capital comes alive after a big match.
Come alive with the raping, Stuff?  Or is there already an inference that what happened may not be that serious?  Maybe the person calling this sexual assault - who we know nothing about, yet - confused partying with sexual assault?
  • Violent stranger danger sexual violence is rare
  • Unfortunately, rapists do not stand out 
There's nothing yet about the third point.  If this myth gets played up, it will reflect in later coverage describing all the ways Mr Muliaina is not a violent stranger - if the victim isn't physically hurt say, if there were no weapons involved - there will be implications that what happened probably wasn't sexual assault.  Despite the fact that perpetrators more typically use alcohol, coercion and isolation to rape - not physical force.  If the person alleging the sexual assault knew Mr Muliaina, of course this would make the sexual assault more typical - despite rape myths to the contrary - too.

This case has hit the headlines because Mr Muliaina is good at rugby.  So he stands out in that way, and we hear about what a popular All Black he was, that he's married with a son, that he has "silky" skills and a gold medal.  We know which teams he's played for and his solicitor and agent have both been quoted by Stuff.  

One of the ways news stories do a real disservice to communities around sexual assault is when they give a distorted view about people who rape.  Unfortunately, rapists can be good at sport, they can be fathers and husbands and medal winners.  They nearly always have other people in their lives who say good things about them.  Even though it would be handy, no rapists have it tattooed on their foreheads.  So while we will no doubt hear from many, many people how wonderful Mr Muliaina is over the next few weeks, none of this means he did not commit sexual assault. To decide that, we'll have to hear about his understanding of consent and his behaviour that night.
  • Being raped is worse than being accused of rape
  • Sexual violence has no excuses 
We know nothing about how the person alleging sexual assault is doing from the Stuff article, whether they are experiencing all of the symptoms associated with trauma that are common for survivors.  Panic attacks.  Depression.  Anxiety.  Insomnia.  Eating disruption.  Alcohol and substance misuse.  Fear.  

We do know:
The arrest could spell the end for the 34-year-old's 15-year career playing top-level rugby, just a week after he signed a fresh deal with Italian side Zebre. 
We also know that Mr Muliaina's agent was "shocked" and his coach "stunned".  We know he was "hauled away" by police "in the full glare of news cameras".  Police, apparently, "pounced without warning."  

So we already know this has been awful for Mr Muliaina.  

We also already have a handy excuse lined up.  Not only is Cardiff a party town, coming alive, but Mr Muliaina has a historic problem with alcohol.  

____________________________________________________________________________

The coverage of this case isn't gold star awful.  Yet.  But Stuff have made a valiant effort to shore up several of the myths New Zealand news coverage suffers from.  Let's hope the rest do better.  

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Another World is Possible Essay Competition

I'm sure lots of readers (and my fellow-bloggers) could contribute something really awesome to this competition.

***********

For the second time, the Labour History Project is running an essay competition to inspire debate on alternative futures.

In December 2014, an OECD report ranked New Zealand as the most deeply affected by growing income inequality out of all developed countries. It makes the case that we are all affected by growing income inequality, not just those in the lowest tenth of households in New Zealand. In this context, the Labour History Project invites progressive New Zealanders of all ages to offer visions and strategies that would enable a future world where inequality is eradicated.

How to enter

Entries can be in English or in te reo Maori. They should be around 1250 to 1500 words in length. Entries should be typed double-spaced on A4 paper, single-sided, on numbered pages. Please do not include photos, drawings or other graphic information. Each entry must be the writer’s original work, complete in itself (ie. not part of a larger work) and not previously published. Only one essay from each entrant will be considered.

Awards

The overall winner, runner-up and junior (under 19) winner will be announced in early July 2015.

Winning essay will receive $350
Runner-up will receive $300
Junior winner will receive $350

For more information go to the LHP website.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Undoing rape culture, one sports field at a time

This week we got the chance to see a key plank of rape culture in practice.

Masculinity cultures in men's sports, or rather the dominant men's sports, are without doubt some of the most important ways we learn what it means to be male.  Boys shouldn't "throw like a girl"; you must "toughen up, man up, harden up"; and instead of sports being a contest of skill and athleticism, we are taught to consider them battles, where the toughest of male warriors play on through the pain barrier or they are a "wuss".


So when Australian Rugby superstar David Pocock condemns homophobia he's breaking some masculinity rules and that's a fine thing.  More interestingly though, in this case, is the fact that Mr Pocock broke a key support for rape culture - "what happens on the field stays on the field."

The Sydney Morning Herald says their website comments have been loaded with ugly sentiment: 
"Has sport come to this? I don't agree with comments like that, but neither do I agree with making such an issue of it. Pocock knows the player(s) involved, and he'd be better served having a stern word to them during the game, or after the game. To bring the referee into it is unnecessary, in my view, although I'm sure plenty of the PC crowd will disagree."
Almost immediately, there were people predicting that David Pocock would not captain the Wallabies again.  Pocock was public in his support of Marriage Equality, and recently chained himself to a digger to protest mining in state forests in New South Wales.  He's a man who cares about the world, and isn't afraid to show what he stands for.  This didn't matter to rugby fans or the rugby hierarchy when he wasn't breaking the "what happens on the field stays on the field" rule, because he's a brilliant, brilliant player who wins rugby matches.


Now that he's naming other men's bad behaviour on the field though, he's fair game.  This isn't about the content of the naming - he could have been talking about sexism, racism or homophobia - it's about masculinity and rape culture.

Men consistently overestimate other men's use of and support for gendered violence.  Related to this, men consistently underestimate other men's willingness to stand up to gendered violence, which limits their own willingness to intervene.  Put together, these two planks of what men think masculinity means make it harder for men to stand up to other men when they behave badly.

To end rape culture, that's precisely what we need.  It's not enough, if you're a man who wants to end rape culture, to ensure you actively seek and give consent in your own relationships.  You'll have much better relationships and be a more decent human being, but undermining rape culture means undermining masculinity values which say solidarity with other men is the most important thing.  There are always more men watching than participating in gendered violence.  If those watchers become challengers, gendered violence becomes far more difficult to perpetrate.  "What happens on the field stays on the field" is offensive primarily for the fear it engenders in men challenging other men.

That's why David Pocock should be applauded this week.  He's showing all men that calling out other men's bad behaviour is possible, even in the most sanctified of masculinity shrines, the sports field.  Imagine if other man always did that every time another man made a rape joke; sexually harassed bar staff; groped someone at a gig; put their partner down; threatened or acted out violence towards others for being queer or Black or feminine?  We'd have an end to rape culture before we knew it. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Three Strikes, you're out NZ Police

Trigger warning:  Explicit discussion of incompetent sexual violence investigations underpinned by rape culture.  Please be careful reading.

The IPCA report into the Roast Busters case is so bad the Police have issued a public apology.  It details systemic problems with how sexual violence was investigated throughout the Police hierarchy.  The report itself points out the lack of shift from two previous reviews of Police practice in this area:
It is disturbing that several themes identified as a result of the Authority’s child abuse inquiry (such as deficiencies in investigative practices, file recording, collaboration with CYF, and case supervision) have, again, been highlighted in the Authority’s current investigation.
IPCA identified seven cases involving the same young men that were brought to Police attention between February 2011 and April 2013.  One case involved multiple alleged sexual assaults. 


Deficiencies in Investigative Practices
NZ Police chose to stop investigating these cases when victims did not wish to proceed.  The law is clear on this - victim's co-operation is helpful but not required.  NZ Police failed to:
  • either check whether the named young men were known to Police, or when they did recognise this, failed to consider whether there was a pattern of behaviour which was dangerous to the public.  The IPCA Report calls this "the most significant failing identified in the Authority’s investigation."
  • obtain statements from witnesses
  • attempt to speak to or take statements from all of the young men involved in the incident
  • make any enquiries that might have corroborated or refuted any inconsistencies between accounts
  • adequately consider the evidence in relation to consent issues 
  • secure all available evidence, such as CCTV footage, cellular telephone data, and photographic and video images
  • ensure investigations were completed in a timely way
  • ensure officers interviewing witnesses knew case details

Deficiencies in File Recording
This comes up first in the Background section.  NZ Police told the IPCA that four cases involving the Roast Busters young men had been reported to them.  Upon file review, the IPCA in fact found seven. 

In addition, NZ Police failed to:
  • accurately record names or birth dates of the young people concerned, in particular the perpetrators.  Some cases did not bother to record the young men's names at all; others missed out some young men.
  • submit a final report at all in one case 
  • submit accurate final reports in other cases.  This included failing to mention victims providing evidence, incorrectly stating victims had been in contact with CYF, incorrectly stating that victims had described activities as consensual
  • remove their own biases - one case report included musings from the officer about the "mindset" of the victim which the IPCA describes as "tenuous and unfounded" (we can only guess at which delightful rape myth that might refer to)
  • failure to identify corroborating evidence - on one occasion by three witnesses - which might assist with prosecution

Deficiencies in Collaboration 
NZ Police failed to:
  • refer the young men to CYF, in line with protocols between NZ Police and CYF.  Had they done so, access to offender treatment could have been offered as well as other interventions.  Instead this happened just once, but the young man did not turn up to his appointment.
  • link in with Youth Aid or the schools concerned at all
  • contact the parents of the young men in person.  In just one case, letters were sent to the young men's parents.  The letters didn't reference other cases and did not mention offender treatment, merely informing the parents Police were taking no action on a complaint they'd received.

Deficiencies in Case Supervision
The report identifies one officer as providing inadequate supervision for his cases, including failing to identify the problems named above.

Lack of understanding of the law
The law regarding consent and alcohol in NZ states: "A person does not consent to sexual activity if the activity occurs while he or she is so affected by alcohol or some other drug that he or she cannot consent or refuse to consent to the activity."

I'm going to just quote the report's findings on this one: 
In four of the cases, alcohol was known by investigating officers to have had an influence on the behaviour of the young women involved. In one case, the young woman passed out and awoke to find one of the young men on top of her. In another case, the young woman had no recollection of the incident, and was told a few hours later by one of the young men that “you were roasted and then passed out.” Material on these Police files reveals that the reported level of intoxication and the state of consciousness of the young women due to their alcohol consumption, and how this impacted on their capacity to consent, was an issue that was never adequately followed up by the officers. In some instances, it is apparent from the Authority’s interviews with the officers and from the files that it was not even considered.
The law regarding age of consent in NZ states that someone cannot give consent if they are under 16.  Sometimes this is not prosecuted, generally if both people involved in sexual contact are under 16 and it's not seen in the public interest.

The report concludes that wasn't the case for the Roast Busters incidents, as the levels of intoxication involved, the fact some of the young women were three years younger than the perpetrators, and the fact there were multiple perpetrators involved all indicate there should have been public interest in prosecution.
____________________________________________________________________________
 
This is the stuff of nightmares.  It's every bit as bad as we thought, way back in November 2013, when there were street protests and demonstrations and everyone in New Zealand was talking about what consent means and whether "boys will be boys" is an acceptable excuse for rape.  When three independent reports in a row detail the same failings, it's not a few bad apples, it's a rotten system.  Three strikes, you're out NZ Police.

The Police need reform, they need improvements in sexual violence practice to be measured and reported on, they need more training.  They need to take sanctions against officers who treat sexual violence so cavalierly - if they want this to stop being a systemic problem.  Top quality investigation of sexual violence cases need to be a key performance indicator at a District level, so the hierarchy take it seriously.  Until their officers actually understand and implement the law, they should be reporting on their improvements to an impartial group which has the power to hire and fire. 

One final note from me.  This report says that the Police treated victims courteously and were motivated to act in their best interests, based on talking to the Police and reviewing documentation.  The IPCA did not interview one victim, and while I can understand why there may well be no victims who would want to go anywhere near the Police again, this seems like a major oversight.  I have no confidence that this incompetent a Police service is routinely treating victims well.  I have no doubts some individual Police officers will be - and I'm sure this report is heartbreaking for the many NZ Police who want to prosecute sexual offenders appropriately - but the system needs correcting.  Watch this space.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Roast Busters report from IPCA is scathing

Some quick links:

Release from NZ Police - Young women to receive apology for shortcomings...

Herald report - IPCA: Police "let down" Roast Busters alleged victims

The report itself - (links for PDFs in first paragraph on this page at IPCA website)

Quick comment from me:  It appears that the police involved made a major (and to my mind inexplicable) mistake in somehow deciding that rape law only targeted consenting partners (WTF!), and because the law says you can't consent if you are under 16 somehow you also can't be raped?

Here's a sample from the report, in relation to the lack of consideration of rape charges:
Sexual conduct with a young person under 16 
84. Under section 134 of the Crimes Act 1961, everyone who has a sexual connection with, or does an indecent act on, a young person (under the age of 16 years) has committed an offence and is liable to a term of imprisonment (see paragraph 132). There is no question that these young men were aware that the young women involved in the six cases investigated by CPT staff were under 16 years. As a result of their interaction with Police officers, it is also evident that several of the young men (certainly by the time the investigation into Case 1 had concluded) were aware that they were committing an offence, irrespective of their own ages. 
85. Critically, the offence of ‘sexual conduct with a young person under 16’ did not require Police to determine whether there was consent. They merely had to prove that sexual connection had occurred and that the complainant was under 16 at the time. Clearly, therefore, the evidential threshold for prosecution was met. The only question for the Police was whether it was in the public interest to prosecute.
86. The Authority recognises that it is uncommon for Police to prosecute a young person under section 134 for sexual connection with a person of the same or a similar age. This is because often such cases involve two young people, close together in age, who are engaging in mutually consenting sexual activity, and it is determined by Police that the public interest is not served by prosecution. 
87. It is clear that this general thinking underpinned the approach taken by the officers in these cases. Indeed, Officer D told the Authority that he and Officer C determined that prosecutions under section 134 were “inappropriate” because two of the three young men were under 16 at the time of the offending. He added that section 134 is intended for “consenting parties” and that, if it had been used to bring a prosecution in Case 3, it would have implied that the Police did not believe the victim’s initial account that she was not consenting. 
88. The Authority does not accept the validity of this reasoning, as there were a number of aggravating features in these cases that should have prompted consideration of such a prosecution. In four of these cases the young women were between two and three years younger than the young men involved. They were vulnerable (due to factors such as their level of intoxication); the extent to which they were willing parties was at best equivocal; and they Section 127 of the Act states, “There is no presumption of law that a person is incapable of sexual connection because of his or her age.”  The young men involved in these cases were aged between 14 and 17 years at the time of the incidents. 2424 were subject to sexual acts by more than one young man. The behaviour of the young men was demonstrably unacceptable and required a response. 
89. In our view, the fact that the parties are close together in age, while a relevant factor, is not determinative. Moreover, it is perverse to conclude that a prosecution for sexual violation cannot be brought because there is insufficient evidence to prove lack of consent beyond reasonable doubt, but then to reject a prosecution under section 134 on the basis that it would imply the existence of consent. The reality is that a prosecution under section 134 says nothing about the presence or absence of consent, because it is simply irrelevant to the facts that need to be proved.
90. At the least, officers should have discussed this option with victims and explained the implications to them. They were remiss in failing to do so.

My whole life I've been dressing up

I'm going to try something a little different, and review a TV series. 
Disclaimer: Transparent is about a white upper-class Jewish trans woman, Maura, coming out when her children are adults.  Since I'm atheist and cis, I'm sure my understanding of some things will miss the mark so please jump in for discussion/correction in comments.  Second disclaimer:  I don't watch a whole heap of tv or movies. Sometimes when my very clever friends talk about tv I don't understand them.  So this will be unsophisticated.

Transparent came out last year, winning awards and critical admiration, including from trans activists.  Early on in the show Maura comes out to her eldest daughter Sarah, who asks "Does this mean you're going to be dressing up like a woman?"


There's some reaching out to other trans* folks from Maura that speaks clearly to why we need support groups and retreats and safe places for all trans and gender diverse people.  One of the scenes I found most painful was a summer camp Maura attended years earlier for transfeminine people.  Camp members are describing someone being kicked out of the camp for using hormones.  "This is a camp for men," they heartily agree, "men who like to dress as women!"  Maura is visibly uncomfortable, and it feels like she's finding out that even that space - which she has been experiencing, until then, as joyful and full of wonder - may not be safe.

There are other painful slices of transphobia. Maura enters a women's bathroom with her daughters, who assure her it will be fine, despite her obvious discomfort.  They call her "Dad", which leads to other women in the toilet misgendering Maura and telling her she must leave.  Sarah's rage - which no doubt you'd feel - explodes and worsens the situation and Maura slinks away, finding an empty construction site portaloo she can safely use.  A good reminder to cis allies that the most important way to support someone is to make sure you respect what they want whether you understand why or not, because getting it wrong might well be dangerous.

The show is ostensibly about Maura, but actually we spend just as much time, if not more, watching her painfully self-involved children.  I'm assuming this is supposed to show the whole gamut of reactions to Maura transitioning, but it's hard to read her family's behaviour as having anything to do with her.  They are all complete train-wrecks, and while their indifference to Maura's feelings is horrific at times, it's how they treat everyone.  Sarah and Josh don't care when their mother's partner of many years, who seems to have dementia, disappears.  Josh scares his first girlfriend in the show so much she asks his boss to keep him away from her, though he thinks he's showing her love.  Ali's best friend tells her at one point that Ali's been making her feel awful for years.  I'm not sure the nuances of transphobia are well-served by this, though it's frequently good drama.

There's an argument over whether we should be interested or emotionally moved by what's going on in Maura's family anyway.  For many, shifting the focus from the person most vulnerable to structural oppression - Maura - might not be ok.  And it's a story we're more familiar with, right?  How cis people feel about trans* folks.

When I came out as bisexual I sent my mother books by and about queer women for every birthday and Christmas for a decade.  Good books, by Alice Walker and Lisa Alther and Jackie Kay and Sarah Schulman and Joan Barfoot and Marge Piercy....She read them, swapped them with friends.  I thought I was helping my mum see my life.  Years later, she thanked me for sending her books "about how other parents coped with having queer children."  I said I didn't think that's what they'd been about.  She was surprised.  I think, in a way, we were both right.

So while I'm much more interested in seeing Maura and her story being told than I am in another story about cis people, I feel disappointed that so far Transparent, in my opinion, has dodged telling the stories of her children's engagement with a transitioning parent with any depth, simply because they're all such self-involved jerks.

Maura's youngest daughter, Ali, changes her gender presentation quite dramatically during the show.  By the end, she's been wearing masculine clothes for a couple of episodes and has a much more androgenous haircut.  Some reviewers suggests this happens without commentary to juxtaposition how easy it is for women to play with presenting in a masculine way compared with the frequent and difficult reactions Maura gets to her transition.

I find this troubling.  While it's not helpful to play oppression olympics, the idea that there is no cost for women expressing masculinity is very different to my experience.  I've presented in a range of ways across my life, and spent lots of my early twenties looking pretty much like any stereotype of a sporty butch queer women you've ever seen.  During that period I was frequently asked to leave women's toilets, verbally and physically threatened by men, called "it" by men, asked if I was confused by men, told all I needed was a "good fuck" by men.  At one family gathering, the partner of one of my cousins drunkenly asked me "what are you?"  I think he was confused by my shaved head and breasts, they make bogans a little basic in Christchurch.  One of my friends, a beautiful butch, was recently so frightened about a road trip to the States and the violence she might experience there that we spent lots of time pre-planning safe stops, based on their LGBTIQ friendliness.

You get the point.  Maybe Ali's demographic cope much better with androgenous presentations.  But simply pretending there's no issue feels dishonest to me.
  
I'd be remiss, dear reader, if I didn't comment on The Biphobia.  Again.  Sarah's married life is turned upside down when she meets an ex-lover who's a woman.  So she does what every Bisexual should, and Cheats on her partner.  With the Other Gender.  Oh, and she tries to do it again later, after she's left her husband for the sexy ex, when she's hiding in the laundry with her husband.  Us Bisexuals, can't help with the Cheating.  We're just always wanting all of the genders, all of the time.  In case you're not sure this storyline is actually a thing, just cast your mind back to Orange is the New Black's central bi character, Piper, who um, does exactly the Same Cheating Bisexual Thing.

Actually maybe Sarah's not Bisexual.  It's not like that word is ever mentioned, for goodness sake. Towards Sarah or the other character who has relationships with more than one gender.  Because Biphobia.  Again.

There's been much commentary about the fact that a cis man, Jeffrey Tambor, is playing Maura.  He's wonderful in the role, and clearly an ally, plus I suspect an actor of his calibre may have significantly increased the chances of Transparent being made in the first place.  Some people have suggested it's marginally more acceptable to have a cis man playing a trans woman because Maura is beginning her transition.

This seems like slightly ridiculous transphobia to me.  Are we really saying a trans actress, assigned male at birth, wouldn't be able to pull off playing a trans woman pre-transition?  Whereas a cis man can pull off playing a woman?

We've seen similar arguments recently to justify non-disabled actors playing disabled characters.  As with white actors playing Black characters, all of these casting decisions reveal discrimination - an assumption that people (which people?) will identify more readily with able-bodied people, with white people, with cis people.

If cripping up and blacking up are unacceptable, so is transing up.  Cis people playing trans characters speaks to centring of cis experience even when a trans story is being told, and it needs to stop.  It's great to see a variety of other roles in Transparent are played by trans actors, and a trans woman is joining the writing staff for season two.  On the subject, it's no surprise to me that the central character here is white and middle-class.  I wonder if we'll see any intersectionality in season two, an exploration perhaps of the rates at which trans women, especially trans women of colour, are targetted for lethal violence?

These reservations aside, Transparent is a good watch.  The writing is tight, the acting superb.  Much as I might dislike Maura's children, watching them behave badly is a bit like watching an election result you're not happy about - it's hard to look away.  Gender and sexuality themes are everywhere.  Seeing a multiplicity of transfeminine and one transmasculine (to date) characters is a treat.  Maura may not be able to tell every transfeminine story - who could? - but she normalises a particular kind of trans experience for a mainstream audience.  We need more stories which do that, if we want to end transphobia.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Why are we still here? Commonwealth feminists speak out

Recently I was asked to contribute to "Why are we still here?", a Commonwealth Writers blog about feminism for International Women's Day on 8 March.

My post went up on the day itself, with a new one going up every day since. Seven more will go up over the next week, including:

Maori academic Ella Henry on indigenous women’s rights, and the need for women to re-politicise their personal lives.

15 March: You can read Ella's post here.





Right now you can read:

- Poet and playwright Sitawa Namwalie on the incremental fight against deep-rooted gender equality in Kenya

Urvashi Butalia, founder of India’s Zubaan Books, on the changing landscape of feminist publishing and its relevance today

- Writer and academic Martine Delvaux on the importance of feminist writing in countering the erasure of women in Canada

- Film activist Marian Evans on the deficit of complex female protagonists in New Zealand’s film industry.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

2015 Pro-Chioce Gathering in Wellington

The 2015 pro-choice gathering is going to be awesome. A chance to talk abortion politics, meet awesome people, make plans and probably even protest.

When: Saturday and Sunday, 21 and 22 March 2015, from 9.00am -4.30pm

Where: PSA House, 11 Aurora Terrace, Wellington
Marama Davidson is the keynote speaker - and there are lots of awesome sessions planned (and room for more if there are things people are particularly keen to see or offer. As well as talking about abortion politics there'll be some crafting and protesting.

For more information go to ALRANZ's blog or the facebook event page.

Come along! Invite your friends!

Thursday, 26 February 2015

markers of cultural identity

various things in my life have been keeping me busy these days, so that i'm finding little energy to write.  but i've had a bit of time to read about the whole patricia arquette oscar speech thing and intersectionality, which reminded me about another issue related to race.

i don't watch many TV programmes, but favourite ones tend to be legal dramas.  from "LA law" to "ally mcbeal" to "the practice" to "the good wife" (not so much "boston legal", unfortunately).  so i was definitely interested in the new series "how to get away with murder".  i've watched the 3 episodes that have aired, and i really like it.  i love the centering of black people, the strong character development of them, i the central character in both her toughness and vulnerability.  in much the same way as i love the character of kalinda sharma in "the good wife".

the only thing that bothers me with the show is, on the face of it, pretty trivial.  it's that the hair of the black women on the show is invariably straight.  i'd have to go back through the 3 episodes to confirm, but it seems to me that there wasn't any major black woman on the show with the tight curls that many african women have.  i've looked at images of viola davis, and it seems to me that is her natural hair style.

the thing is that it isn't just this one show.  it's a thing with most movies, tv shows, music videos, most of popular culture.  it's a thing that has been written about a lot in america, and here's just one article.  it's a thing that's rooted in american history, where blackness has historically been considered bad, unworthy and the expression of blackness disdained.  it's about a history where black women have had straightening products pushed on them for decades, with the notion that having straight hair makes them more acceptable (reminds me of the whitening cream marketed so strongly in many asian countries).

this is not about viola davis and her individual choice - she gets to present herself how she pleases, as does any black woman.  i certainly don't think of any one of them as sell-outs for choosing to have straight hair.  it's more about a show that is going past so many stereotypes but still adhering to this one.  it's about how a natural marker of identity (and yes, i know that not all african women have natural curly hair) is erased from popular culture - unless it's a period drama.

we have a parallel here in nz, with maori.  the way that moko are treated in every day kiwi life is quite similar.  they're considered unacceptable for employment; they are often viewed as something scary or suspicious; they are rarely seen on our tv screens or in our newspapers.  they seem to me to be an aspect of cultural identity that has been sidelined instead of celebrated.  i can't speak for maori in general, or any maori person specifically, so apologies if i have this wrong.  but could it be that a lot more of them would choose to have one if there wasn't this erasure and negativity surrounding the practice?

i guess these issues are of importance to me because i wear one of aspect of my identity so very visibly, and by choice.  i pay consequences for that choice, of course.  daring to have a marker of identity that is so different from the majority can be seen as an affront, a challenge to the status quo.  hence there can be pushback.  so be it, i find that's not enough to stop me.

but i do know that it shouldn't be so.  i shouldn't be getting push-back.  neither should anyone else, simply for making an overt display of who they are.  or for sporting a marker of cultural identity.  that's why i want this show to be braver, stronger, more challenging of stereotypes than it already is.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

It's raining racism and transphobia on my Pride parade

Content warning: this is about racist, transphobic violence and has been put together from a number of sources online available at time of writing.

Last night during the Pride parade in Auckland a Māori trans woman had her arm broken as she protested against New Zealand Police and Corrections staff taking part.  Other protestors say the security staff targetted her for violence, while cis Pākehā protestors were treated more gently.

You should not have your arm broken when you are protesting.  It's unclear yet whether her arm was broken by the Police or by security staff.  It's also unclear why there was a long delay in seeking medical attention despite numerous reports she was screaming.

We can thank social media for alerting us to how serious this is, because mainstream media coverage to date has been woefully incomplete.  In fact, it almost looks like the Police comms team went straight (pun intended) to work.  The NZ Herald tells us "Proud Police march Pride parade":


The Police press release/NZ Herald article explains that many Police participating were not "gay" (hint: NZ Police, neither are most LGBTIQ folks), they just wanted to show they "value diversity."  Then right at the end:
The only disruption to the parade was a vocal group of three who protested the police contingent.

Protester Tim Lamusse said police had a history of targeting queer communities, "particularly in the 60s, 70s and 80s, they would turn up to gay clubs, make everyone come outside and shame them in front of everybody".

The protest was poorly received by the crowd, which responded with calls of "you're ruining the parade!".

Lamusse said police never apologised for their past prejudices and "they continue to beat up queer kids".
One of the protesters was arrested and later treated by St John staff for injuries she suffered during the arrest.
Both RadioNZ and Stuff at least lead their Pride coverage with the assault, but details at this point are scarce.  Stuff have also apologised for an earlier version of the article describing the woman injured as a "transvestite".

Let's just imagine, for one moment, the quantity and depth of coverage there would be if the Pride parade had involved property damage to a known homophobic bar. Investigative reporting might not be missing in action for that kind of assault.

But that's not the most disappointing part, for me at least.  Because the response from the queer* community has included event organisers saying how "well-handled" the incident was.  Unless, I guess, you're the Māori trans woman in hospital this morning, having your bones reset.

GayNZ has a small story, including a request for more information from those there.  But they also have a much more detailed editorial lauding Pride for being bigger, better and more mainstream than ever before.  Police are praised for the "massive symbolism" of taking part.

How about the "massive symbolism" of racist, transphobic state-sanctioned violence?  How about the "massive symbolism" of people filming the assault also being arrested, or having their phones destroyed?  How about the "massive symbolism" of a uniformed mob allowing an assault in front of them and not intervening to keep a member of the public safe?  

If you're not sure why NZ Police and Corrections staff have a difficult relationship with the queer* community, do some reading.  The Trans Inquiry in 2008 led by the Human Rights Commission detailed transpeople being subjected to violence, harassment, misgendering and exposure to unsafe environments by NZ Police and prison staff, abuse which continues to be an issue.

I have personal knowledge of queer* people trying to report same-sex sexual assault to the Police and being told there was no crime, or worse.  NZ Police do not always take the harassment and violence queer* people experience on the street seriously, even when that violence is lethal.  And the much vaunted Diversity Liasion Officers are certainly a step in the right direction - except when I tried to report some homophobic and biphobic violent threats I'd received a couple of years ago, Wellington Police Station didn't know what DLOs were, and couldn't tell me who I should be talking to.  

Marginalised people do not trust the Police, for good reasons.  In the Trans Inquiry, trans people reported regular Police harassment; Pacific peoples are twice as likely to be tasered as
Pākehā, Māori between the two.

So if you're a trans person of colour, it probably doesn't make you feel proud to see NZ Police "valuing diversity", it probably makes you feel scared.  "Massive symbolism" is empty if it's a lie.

You can support the woman lying in hospital today here.