Brutal gender crackdown in Egypt: The tomorrows that never came

An epitaph for Egypt's revolution: "Remember the tomorrows that never came?" Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

Heartbreaking epitaph for Egypt’s revolution: “Remember the tomorrows that never came?” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer (https://www.facebook.com/KeizerStreetArt)

You go home, you lock your door. If you live in a place like Cairo where everybody talks about crime, maybe you bolt it two times, three times. The door is centimeters thick but it marks an almost geological division: between your life, your self, and all those other lives that have no place in yours. Yet one knock, one blow of a fist, can tear through that integument like tissue paper. The flaccid walls melt, the architecture of a dream; they fold like cardboard stage-sets in a hurricane.

Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another…. Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your  life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? … The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.” …

Everyone living in the apartment is thrown into a state of terror by the first knock at the door.

That’s Solzhenitsyn. But in each repressive society, among every persecuted people I’ve ever known, from old Bucharest to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the knock on the door takes on an almost metaphysical meaning: the barriers around your personhood dissolving. It’s a signal of intimacy, now transmuted into dread.

There is a crackdown, now, in Egypt. Activists calculate that, since last October, 77 people have been arrested, but the real figures are surely higher. The prison sentences are draconian; one victim got twelve years. It is one of many crackdowns. You could compile an honor roll of endangered people in Egypt: atheists, journalists, revolutionary protesters, Islamist supporters — of whom the army slaughtered more than 1000 last summer alone. What’s distinctive about this particular pattern of arrests isn’t so much its breadth as the peculiar intensity of its assault on intimacy and privacy. The police burst into people’s homes and apartments; they’re seizing those whose main offense is that their clothes and hair are different. Didn’t we hear a year ago — from everybody including the well-paid Tony Blair — that the Muslim Brotherhood had to be overthrown and its members murdered because they wanted to trample personal freedoms, impose compulsory hijab, to turn Egypt into a new Iran? So why are its successors, Sisi’s military dictatorship and its supposedly secular henchmen, the ones enforcing a dress code with truncheons and guns?

"Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot)." Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

“Alignment of the Hearts (Morning Shot).” Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer

The current wave of arrests started last autumn, as far as anyone can make out; back then I wrote on this blog about the first two cases. On October 11, police in El Marg, a working-class neighborhood in eastern Cairo, raided a bathhouse and gym and arrested fourteen men. Residents of the quarter had seemingly complained about the comings and goings in the place — they sacked it in rage after the raid. Beaten and abused in detention, the men were charged with fugur or “debauchery,” the term of art by which male homosexual conduct is criminalized in Egyptian law. The arrests got good press; Al-Akhbar Al-Youm, a semi-official newspaper, picked up the story immediately; and that must have provided encouragement. On the night of November 4, in the western suburb of 6 October City, police raided a private party in a detached villa. Among dozens in attendance, they picked up ten people (including a woman working as bartender). Here, the pattern began to set, like an obscene drawing scrawled in wet cement:

  • The invasion of a private dwelling.
  • The focus on gender nonconformity — after the proprietor of the house, police singled out the most “effeminate” guests, including a male bellydancer. (The link to the military regime’s exacting standards of manhood was very clear. The immediate motive for the raid was apparently that visitors to the house who passed a nearby, post-coup checkpoint had offended the soldiers’ sensibilities; the troops called the police in the nearby village of Kerdasa to come do something.)
  • The draconian sentences handed down. Eight defendants got the maximum permitted by the law on fugur — three years in prison; the host had a battery of related charges thrown at him, including “corrupting” others and managing a house for purposes of “debauchery,” and got nine years. (The woman was acquitted.)

Since then, the arrests have come in an accelerating rush, till now a new raid happens virtually every week. Some incidents:

  • In the Red Sea resort of Hurghada,on December 14, police arrested two men (according to their IDs) who were wearing “women’s clothing and wigs” in a nightclub; they found “lipstick and condoms,” “makeup and creams” on them, according to the media.  The press also reported that the morals (adab) police perceived a pattern of “young people aged 16 to 20 from the Western provinces and Cairo” coming to Hurghada to “wear women’s clothing, carrying handbags with makeup tools and accessories and sexual creams and condoms.” In April, a court sentenced one of the two victims to three years in prison; the other was sent to a juvenile facility.
  • In February, the same Hurghada vice squad announced the arrest of three more “deviants,” aged 19, 20, and 23: “dressed as ladies and carrying handbags, in which an inspection found cosmetics and women’s clothing.” They confessed they wanted to “turn into women.” The police reassured the public that a “security crackdown” on deviance was in progress. There have probably been more Red Sea arrests of which we know nothing.

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada "security crackdown" on trans people: from El- Dostour

    Major General Hamdy el-Gazar, of the Red Sea Security Directorate, who took credit for the Hurghada “security crackdown” on gender-nonconforming people: from El- Dostour

  • On March 11, the newspaper Youm7 headlined a court conviction for a “prostitution ring” in the Mohandiseen district, in Cairo west of the Nile: “a mixed network of girls and ‘third sex.'” Among the five defendants they mentioned, two were women and three were (biological) men; two of the latter apparently had women’s nicknames. The defendants’ ages ranged from 17 to 23, and the paper cheerfully printed their pictures. They had apparently been arrested, after “the receipt of information” and “investigations,” in a vice squad raid on an apartment they shared. They received one-year prison sentences.
  • On the very same day, March 11, Youm7 also reported the vice squad in Alexandria had arrested nine university students for “practicing sexual deviance,” in a raid on an apartment in the Montazah district. The newspaper said they had been caught “in flagrante delicto.” Egyptian LGBT activists later reported they had been released without charge, but it has been impossible to confirm this for certain.
  • On April 21, the vice squad in the Suez Canal city of Ismaïlia arrested a 22 year-old with male identity papers, who was wearing women’s clothing in a public park. The victim faces trial this month; the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has sent a lawyer. Youm7 reported the case and printed two photographs of the defendant, face fully exposed, seemingly seized from her house or phone.
  • On April 1, vice police in Nasr City — a district of eastern Cairo — arrested four people in an apartment. Their ages ranged from 18 to 31; according to their friends, two of them identified as male-to-female transgender. They had only moved into the flat the day before; it seemed that neighbors or their new landlord reported them. Prosecutors charged them with fugur. A lawyer who went to the jail to help them heard police calling them the “four faggots [khawalat].” The case moved extremely quickly; on April 7, a Nasr City court convicted them all for”debauchery.” The oldest also was found guilty of “facilitating debauchery” and maintaining “premises for the purposes of debauchery,” under provisions of the same law. He received eight years in prison, while the other three took three-year sentences.
Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Anti-security forces, anti-police graffiti in Alexandria: From http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

  • Also in Nasr City, during the first week of May, the vice squad arrested five more people in another apartment raid. Marsad Amny (“Security Observer”) printed their full names. It also reported that they were “clients” of those arrested in the earlier raid; activists believe the cops found them through the phones or friends’ lists of the previous victims. According to police, they confessed that they “hold private parties and drink  alcohol and liquor, and then they imitate women and [practice] vice with men.” The press also pruriently reported they had acknowledged “abusing pills” (presumably hormones) for breast enlargement and to “soften the voice and remove unwanted hair from their bodies. … They said that taking the pills helped them to acquire the shape, parameters, and characteristics of the female body.” And they owned “industrial tools for the practice of sexual deviance,” which is anybody’s guess. Today — May 19 — the Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights told me that one of the accused has been given a four-year prison sentence; three received eight years; and the court sentenced the flat’s main tenant to twelve years.
  •  On May 4, police arrested six people in a flat in the Cairo district of Heliopolis. Youm7, which carried a report the next day, called them “effeminates” (mokhanatheen, مخنثين, sometimes translated “shemales” or “sissies,” sometimes more respectably as “intersex” or “androgynes”) and claimed they were part of an “international sex network,” apparently because one had a Moroccan passport. The paper carried three successive, sensational stories based on information the police leaked, including pictures of the defendants and even two videos filmed in the lockup. Another paper said they confessed to “suffering from excess female hormones in the body and having sex hundreds of times.” The media also quickly announced that two of the accused “had AIDS,” suggesting an HIV test had been carried out in detention. Charged with “debauchery,” they are facing trial.
Major General Hisham el-Sawy of the Minisry of Interior, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

Major General Hisham el-Sawy , director of the general administration of the morals police, who claimed credit for the Heliopolis arrests, from El-Dostour

The news accounts and police statements actually suggest a still wider crackdown coming. The stories stress again and again that the “deviants” “advertise themselves through social networking sites,” or “through the pages of Facebook.” I interviewed a man arrested a year ago who recounted how the cops told him, “We know the cafes where you people gather, and we know the websites you use too.” Some of the recent court decisions adduce defendants’ personals ads, on sites like “Worldwide Transsexual Dating,” as evidence against them. Plenty of LGBT Egyptians use apps like Grindr, or have ads on multiple sites, or have posted indiscreet things on their own Facebook pages or in supposedly secret groups. A few strategically placed informers, and these people — thousands of them — could wind up in prison.

All that has happened before. From 2001-2004 Egyptian police arrested thousands of men for “debauchery,” entrapping many over the Internet. I can say with pride that this crackdown ended because we at Human Rights Watch, together with Cairo activists, documented it in clear detail, including the sleazy methods undercover cops used to delude and capture people. (“It is the end of the gay cases in Egypt,” a high Ministry of Interior official told a well-placed lawyer in 2004, “because of the activities of certain human rights organizations.”) For the next eight years, excepting an abortive spate of arrests of gay men suspected of being HIV-positive in 2008, no one went to prison for fugur in Egypt.

"A salute to our martyrs:" A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“A salute to our martyrs:” A Hitler figure representing military and police delivers a hypocritical salute to the revolutionary dead whom military and police killed. Graffiti in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

Years of relative calm, then this. What underlies these new horrors?

First, media sensationalism feeds the arrests. Each juicy story gives police more incentives to pursue publicity. Youm7 (Seventh Day“), a privately owned paper, is the worst offender. They’ve blared out each new arrest with hungry glee, publishing names and faces, marching into jails with police collusion to capture the miscreants on videocamera.  Founded six years ago under Mubarak, Youm7 has parlayed its official connections to become one of the most popular papers, and websites, in Egypt. Since the Revolution, it’s become unofficial mouthpiece for the military and the security state. During the Morsi presidency, it whipped up hysteria against the Muslim Brotherhood (most famously, it claimed that the Brotherhood had dispatched roving medical vans to perform female genital mutilation door-to-door in rural Egypt, a story that spread widely before people noticed there was no evidence). More recently, its editor-in-chief was one of the elect anointed to tell a waiting world that Generalissimo Sisi planned to run for President.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” The face was not blurred in the original.

A typical headline from Youm7: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” I blurred the face: Youm7  didn’t.

Youm7 and its imitators dehumanize the arrested “deviants,” portraying them as both pathological and irrefragably criminal. Each article offers new images and verbiage of degradation.

But here’s the second point: of course, the government is feeding these stories to Youm7. And spreading stigma is a defining mark of the post-coup military regime. The whole strategy of Sisi’s government has been to divide and conquer Egypt, with a thoroughness earlier rulers never achieved in living memory: by creating instability, conjuring up threats and then assigning faces to them, it gins up the impression of necessity around its palsied grip on power. It started last summer, portraying the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters (at least a quarter of the country) as not just terrorists but rabid animals whom only death could discipline, indifferent to life, including their own. Stripping humans of their humanity, however, unleashes an energy that brooks no confinement to particular targets. The circles of lives unworthy of living, of those expelled brutally from both the society and the species, keep expanding. Egypt is now devouring itself in an infuriated quest to define who is no longer Egyptian. The “perverts” are just the latest victims.

Police and media together have generated a full-fledged, classic moral panic. Just ten days ago, walking downtown during Friday prayers, I heard a sermon piped over loudspeakers in the very heart of Cairo: “Why do we now see men practice abominable vices?” the imam demanded. “Why do they put on makeup, lipstick, and behave in the way of women?” I forget the answer. The question was the point. These forms of “deviance” are now the common topic in corner mosques as well as national news. All the typical tropes come up. Youm7 interviewed pundits about the “problem” — a psychologist, a professor of Islamic history, and a “security expert,” who compared queerness to drug addition.

Recently a serious phenomenon has surfaced in our society, with devastating  effects on individuals, society and the nation. This phenomenon is the crime of homosexuality [“الشذوذالجنسى,” sexual deviance].

Advocating personal freedom, which our society could not apply correctly, does not mean that the individual is free in his actions regarding his personal and physical requirements. Affronts to legitimacy and legality should be disciplined, so that they do not conflict with the laws of nature or violate human dignity. But “homosexuality” is an affront to all humanity.

“Homosexuality” is filed as a taboo — but we must open it up whatever the reaction. It is a phenomenon that has swept Egypt following the revolution. Although it existed before it has now risen to the surface. …  It has even appeared in the recent involvement of some Arab princes in the practice of “homosexuality.”

As that suggests, you can subsume plenty of other enemies under this sweeping rubric. Revolutionaries, dissidents, and even Gulf magnates who may have given money to the Brotherhood are all tarred. In a violently xenophobic atmosphere, Western criticism of the arrests only proves there’s a foreign conspiracy against Egypt’s morals and manhood.

And, third: manhood is basic here. The crackdown mainly targets the people in Egypt’s diffuse and fragile LGBT communities who are most vulnerable and visible, those who defy gender norms. This is despite the fact that, while Egyptian law does criminalize male homosexual conduct, it says nothing about “crossdressing” or “effeminacy.”  Still, in many of these cases people were convicted of homosexual acts with no evidence but their looks (or the clothes or makeup in their handbags) alone.

Evidence survives that Egyptian cultures before the advent of British and French colonialism had specific niches for the gender non-conforming. Khawal is now an insult for men who engage in homosexual conduct, regarded as a terrible term of opprobrium. In the 19th century, however, it meant male dancers who dressed as women, who enjoyed (like some South Asian hijras) a recognized role as celebrants at events such as weddings.

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: "Egypt - haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer."

Postcard in French and Arabic from the first decade of the 20th century: “Egypt – haywal [khawal]: Eccentric male dancer dressed as a female dancer.”

Whatever those niches were, though, in the 20th century they closed. Khawal came to mean not a gendered role but a sexual practice. Despite a few well-publicized cases of Egyptians seeking sex reassignment surgery, there was little social space for most people – particularly men – to cross gender lines for anything like a significant section of their lives. Only in recent years has there been a growing awareness of “transgender” identity, and an expanding willingness by a brave, determined few to live in at least a liminal space where gender blurs. Many of these folks don’t define themselves as “trans,” nor are they bound to particular gendered pronouns.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

“The Revolution continues: the Brotherhood brings shame.” 2013 anti-Morsi graffiti showing a suspiciously homoerotic kiss between Egypt’s embattled President and the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie.

One way to put this is that “gender identity,” if it means anything in Egypt, often exists in a continuum with “sexuality” rather than as a disaggregated axis for identity. But the development of downtown Cairo and a few other urban zones as places where all kinds of self-consciously “alternative” styles tacitly tolerate each other; the burgeoning availability of Internet information; and the discursive and personal freedoms the Revolution pried open, all encouraged a lot of people to experiment with new ways of appearing and even living, with being “ladyboys” (a term often heard in LGBT people’s Arabic), or fem, or trans. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The attention also meshes with other potent anxieties. I’ve written here before how the Revolution raised a nervous question about what Egyptian manhood meant. The generals who seized control of the country after Mubarak fell began at once to disparage dissenting youth as effeminate: long-haired, culturally miscegenated, and incapable of masculine virtues like loyalty and patriotism. As if in reaction, revolutionaries adopted a language of attacking others’ manhood: “Man up,” a call to courage and defiance suggesting that opponents were wusses, became a running cliché of revolutionary speech.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version disparages the police as "gay." Activists painted over the insult and turned it into a statement on homophobia.

Grafitti on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, 2013. On the left, the original version calls the police “gays.” Other activists painted over the insult and made a different statement: “Homophobia is not revolutionary.”

What resulted? An environment where all sides constantly debated masculinity and leveled accusations at its absence. Coupled with a fear of national vulnerability and diplomatic irrelevance (which the military governments carefully cultivated) this created ideal conditions for defaming transgressors against gender as traitors to culture and country. A stridently soldierly, macho dictatorship could hardly look for a more useful bogeyman than the mokhanatheen, who embody like a freeze-dried concentrate all the vices it attributed to its enemies.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: "The names change, the crime remains the same." The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Anti-police graffiti, Cairo. At bottom: “The names change, the crime remains the same.” The left panel lists the sites of police massacres, the right panel lists Ministry of Interior officials.

Fourth: the crackdown is convenient for the reputation of the police. In the Revolution’s wake, Egypt’s police forces stood discredited and despised. The cop represented the point where most citizens met and suffered from the power of a regime beyond the law. Almost everybody had a personal story of police extortion, or arbitrary harassment, or torture. After February 2011, the police almost disappeared from most Egyptian streets – loathed and cowed figures, fearing for their lives.

With Sisi’s ascendancy the cops are back with a vengeance. You see them at every traffic circle, big-bellied, smug, hitting up taxi drivers for their daily bribes. The regime’s purchased politicians praise the gendarmerie whose lucre-fueled alertness saves the nation from Islamist terror. Their presence hasn’t necessarily made them popular; memories of their abuses die hard. But going after still more despised enemies of virtue gives their image a lift. The news stories hammer home the moral: when it comes to “deviance,” our security forces are on guard.

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo. At top: "Those who appoint a successor never die." a parody of a proverb. At bottom: "O system! You're afraid of a pen and brush. ... You long to fight with walls, to have power over lines and colors." ACAB: "All cops are bastards."

Anti-police graffiti in Cairo, 2012. At top, Mubarak’s face emerges under that of General Tantawi, his Minister of Defense who overthrew him: “Those who appoint a successor never die,” a parody of a proverb (“Whoever has a child never dies”). At bottom: “O system! You’re afraid of a pen and brush. … You long to fight against walls, to have power over lines and colors.”At upper right, a policeman is beating a graffiti artist. ACAB: “All cops are bastards.”

Finally, you have to notice that this crackdown so far doesn’t proceed by policing public spaces like cruising areas or cafes, or by sneaking into pseudo-public spaces like Internet pages or chatrooms. It may go there, but not yet. It’s private homes the police invade. With each news story, they tout their X-ray ability to peer through the walls like cellophane.

And this is the grimmest message, though at first it may not seem so. If Egypt’s Revolution had one collective goal, it was to roll back state power. State surveillance of personal life, of people’s rooms and bodies, was the precondition for the state’s other abuses: especially torture, the crime that all the Arab Spring revolts most focused on, the ultimate assertion of government authority over people’s physical existence down to their bones and nerves and skin. The Revolution rebelled against the policeman’s eyes at the window, his ears in the walls, his clawed hand on the shoulder.

That’s over. There is no privacy. The hand is a fist, and it is knocking at the door. The knock is a reminder that the state is still there, that it can control whatever you do, what you wear, what your bodies desire. The knock insinuates itself into your dreams. It’s trans or gay or lesbian people, or effeminate guys or mokhanatheen, who hear and fear it now; the message reaches them first, in the early stages. Accustomed to dread, they’re an attentive audience. (A gay man with nothing exceptional about his appearance told me three nights ago that he is afraid to answer the door these days, afraid to go out of doors lest his neighbors see him and suspect something and report him to the police.) But it’s a message for everyone, and eventually everyone will listen. The Revolution promised “personal freedoms,” but forget it; “our society” couldn’t “apply them correctly”; they’re a corrupt aspiration, an evasion of the necessity of control. Remember all those dreams of tomorrow? Tomorrow went away.

"Shut up! because your freedom doesn't help me": Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

“Shut up! because your freedom doesn’t help me”: Graffiti in Cairo by street artist Keizer, 2012

 

 

Private revolution: “Homosexuals” and “Satanists” in Kermanshah

2nd century BCE rock carving of Bahram, Zoroastrian god of strength, outside Kermanshah

It’s my party, come in and have a drink: 2nd century BCE rock carving of Bahram, Zoroastrian god of strength, outside Kermanshah

On the night of October 9 (17 Mehr 1392), the Nabi Akram (Prophet’s) Corps — part of the Revolutionary Guards — raided a birthday party at a community hall in Kermanshah, in western Iran. The website of the city’s basij (religious police) reported it the next day. It said a “network” of “several dozen” people engaged in homosexuality (the derogatory term used was hamjensbaz) and Satan-worshipping (Shaitan parasti) was broken up. The “network” had been “under surveillance of the security forces of the Revolutionary Guards for several months.” Eight people in the group were “homosexually married.”.

There were several foreign nationals from Iraq and some other countries in the region … Groups practicing Satan worship and homosexuality had sent support from abroad. For a long time these disgusting practices have sought to penetrate the country.

Some additional information on this has come from sources inside Iran, and with the permission of the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), which has been following this closely, I can share a few things they have been able to confirm.

  • About 80 people were caught in the party. The Guards used pepper spray, beat many of them, and took the personal information (including mobile numbers) of everyone they found.
  • 17 people were arrested (the rest were freed that night), taken first to a police station and then to an unknown location. They were beaten, threatened, and verbally and physically humiliated.
  • Most of those have been released, but five remain imprisoned. There were reports they would face a court today — Saturday — but no one as yet knows the charges or the outcome.
  • All reports suggest that straight as well as gay and lesbian and transgender people were at at the party.

The story has already made it to the international press, so it’s probably worthwhile offering a few cautions as well as reflections.

First, there’s almost nothing that can be done right now, at least until the outcome of the first hearing is known. Lawyers are on the case in Kermanshah. International interventions tend to polarize things; they can tip governments into pursuing prosecutions when they’re hesitating, or turn fluid situations into injustices set in concrete. This is particularly true when the conservatives responsible for the arrests are already pointing to the penetration of the nation by foreign (im)morals.

Makwan Mouloudzadeh, d. 2007

Makwan Mouloudzadeh, d. 2007

Second, we don’t know anything about the arrested people: either what they’re accused of, or whether they identify as heterosexual, gay, transgender, or something else. Don’t presume on their identities. It was in Kermanshah in 2007 that Iranian authorities executed Makwan Moulodzadeh, a young man who’d been convicted for the rape of three teenaged boys (while himself a teenager) in a nearby town. His case was not helped — in fact, his judicial murder was arguably facilitated — by Western activists who tried to defend him by claiming without any evidence that he was “gay” and had a gay “partner,” and hence was guilty of another capital crime. There’s no room for a repetition of those mistakes.

Predictably, if so far in a minor way, international politics have already entangled the story. Ben Weinthal, a propagandist working for the right-wing “Foundation for Defense of Democracies,” (which Glenn Greenwald called “a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country”) tweeted it:

Weinthal news iran copy

Weinthal is paid to promote a war against Teheran, with Western LGBT communities as a swing constituency to convert (most ridiculously, he took to New York’s Gay City News some years back to opine that an “anti-gay genocide” was happening in Iran). His solicitude for Iranian gays is a bit hard to take seriously given that he wants to kill them, and plenty of other Iranians, in a military assault.

Nonetheless, it’s very possible this is part of a test for Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, even if not quite what the neocons imagine. Since taking office, Rouhani has struggled to establish the perimeters of his power in an inherently ambiguous system where the president is subordinate to the Supreme Leader. This has meant trying to rein in the other power centers in which authority is dispersed — most more loyal, and formally more responsible, to Ayatollah Khameini than to him. Majid Rafidzadeh describes them in Al-Arabiya as

solid institutions which have not only employed, educated, and ideologically trained millions of loyalists in the last few decades, but have also managed and controlled the nation’s economy and foreign policies. These institutions were created in order to secure an adequate and dependent social base in case of any revolt or opposition, as well as a stalwart against potential Western intervention.

The Revolutionary Guards are crucial to this network. They manage a large share of Iran’s military-industrial complex, and their tendrils reach deep into energy, construction, and other industries; some estimate they control a third of the Iranian economy.  Crucial too are the basij, in theory under Revolutionary Guards command but in practice under the charge of a welter of local clerics and commanders. The basij can mobilize more than a million volunteer members for social policing and control (though it claims figures higher than 10 million), and since 2008 has had leeway to build its own empire of economic projects.

In a carefully calibrated speech just a month ago — immediately before leaving on his hectic UN visit — Rouhani tried to strike a bargain with the Revolutionary Guards. He offered to leave their economic interests untouched, even urging them to “take on important projects that the private sector is unable to take on,” if they would leave politics alone. The Guards seem unimpressed. Mohammad Ali Jafari, their commander, criticized Rouhani strongly in the state press after he returned from New York, for “prematurely” talking to Obama. Senior Revolutionary Guards leaders have stressed the organization’s important role in recent weeks, warning with renewed intensity that the West plans to “internally weaken” Iran in advance of any nuclear talks.

Three bears: Rouhani (center) with Jafari (L) at September speech

Three bears: Rouhani (center) with Jafari (L) at September speech

A well-publicized moral scandal serves the purpose, in a minor way, of emphasizing the Revolutionary Guards’ vigilance against both foreign and domestic foes, and stressing they can drum up public support. There are rumors in Kermanshah that the Guards have been under instruction, at least since Rouhani’s election, to look for gender dissidence — “men who appear like women” (mardan-e zannama) and “transvestites” (zanpoosh).

There may be more strictly local motives as well. Kermanshah lies at the heart of the Kurdish area of western Iran, increasingly a source of anxiety to Teheran as they face a spillover of Kurdish separatist sentiment from Iraq. (The day after the arrests, Kurdish guerrillas reportedly killed five Revolutionary Guards in a border town in the next province to the north.) I would bet the Iraqi guests mentioned in the basij report on the party were Kurds, whose presence — even if only rumored — may have attracted additional scrutiny to the event. The accusation of “Satan-worshipping” is also suggestive in this light. Many Iranian Kurds adhere to the Ahl-e Haqq (“People of Truth”) or Yârsânî faith, a syncretic religious order whose believers may make up as much as a third of Kermanshah’s population. Several Ahl-e Haqq believers are rumored to have been at the fateful party. Iranian authorities persecute the sect, on religious grounds coupled with fear of ethnic solidarities — in June two Kurds burned themselves to death in Hamadan, between Kermanshah and Teheran, to protest abuses suffered by their co-believers in prison. An ominous mix of religious heresy, political separatism, and sexual deviance may be what the Revolutionary Guards read into an innocent birthday celebration.

All this is speculation. What’s certain is that Rouhani so far has little control over anything the Revolutionary Guards do. The test of his presidency is not so much whether continuing human rights abuses belie his reputation as a “reformer” — that reputation is overblown, but largely irrelevant to the issue — as whether he can accumulate enough authority to curb the parastate, paramilitary institutions behind much of the abuse.

"Rouhani's Key": Cartoon by Touka Neyestani, at http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2013/07/cartoon_55/ -- a key was Rouhani's campaign symbol

Cartoon by Touka Neyestani, at http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2013/07/cartoon_55/ — a key was Rouhani’s campaign symbol

Maybe the most important point to make, though, is this. What’s at stake in this case is not so much “LGBT rights” or the status of any minority — it’s the right to privacy, and its profound contribution to human dignity. Thinking of it solely as an “LGBT” issue misses the larger point.

Female basij (R) arrests a woman for "bad hijab," revealing the hair, during a periodic crackdown in 2013

Female basij (R) arrests a woman for “bad hijab,” revealing the hair, during a periodic crackdown in 2013

The people at the party were exercising their right to do as they liked, harmlessly, behind closed doors: in a rented hall, to be sure, but that partly reflects the porous nature of safety and opacity in even “private” homes, where overbearing families keep watch, and intrusive neighbors mean a basij raid may be only a phone call away. This right has a scope that extends beyond closed spaces. It’s also the claim that women are making when they defiantly wear “bad hijab,” or straight couples when they declare their intimacy with an over-the-top embrace on the street; they’re asserting they should carry an umbrella of autonomy around with them wherever they go, because they’re human beings, and their bodies or their hair or their hands are nobody’s business. The way the Iranian state treats this right with loathing and contempt, through a myriad micro-practices of meddling and surveillance, is one reason the religious police are perhaps its most popularly despised and resented symbol. It’s not because Iranians are all secular; it’s because they’re all human, and they want to be left alone. Iran’s LGBT-identified communities have made many strides in recent years in building alliances with opposition activism, partly because they affirm not just the specialized identity of a minority but a freedom from oversight and intrusion that should be a universal entitlement. Not everybody in Iran knows what it’s like to commit lavat, or “sodomy,” but millions of Iranians know what it’s like to be at a party sweating in anxiety lest the basij break in. That’s where sympathy and solidarity begin.

From Iranwire.com

From IranWire.com

One often hears that privacy is a culturally specific concept. Certainly the forms of privacy and the things it can contain may vary; certainly the ability to experience it is stratified by class and power; but I’m persuaded by Barrington Moore’s researches, among others, that nearly every society traces distinctions between inside and outside, and lays down rules by which its members can control what other people see and know. In Iran these rules are perpetually changed and fought over, subject to the whims of a swollen state and a people’s capacity for resistance, and the conflict can be brutal.

The struggle for privacy ought to be critical for everybody — especially though far from exclusively for LGBT people around the world, whose earliest moral claims and legal successes partly hinged on the demand for a respected, protected private sphere. In the West, though, our sense of why privacy is vital seems to be eroding. Among LGBT movements, it’s a right either denigrated or confused with a privilege, and in either case hardly mentioned any more. This may hinder our ability to understand why events like this in Iran are not trivial but political and decisive. Frank Rich wrote a few months ago, about the US’s own surveillance scandals, that

The truth is that privacy jumped the shark in America long ago. Many of us not only don’t care about having our privacy invaded but surrender more and more of our personal data, family secrets, and intimate yearnings with open eyes and full hearts to anyone who asks and many who don’t, from the servers of Fortune 500 corporations to the casting directors of reality-television shows to our 1.1 billion potential friends on Facebook. Indeed, there’s a considerable constituency in this country — always present and now arguably larger than ever — that’s begging for its privacy to be invaded and, God willing, to be exposed in every gory detail before the largest audience possible. We don’t like the government to be watching as well—many Americans don’t like government, period—but most of us are willing to give such surveillance a pass rather than forsake the pleasures and rewards of self-exposure, convenience, and consumerism.

Try telling this to an Iranian. They’d be amazed, I suspect, that anyone would doubt how preserving and cultivating your sphere of privacy and autonomy is indispensable to your dignity. This is one reason the struggles in Iran continue to be important, not only as source of “inspiration” to the West –that generic and vapid tribute — but as something we should learn from.

Living in truth: Chelsea Manning in prison

Chelsea Manning in happier days, in male drag

Chelsea Manning in happier days, in male drag

Little more than a week after the brutal liquidation of the brave Cameroonian gay activist Eric Ohena Lembembe this July, a trans* woman was killed in Barranquilla, Colombia. Wizy Romero was 21, a community activist “widely known for her leadership in the barrio and district,” especially in sports. While she chatted with friends in the street on the night of July 23, two men on a motorcycle shot her dead. It was the eleventh known murder of an LGBT person in the Caribbean region of the country since the year began.

A few days before Lembembe’s murder, on July 10, friends found a trans* woman’s body at her home in Kuşadası, Turkey: circumstances much like the discovery of Lembembe’s slaughter. An unknown assailant had stabbed Dora Özer to death. Violence aganst trans* people is epidemic across Turkey.  “Every year a few of my friends get killed,” one activist, remembering Dora, said. “I often think of the question, ‘when will my friends hear about my death?’ Saying this is very painful. But I don’t even know one transsexual who died of natural causes.”

Dora Özer, murdered July 9, 2013

Dora Özer, murdered July 9, 2013

On July 22, just days after Lembembe’s killing, Jamaican police in Irwin, near Montego Bay, discovered the mutilated body of a 16-year-old whose identity papers said  “Dwayne Jones.” The story, as slowly reconstructed, was typical of trans* and non-conforming youth in many places. The father threw the child out of the house at 14 for “effeminacy”; the community drove Dwayne out of the neighborhood. Dwayne had gone to a street party dressed as a girl. A crowd chased the child into the street, stabbed her and shot her, till she died after two hours of multiple attacks.  They beat and tried to rape an older trans* friend who was with her; she managed to escape.

People mourned, condemned, protested Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death around the world. Nobody much noticed Wizy Romero’s or Dora Özer’s killings. Human Rights Watch produced a press release on the murder of Dwayne Jones. The contrast with their response to Ohena Lemembe’s killing is instructive. They invited you to take the crime against Eric personally. His murder evoked tributes to his character: “Advocating for equal rights in Cameroon, where LGBTI people face severe discrimination and violence, takes tremendous courage,” the organization said. ” Dwayne was depersonalized. Nothing suggested the heroic individuality of a 16-year-old who braved the cruel streets as herself, not a cipher; she blurred into a lesson for “Jamaican authorities,” who  “need to send an unequivocal message that there will be zero tolerance for violence” against all “LGBT people.” (By contrast, the Associated Press was able to speak to Dwayne’s friends and “humanize” her, though they still referred to “him.”)

A murdered gay man is a symbol. A murdered trans* woman is a symptom.

Amnesty International also wrote about Dwayne’s killing. In a blog post, they described her as “gay” in pointing to the larger lesson: “Gay people’s rights in the Caribbean have to be respected.” Like Human Rights Watch, they said “he was cross-dressing” — an irritating term implying mere fashion choices at cross-purposes with the person’s genital-given gender, which is inescapable. We don’t in fact know whether Jones saw herself as mainly male or female at the time of the murder, but HRW and Amnesty make the decision for her. Eric Ohena Lembembe’s friends remembered him in death. Dwayne Jones’ advocates erased her.

Known murders of trans* people in 57 countries in five years: from http://www.transrespect-transphobia.org/en_US/tvt-project/tmm-results/march-2013.htm. Note high numbers for the free US as opposed to tyrannical Putin's Russia

Known murders of trans* people in 57 countries in five years: from http://www.transrespect-transphobia.org/en_US/tvt-project/tmm-results/march-2013.htm. Note high numbers for the entirely free US as opposed to tyrannical Putin’s Russia.

I thought of this in the dramas yesterday around Bradley Manning’s sentencing. Let’s call her “him,” and “Bradley,” in this paragraph for the last time. Manning received 35 years in military prison on various charges, “including violations of the Espionage Act, for copying and disseminating classified military field reports, State Department cables, and assessments of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” He’d been acquitted of the simultaneously most serious and ridiculous charge, “aiding the enemy,” but in the end this didn’t seem to matter. In fact, the symbolic message of the sentence (everything has a “lesson” these days) was that spreading information is abominable even if it doesn’t aid some enemy. Silence is life, silence is breath. Silence is a value for its own sake. Gays in uniform or no, the military’s mantra remains: Don’t tell. Don’t tell. Don’t tell.

The long prison term is likely to hearten national security officials who have been rattled by the subsequent leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Manning’s conviction might also encourage the government to bring charges against the man who was instrumental in the publication of the documents, Julian Assange.

You can read Manning’s statement after sentencing here. “In in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy,” Manning wrote, “we have forgotten our humanity.”

We consciously elected to devalue human life … When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians.  Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.

“Sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society,” Manning said.

Manning being escorted from courthouse after a sentencing hearing, August 20, 2013, Fort Meade, MD

Manning being escorted from courthouse after a sentencing hearing, August 20, 2013, Fort Meade, MD

A day later, Manning’s lawyer read another statement from the prisoner on TV.

I want to thank everybody who has supported me over the last three years. Throughout this long ordeal, your letters of support and encouragement have helped keep me strong. … As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).

The prosecution painted Manning as a “narcissist” during the trial: apolitical, unconstrained by responsibility to society. (“I only wanted to help people,” Manning said after sentencing.  “When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.”) Thus it’s predictable how her coming out as trans* is playing today. She’s just selfish, trivializing her own claims to higher purpose, and chasing the will-o’-the-wisp of sick fantasy to boot. “So Manning wants to live as a woman,” looney Laura Ingraham tweeted. “Let me guess, we have to pay for it.” Then there’s Adam Baldwin. I don’t know why we should care how Adam Baldwin addresses this or any other issue, but his avatar predicts his answer:

Adam Baldwin. "American Individual. Amiable Skeptic." Male impersonator.

Adam Baldwin. “American Individual. Amiable Skeptic.” Male impersonator.

GayWorld’s reaction will also be interesting to behold.

That Manning’s gender identity was ambiguous, and that she might prefer to be identified by it rather than as “gay,” was no secret. The information’s been out there for years. Living (like many closeted people these days) a fuller life online than in the physical world, she’d come to trust Adrian Lamo, a well-known hacker, in the months before her arrest. Lamo published their chats after he turned Manning in for whistleblowing. Manning wrote him that “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed, so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me … plastered all over the world press … as [a] boy.” Military doctors later leaked to the press that the soldier considered herself female, and a few voices referred to her as a “transgender hero.”

There may not have been enough information for supporters to affirm unequivocally that Manning was trans*: but there was certainly an ambiguity demanding to be respected. Yet it was effectively covered up.  As Emily Manuel wrote in late 2011, the media, and many if hardly all Manning’s supporters

continue to refer to her as male  (for instance, this Glenn Greenwald segment on Democracy Now  still using male pronouns, and still conflating gay and transgender, or Michael Moore’s steady stream of supportive tweets and blog posts).  But at what point will progressive media, those who are at least pay lip service to the idea of being LGBT allies, decide to respect the most likely scenario of Manning’s preferred gender ID?

Several things showed here, not least Manning’s defense team’s fear that, if homophobia in the military was slowly ebbing, transphobia remained rife. To admit a trans identity would alienate the court. It would suggest she was a double traitor, not just a leaker but an undercover woman in a masculinity-obsessed institution: a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a she in warrior’s clothes. Manning, unlike the information she revealed, had to stay behind the veil.

Manly men keep other men in their crosshairs: Frame from a video (released to WikiLeaks by Manning) shot by a US Army Apache helicopter shows civilians on an eastern Baghdad street, July 12, 2007.  Subtitle at bottom is dialogue within the helicopter. Moments later the gunship opened fire, killing eight, including two journalists.

Manly men keep other men in their crosshairs: Frame from a video (released to WikiLeaks by Manning) shot by a US Army Apache helicopter shows civilians on an eastern Baghdad street, July 12, 2007. Subtitle at bottom is dialogue within the helicopter. Moments later the gunship opened fire, killing eight, including two journalists.

There’s something else, though. As Manuel wrote, “Why do we assume that ‘hero’ and ‘transgender’ are mutually exclusive, and are unwilling or unable to imagine rallying around a transgender woman rather than a bright-faced young man?” As the stories I told above show, a gay man murdered means courage. Trans women murdered can quickly be forgotten. Some of Manning’s defenders found it far easier to describe a brave “he” in uniform.

Mentioning gender identity became the province of those who smeared her, like the dreadful Jamie Kirchick. “Manning is gay and reportedly suffered from gender identity disorder, at one point adopting a female alter ego,” Kirchick noted in Out magazine. Why being a woman should be an “alter ego,” except to Jamie’s ego, is anybody’s guess. But: “Bradley Manning is no gay hero,” Kirchick concluded. Pointing to Manning’s femininity helped Jamie undermine both descriptions, and unsettle the “many gay activists” who refused to “condemn him as the traitor he is.” 

They also serve who only stand and Tweet

They also serve who only stand and Tweet

There’s a longer history here, though: a twinned history of gay men dominating the movements, and of activists dictating to subalterns whom they won’t let speak for themselves. Peter Tatchell has, typically, been particularly militant in demanding that Manning accept the identity assigned to her. “Bradley Manning is openly gay,” he declared; “he has participated in Pride marches” — something trans* folks apparently never do. Tatchell urged people to send messages to “the gay military whistle-blower” (if Manning feared having her image plastered over the Internet “as [a] boy,” she might perhaps have been still more alarmed to get thousands of missives addressing her as “gay”). Tatchell continued proclaiming this till the morning she announced her trans* identity. (As usual, when questioned on his facts, Tatchell goes — no pun intended — ballistic; when I pointed out the ambiguities some months ago, he accused me on e-mail of “factually inaccurate, sectarian smears.”)

But Peter has a long record of deciding how people should identify themselves, regardless of how they actually do. In some cases, he picks on the dead, like Whitney Houston. In some cases, it’s the living; his insistence that certain Iranians were “actually” gay (while, being in prison, they couldn’t address the question in person) has probably contributed to the killing of at least one victim. In 2010, when Malawi charged a couple, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, with “unnatural acts” under its sodomy law, Tatchell intruded in the case. His stream of press releases cemented their depiction as “gay” and a “same-sex couple,” even though it was clear to most people that Tiwonge didn’t identify as a man. Gender identity is an undefined area in Malawian law. If a court could have been persuaded that Tiwonge’s gender identity made them an opposite-sex couple, there was a slight chance they might have gone free. Instead, aided by Tatchell’s publicity and aversion to trans* identity, they got 14 years.

Getting it right, but a bit late: Protester at the Malawi High Commission carries a sign, 'Tiwonge is a Trans Woman," May 29, 2010. Perhaps because his gay message was disrespected, "Peter Tatchell was unable to attend." http://www.demotix.com/news/341347/malawi-high-commission-protest-london#media-341341

Getting it right, but a bit late: Protester at the Malawi High Commission in London carries a sign, ‘Tiwonge is a Trans Woman,” May 29, 2010. Perhaps because his all-gay message was disrespected, “Peter Tatchell was unable to attend.” http://www.demotix.com/news/341347/malawi-high-commission-protest-london#media-341341

In other words, GayWorld’s fear of a trans* corner of the planet has consequences. 

Manning’s gender identity came to the fore only at trial’s end, in the sentencing phase. Then her attorneys introduced it, to prove she was “confused” and troubled in the lead-up to the leaking. In no way do I criticize anything the defense said to mitigate Manning’s punishment in an unjust, torturous system. They were doing their best for her, though it does demonstrate that lawyers don’t have the last word about a person’s selfhood, any more than human rights activists do. But the strategy invited the court to see Manning’s gender issues as an illness — and the attendant media seized the opportunity.

Pretty much all the press coverage of Manning’s sentencing treats gender identity as disease. It’s a sickening boost to the worst transphobia. The Guardian, in the UK, throws the book at him. “The odds were stacked against Manning before he was even born … he had characteristics of an infant with fetal alcohol syndrome.” Manning “was still only being fed baby food when he was two years old.” But all these oddities build up to the Real Enchilada, or lack of it, which is her failure to be a man. “An email Manning sent his sergeant, containing a picture of himself in a wig, dressed as his female alter ego [again!], Breanna, gave some insight into his motives.” Does it? What I can’t comprehend is why somebody so infantile, so Dr.-Phil simple, so anxious to return to (and turn himself into) the womb, would do anything so adult — so inimical to childish comfort — so conscious of and caring toward the outside world, as noticing his country’s criminality and leaking a whole slew of highly political information. It’s as if a baby in a Pampers commercial started spouting Shakespeare. Could it be they have Manning and her manliness all wrong?

Military psychologists examined Manning three times, as Kevin Gosztola summarizes. 

His therapist in Iraq, Cpt. Michael Worsley, diagnosed him with GID [“gender identity disorder”] after he opened up to him in May 2010. The sanity board that reviewed whether he was fit to stand trial diagnosed him with GID in April 2011. And the forensic psychologist, who was tasked with reviewing Manning’s records for the defense, Navy Captain David Moulton, diagnosed him with GID and found that to be the primary disorder of which he was suffering.

Keep your laws off my body and your labels off my mind: Protest against American Psychiatric Association and "Gender Identity Disorder," 2009

Keep your laws off my body and your labels off my mind: Protest against American Psychiatric Association and “Gender Identity Disorder,” 2009

Let’s be clear. This suggests that Manning was under stress, and sustained a strong view of her own gender. None of it indicates that she had “gender identity disorder.” “Gender identity disorder” doesn’t exist. Indeed, the belief that categories in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual have some independent existence in reality, aside from psychologists’ use of them to place patients in convenient pigeonholes, is a myth on the order of supposing that medieval lists of angels’ names prove that heavenly beings perched on the roofs of Notre Dame back in the fourteenth century. What all this diagnosing demonstrates is that the US military has a primitive understanding of gender. “Gender identity disorder” (more recently called “gender dysphoria”) is a disease invented by the psychological profession out of a peculiar, mid-last-century confidence that doctors had a fix for everything: that people whose sense of self wasn’t at one with their biological sex were sick, and that medicine or surgery could cure them. Trans* people have found this diagnosis useful at times, to get medical care when none was otherwise available, and to access medical procedures they need. For the most part, though, the “disorder” has malignly pathologized gender itself as a sickness: if you actually think your self and your sex are different, there’s something wrong with you. By this standard, Plato, Joan of Arc, and Judith Butler are all as dysphoric as Bradley Manning. Shock therapy for all of us!

Anyone who’s ever dealt with psychologists knows that you can get them to say anything, particularly if paid. The last of Manning’s examiners, Captain Moulton, was particularly febrile in his rhetoric.

Repeating a diagnosis made famous by the 1995 film “Clueless,” a forensic psychiatrist testifying in defense of Pfc. Bradley Manning on Wednesday emphasized that the WikiLeaks source was in a “post-adolescent idealistic phase.” The phrase is unrecognized in clinical psychiatry. “It’s a period of time when people are more focused on, become focused on making a difference in the world, societal changes, things like that,” Navy Capt. David Moulton testified. …

Turning to this case, the doctor surmised: “Pfc. Manning was under the impression that his leaked information was really going to change how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and future wars actually.”  This thinking was unavoidable in Manning’s “post-adolescent … little world,” Moulton said.

Mandela and Martin Luther King also suffered from deluded post-adolescent regression, then, and would probably be played by Alicia Silverstone in the movie. Of course, Manning’s leaked information really did change “how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” a minor detail, but that doesn’t make him any less crazy for focusing on “societal changes” and things like that! Jesus Christ, what kind of fucking world do you want? You want to live in some fucked-up suburb of BizarroLand where any teenage loser thinks he can make a difference, instead of worrying about what really matters, playing football and praying to Tim Tebow and keeping his balls out the claws of Jerry Sandusky? And fuck Jesus Christ while you’re at it. He was a “post-adolescent” too.

Holy writ: Against the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual

Holy writ, wholly shit: Against the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual

Fine, they adduced all this crap in an effort to spare Manning jail time. Given that the trial and the whole national security system are run by lunatics, the best you can probably do for some lost idealist caught in their paranoid webs is to pretend he’s a lunatic too. That doesn’t mean, though, that the rest of us have to believe it. As another psychiatrist remarked to the press, “Tagging a ‘pseudo-diagnostic’ string of polysyllables on a defendant’s behavior is a common practice in court proceedings.” And he added, “Many young people are idealistic, but so are many older people.” (Idealism in the old is called “Alzheimer’s,” and that drooling nursing-home inmate Mahatma Gandhi is a fine Dr. Oz example.)  “Gender identity disorder” is only more slab of crap, nine more syllables of this garbage jargon. Anybody who truly believes it, or thinks this language gropes up out of its garbage can to hold a mirror to a reality, and that this reality somehow bears on Chelsea Manning, has a dysphoria of his own, which is beyond treatment.

I have a different understanding of Chelsea Manning.

484
I lived in Eastern Europe for six years just after the 1989 revolutions. I read Vaclav Havel obsessively, mostly while travelling with Romanian friends on slow and decrepit trains. In “The Power of the Powerless,” an essay I once almost knew by heart, Havel describes a greengrocer who regularly “places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: ‘Workers of the world, unite!'”

That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be.

But what if, one day, that combination of conformity with an unspoken, underlying fear gives way? Even the powerless can act, if only in negation. Imagine:

Something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. … He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth. …

[T]he power structure, through the agency of those who carry out the sanctions, those anonymous components of the system, will spew the greengrocer from its mouth. The system, through its alienating presence in people, will punish him for his rebellion. It must do so because the logic of its automatism and self-defense dictate it. The greengrocer has not committed a simple, individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness, but something incomparably more serious. By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie.

There, not in the shrinks’ reports, is the record of what Manning has done. And her personal ordeal not only runs parallel to her political one, but is inseparable from it. Her whistleblowing and her coming out are each a journey toward life in truth. It’s hard to imagine the first happening without the second.

Miroslav Hucek, "Mr. Makovička' s Wings," photograph, Prague, 1972

Miroslav Hucek, “Mr. Makovička’ s Wings,” photograph, Prague, 1972

I can already hear GayWorld’s Jamie Kirchicks spluttering in complaint: How can you compare a … a cross-dresser and a traitor to Vaclav Havel, to Angelina Jolie, to Tom Cruise playing Claus von Stauffenberg, to our saints and role models?

But it was an ordinary greengrocer Havel described resisting, not a saint. His point was that the powerless have the power to live in truth and to say no: not soldiers, not athletes, not celebrities, not people with perfect childhoods and perfect teeth. Manning is a true dissident and a true heavyweight because she wasn’t born to be one. Being a hero, like being a woman, is part of her becoming.

Bravery has something to do with suffering; and, as Theodor Fontane wrote, “True heroism, contrary to military heroism, is always bound up with insults and contempt.” It’s interesting to compare Manning’s heroism to incidents in the recent career of Jamie Kirchick. Kirchick was all over the Web in recent days because, invited to Russia Today’s Stockholm studio to discuss the Manning sentence, he instead went into an on-air rant over Putin’s anti-gay laws. It makes for interesting TV; Kirchick impersonates morality convincingly. But from GayWorld’s hysterical reaction, you might suppose he was Solzhenitsyn scribbling in the Gulag, or a lone soldier standing up to Mongol hordes. “The best word to describe this man: BRAVE! WTG!!!!” one comment gushed. And famous person Stephen Fry tweeted“Truly magnificent! Articulate, passionate, brave and JUST what is needed. Three cheers to James!!!!”

Clark Kent in rainbow suspenders: Young Kirchick confronts the evil minions of Mr. Mxyzptlksky

Clark Kent in rainbow suspenders: Young Kirchick confronts the evil minions of Mr. Mxyzptlksky

What these innocents neglect, of course, is that Kirchick drew fleeting attention to the persecution of LGBT people in Russia — but only by derailing a discussion of a persecuted trans* person in the United States. So much for striking a blow for LGBT rights! “I’m not really interested in talking about Bradley Manning,” Jamie began. And of course, Kirchick cared rather less about dissing the Russians than about defending America’s stained virtue. He was eager to stop listeners from learning about Manning’s torture and Manning’s sentence, because Kirchick believes the pervert got off light

What’s most distasteful is the preening praise for Kirchick’s “bravery.” No one menaced him in the Russia Today studio; his only suffering came when they tried to cancel his paid car service to the airport. Kirchick loves to dream of a military heroism that both prudence and reality deny him, which perhaps accounts for why he hates Manning. Famously, Jamie once imagined an all-gay unit in the US army, mandated to take out Muslims and vindicate the Kirchick masculinity in the process: a Village People fantasy where “Taliban fighters” would bite the dust at the hands of “warrior homosexuals.” This macho wet dream was notable only in that Kirchick himself played no part in it. The longed-for vindication was vicarious. Jamie never enlisted in anything. The kid has bellicose reveries of being a he-man (he likes to call himself “JK-47”), but, a classic chickenhawk, he has never served in any army. So far as I can see he’s done little that’s brave, in any real sense, in his life. When he merely repeats the things that millions are saying, though, he gets applauded for a fake, factitious courage that’s lacks both risk and substance. 

We're in Jalalabad, and where is Jamie? AWOL from the gay brigade

We’re in Jalalabad, and where is Jamie? The lonesome gay brigade

While Jamie goes viral, Chelsea Manning goes to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, to start serving a 35-year sentence. This is bravery.

Manning has already undergone inhuman treatment in pre-trial detention. For 11 months she was held in extreme solitary confinement, a purely vengeful measure. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture condemned the cruelty, noting that “imposing seriously punitive conditions of detention on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime is a violation of his right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of his presumption of innocence.” (The judge struck 112 days from Manning’s sentence in acknowledgement of “unlawful pre-trial punishment,” a curious and risible compensation for her suffering.) Now, with her trans* identity a matter of public knowledge, she can reasonably expect the abuse redoubled.

US_incarceration_timeline-clean-fixed-timescale.svg
More than almost any country in modern history, the US relies on prisons as its primary means of social control. Its incarceration rate is the world’s highest (almost 40% higher than the Russia Jamie Kirchick hates). The values of violence, secrecy, and masculinity that Manning rejected rule our prisons, distilled, intensified, and concentrated. Gender policing may be the most constant form of authority. It’s how the prison population is led to regulate itself; its norms are enforced by guards, guns, and the whole official hierarchy.

Rape is ubiquitous, meted out on those who are too weak or can’t conform. T. J. Parsell was thrown in an adult prison because, as a 17-year-old, he stole $53 from a photo store with a toy gun.

On my first day there — the same day that my classmates were getting ready for the prom — a group of older inmates spiked my drink, lured me down to a cell and raped me. And that was just the beginning. Laughing, they bragged about their conquest and flipped a coin to see which one of them got to keep me. For the remainder of my nearly five-year sentence, I was the property of another inmate.

That’s only one among thousands of stories of prison rape. No one knows the exact figures; most inmates who suffer sexual abuse won’t, or can’t, report it. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” takes on its most malign meaning here. And rape is only one of the punishments dealt to the vulnerable and exposed.

Trans* inmates are among the worst abused. “Gay and transgender inmates are perhaps the hardest hit by sexual violence in custody,” the advocacy group Stop Prisoner Rape declared in 2006.

A study of one institution reported that 41 percent of gay inmates had been sexually assaulted, a rate that was three times higher than that for the institution overall. … Contributing to the heightened risk that gay and transgender inmates face are the reckless and indiscriminate classification practices that most facilities continue to use. For example, transgender inmates are often automatically placed either in protective custody with few opportunities to participate in prison programs, or with the general population without regard to their unique needs and physical appearance.

Harassment of trans* prisoners: From a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, http://www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf

Harassment of trans* prisoners: From a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, http://www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf

Nobody knows what conditions will face Manning in Fort Leavenworth. What’s certain is that her gender identity won’t be taken into account in placing her: she’ll be shunted into a men’s ward. If there’s abuse or violence from inmates, solitary confinement — a form of punishment, not protection — is likely to be the authorities’ only answer. She’s asked for medical assistance. It won’t be granted. “The Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder,” a Fort Leavenworth spokesman told the press. Some courts have begun to mandate giving such care to trans* prisoners in some state institutions, but the decisions are still on appeal. It will be a long time before a precedent reaches the Federal prison system, or before it does any good for Chelsea Manning. (The US has 51 prison systems, in effect: one for each of the States, and a Federal one for people convicted under national law, like Manning. A detailed fact sheet on trans* rights in US prisons has been assembled by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.)

It’s important to speak out for Manning over the coming years. It’s important to call her trans*. Erasing the identity Manning expressed only reinforces the silence she sought to undo — and anticipates the violence she’ll face in prison. Fighting for trans* people’s safety within the prison-industrial complex may be the best way to fight for Manning now. The National Center for Transgender Equality has recommendations for trans* rights in Federal prisons here. To summarize:

  • Access to Healthcare. Demand that the Federal Bureau of Prisons guarantee trans* prisoners all medically necessary health care, including therapy and surgery for their transitions.
  • Classification of Prisoners. Demand that the Federal Bureau of Prisons  issue policies on the placement of trans* prisoners that take strongly into account each person’s self-identification, as well as his or her safety.
  • Safe Housing of Prisoners. Demand that the Federal Bureau of Prisons develop measures to protect the physical safety of trans* inmates, without relying on automatic segregation, isolation, or solitary confinement.
  • Prison Rape Elimination Act Regulations. Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, and the Prison Rape Elimination Commission which it created has proposed standards to protect trans* people. Demand that the Attorney General act on these to safeguard trans* Federal prisoners from sexual assault.

Stop Prisoner Rape, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the TGI Justice Project, and the Transgender Law Center are among the organizations working on trans* prisoners’ rights, and they need your support. Critical Resistance and End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) are resources on prison abolition.

Chelsea Manning has asked for mail from her supporters. She can be written at:

Bradley E. Manning
89289
1300 N. Warehouse Road
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
66027-2304

It’s one of the system’s first indignities that the envelopes must read “Bradley Manning” for them to be delivered. In the inside text, though, letters should address her as Chelsea.

NOTE: A commenter points out that Dora Özer’s murder was hardly ignored by everybody: it led to protests by sex worker activists worldwide. See http://jasmineanddora.wordpress.com/. This still points, though, to the grim divide between sex worker movements and LGB ( and a few T) activists, who don’t give a damn about sex workers in their own community, much less about the principles involved. They just don’t get the intersections or why issues of sexual freedom cut across identities and practices. That’s disgraceful. And it’s a post and a history in itself.

 (I am especially grateful to the members of the Real Pride, Real Issues coalition in San Francisco, whose members have kept up the pressure on SF Pride for its disgraceful abandonment of Manning, and whose Google group is a constant source of information.) 

Vindicating the honor of the tribe: A huge Bradley Manning continent marches in San Francisco Pride, June 30, 2013

Vindicating the honor of the tribe: A huge pro-Manning continent marches in San Francisco Pride, June 30, 2013

Thatcher, dead, endorses gay rights

Baird and baroness in happier days: Meryl Streep will play her in the movie

John Baird, now Canada’s Foreign Minister,last made news a couple of years ago when his cat died.  The cat was named Thatcher, after an object of Baird’s admiration, and he sent friends a text message reading, “Thatcher is dead.”  As word raced through Canada’s Tory government, mourning spread, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepared a message of condolence to the British people. It took some time for Buckingham Palace to confirm that the Iron Lady was still alive, though rusting. Harper’s spokesman concluded, “If the cat wasn’t dead, I’d have killed it by now.”

Baird made news today as well, in a more congenial way, by an act of homage to another tough woman, Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s  initiative of US support for LGBT people’s human rights, announced last month, has become a model for other politicians striving to make a mark.   In a speech in London, Baird therefore took his shot at the headlines, and outlined two priorities for Canadian foreign policy: LGBT rights and religious freedom.

What’s striking about Baird’s mimicry, though, is how generally appalling his speech is, once you get beyond the gay-specific sections.   He targets the developing world — Uganda is, as is ordinary these days, his preferred negative example.  But his language is that of an increasingly illiberal interventionism, driven by the need to reshape other societies, and economies, in a pliable and useful image.  LGBT rights advocates should not be happy to find their cause mixed in with this repressive agenda.

Let’s see. Seething just beneath the surface of the speech, there’s neoliberalism:

The support for free markets and open societies will be the defining struggle of the coming decades – the United Kingdom and Canada have been partners in this great endeavour before; we are partners now, and we will be partners in the future in our common cause.

There’s state feminism, Tory style, with a nod to his late cat:

We in Canada, and in Britain, know well the Queen’s leadership and both our countries benefit from the full participation of women in all aspects of society. I think of leaders like Baroness Thatcher.

Thatcher (femme, not feline) at least fought for her own rights, but in other countries, passive women force us to go out and bomb things on their behalf:

 I am particularly proud of the role Canada has played – in concert with our NATO allies and Afghan civil society – in advancing women’s rights in Afghanistan.

The women lucky enough to have survived NATO’s help, though, have an exciting time ahead of them: “The young Afghan girls that go to school today in Kandahar and Kabul will grow up and learn about the political tenacity of Margaret Thatcher.” The prospect of a whole generation of Afghan females, unveiled and pompadoured, proclaiming that “There is no such thing as society” must strike terror into Taliban hearts.

And, of course, there’s a blissful amnesia about the past:

Dozens of Commonwealth countries currently have regressive and punitive laws on the books that criminalize homosexuality. In some countries, these laws are unenforced hang-overs from an earlier era; in others, they are actively implemented. The criminalization of homosexuality is incompatible with the fundamental Commonwealth value of human rights.

How you “enforce” a “hangover” is less than clear; but never mind that — you’d think these countries picked up these laws during a drunken binge, instead of during the nightmare of colonialism.   That “c” word is unspeakable for Baird, himself the scion of a settler colony, as it implies a common responsibility for that old oppression’s effects. And such commonality in turn seems incompatible with the Commonwealth.  (Meanwhile, elevating human rights as “the fundamental Commonwealth value” may be rhetorically useful, but ignores where the Commonwealth came from.)

To the contrary.  Colonization, though we can’t actually call it by name, was the source of all the good stuff:

Voluntary associations like the 54-nation Commonwealth can and must be propelled forward as an agent for democracy, rule of law, human rights and development. That reflects the true value of the British democracy that has spanned the continents and shaped the world.

There’s a blithe confusion about all those funny little countries in Africa, which are hard to tell apart:

However, there are slivers of light.  Rwanda and South Africa have been leaders in protecting and promoting the fundamental rights of gays and lesbians. Slivers of light.

Rwanda?  Who told him that?

There’s a vision of human rights that deprives victims of both agency and voice:

As citizens of a global community, we have a solemn duty to defend the vulnerable, to give voice to the voiceless, to challenge the aggressor, and to promote and protect human rights and human dignity, at home and abroad.

Finally, there is his fixed conviction that injustice and oppression happen somewhere other than at home.

[A] priority to me as Foreign Minister… is, promoting and protecting the fundamental rights and liberties of people around the world. It is something we often take for granted in our pluralistic societies, something we often overlook. But the vivid images of suffering and repression beam through our television sets, and are plastered in our newspapers.

I am not sure where that “plastered” comes from.   But you can compare this to Clinton’s comment in her Geneva speech last month:

I speak about this subject knowing that my own country’s record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. … Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.

It’s unusual to accuse a Canadian of lacking humility as against an American; but there you are.

Identity crisis

A scandal arose in Canada this week over an amendment to airline security regulations that the government had enacted quietly last July. The new rules read:

An air carrier shall not transport a passenger if
(a) the passenger presents a piece of photo identification and does not resemble the photograph;
(b) the passenger does not appear to be the age indicated by the date of birth on the identification he or she presents;
(c) the passenger does not appear to be of the gender indicated on the identification he or she presents; or
(d) the passenger presents more than one form of identification and there is a major discrepancy between those forms of identification. [Emphasis added]

Item c) would seem to ban transgender people who haven’t changed their identity papers from flying. Activist Mercedes Allen explains more:

Most Canadian provinces require evidence of genital reconstruction surgery before allowing the change of gender markers on foundational documents.  Standards of care call for a minimum of one year living as one’s identified gender before the required procedure can occur (two years in some provinces, including Ontario).  This is further complicated by the fact that some provinces have removed coverage for this surgery from their health coverage, so some individuals can be trapped indefinitely with incongruent gender markers on their identification.

In fact, there have been no reports of trans people denied air travel because of the ban. The transport Minister’s spokesman claims that “Any passenger whose physical appearance does not correspond to their identification can continue to board a plane by supplying a letter from a health-care professional explaining the discrepancy” — though the regulations are far from clear on this.

The deeper problem is that Canada treats the legal identity of certain people as a medical problem, and demands a medical solution.  Recognizing gender identity should not depend on genital surgery, anymore than it should (as in Sweden) depend on sterilization. Requiring that opens the door not only to discrimination, but to physical abuse.

For a loud defender of religious freedom, John Baird seems deaf to the old verse — it’s Luke 6:42 — that asks, “How can you say to your brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in your eye, when you yourself behold not the beam that is in your own eye?”  And, equally, he appears oblivious to how human rights activists must be aware of history, including history’s curious susceptibility to irony.

P.S. A petition against the travel regulation is here

The state and the knife

How does the law recognize a body? Maybe this is a strange way of phrasing the question, but it’s important. The law is an anthology of verbal abstractions. But unless it affects people where they literally live, inside their skins, in their physical existences — unless it can dictate or restrain action and movement, unless it can tell them what to do — it might as well be a romance novel you pick up in the airport. This doesn’t mean seeing bodies biologically; it means seeing them as what they are, points of touch and tension between psychology and culture — as ways of experiencing the world. The law’s description of, its recognition of your body, needs to be one you can recognize and experience yourself.

Bodies have to acknowledge the law when it calls them. That’s a predicate of the state’s legitimacy. But the law also has to acknowledge them, to call them by name.  This mutual recognition, intertwined with claims to power on either side, is basic to the way this modern world keeps running.

Sweden is a country where the law doesn’t see certain bodies unless they’ve been modified with a knife.

In Sweden, you cannot change your legal gender unless you are sterilized: unless you prove to the state’s satisfaction that you cannot reproduce.   In 1972, the Parliament passed legislation making Sweden “the first country in the world to institutionalize sex reassignment and sex reassignment surgery by law as the treatment of first choice for transsexualism.” The language there (from a Swedish study) suggests how deeply medical the underlying ideology and the resulting process are.

In Sweden, legal recognition isn’t a right, nor, strictly even the end result; it’s merely the byproduct of a “treatment” where bodily modification is the goal, and the institutions that do the -izing are those of medical power.   (The National Board of Health and Welfare oversees the procedures and decides on the change. )

In following years, other states mimicked this requirement, including Germany, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Rationales for it have been rare. Trans activist Stephen Whittle writes

at the 1993 XXIIIrd Colloquy on European Law which concerned ‘Transsexualism, Medicine and The Law’, Professor Michael Wills of the University of Berne, who writes extensively on European law and transsexualism … took the view that “sterility [of the transsexual person] must be absolutely certain and permanent” . . . before a full recognition of gender change is afforded in law, but he does not explain his reasoning: it is presented as a natural “common sense” assumption. A common sense assumption that appears to be prevalent in any legal discussion in this area by those who are not actually members of the transsexual community.

This version of unexamined “common sense” scored another victory today. The Swedish government withdrew a proposed change to the 1972 law that would have scrapped the sterilization requirement.

Over my fertile body: Göran Hägglund

The National Board of Health and Welfare had urged the change in a May 2011 report, given to the Minister of Social Affairs, Göran Hägglund.  However, Hägglund’s conservative Christian Democratic party, part of the ruling center-right coalition, rejected the suggestion at a party conference the following month. It groped toward new reasons for its diehard defense of sterilization:

“A sex-change means that you willingly subject yourself to treatment in order to change your gender, and if you do that it is also reasonable that you give up some gender-specific properties of your old sex,” Maria Larsson, minister for children and the elderly, said in a speech at the party conference on Thursday evening.

Larsson also said that Sweden is by no means unique in implementing this rule and added that it is also a question of children having the right to “define who is their mother and who is their father”.

Maria Larsson: I'm every woman

Larsson’s last argument is implicitly homophobic in a way that would probably be unacceptable in Swedish politics in any other context; after all, it’s only a small step and slippage from saying that a child has the “right” to “define” mother and father, to saying she has the right to have both. But it’s a telling sentence.  The Swedish state clearly finds it harder and harder to justify rigid policing of gender in public life, where gender itself has become less and less relevant. So Larsson tries to position government as the defender of gender roles in private life and the family.  In a country with less history of patriarchal state control, that might be absurd; but Sweden, after all, is a nation that carried out a eugenics program involving over 60,000 forced sterilizations, mostly of working-class women, from 1934 to 1975.   You might say that in Sweden, the last refuge and resort of patriarchy isn’t the family or civil society — it’s the protecting state itself.

A period of political jockeying ensued after the party conference, as the Christian Democrats tried to persuade the other coalition members — most supporting the change — to discard or delay it. Today, they won. A Christian Democrat MP explained, “It’s important that we stand by the precautionary principle and don’t rush into legislation. This question needs to be looked at more closely.”

Meanwhile, Barbro Westerholm, an MP from the coalition’s Liberal People’s Party, who had “previously indicated she planned to push the issue in the Riksdag,” added:

“I can live with this. It’s a positive step forward where that had previously been deadlock. Sometimes it takes time to reach the goal, but it’s better than having things stop completely.”

Westerholm had previously served as Director of the National Board of Health and Welfare, and in 1979 oversaw the country’s elimination of homosexuality from the list of mental diseases. But in politics, you have to know when to sell out.

Over the years, both states and medical experts have shown themselves almost obsessive in enforcing the sterility requirement. The doctor Whittle cited above, for instance, found dangers lurking in a German court precedent holding that “a reversible interruption of the fallopian tubes might be sufficient, because a transsexual man would be very unlikely to seek such a reversal.” He contended that because this did not preclude the possibility of the trans man seeking in-vitro fertilization, more complete sterilization was needed.

A dozen years ago, in a report on parenthood, I wrote that

Governments in this area still enforce a relentless, ruthless either/or.  Their anxiety to eradicate any ambiguity indicates that the spectacle of (for instance) a legally recognized woman still able, with her own sperm, to inseminate another woman would not merely be a logical conundrum, but a political one: it would strike in some way at the state’s own conceptual foundations, its predication on patriarchal systems separating “masculinity” unequivocally from “feminity.” The state insists on absolute and binary gender oppositions: to achieve them, it claims extraordinarily invasive control over the body.  Human rights cannot allow that claim.  Forced sterilization is unacceptable. …

Freedom from coercion is an essential goal in the intersection of health and human rights.  When such physical modifications are imposed by the state as a condition for participating in civil life in the gender of one’s choice, they are no longer modifications—they are mutilations.  They are no less clearly so than such widely condemned practices as female genital mutilation (the product of an equally repressive regime of gender policing).  As such they constitute inhuman treatment, prohibited by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as well as every major human rights covenant and standard.

That’s still true. The either-or excludes certain bodies and certain people from recognition, and civil rights. It’s appalling.

“I believed I had to give up every vestige of being male to complete the process”

 

Aleksa Lundberg

This article from Global Post, about a Swedish transgender woman’s experience of being sterilized as a requirement for gender-reassignment surgery, and her later fight against the practice, has given the issue welcome coverage at last.  Amazingly, a right-wing party representative says that “children’s interests” underlie the policy:

The conservative Christian Democrats oppose a repeal, as do the Sweden Democrats. Although their party is a minority in parliament, the Christian Democrats underpin the center-right government coalition. Their spokesperson Annika Eclund, describes the party line as “looking out for children’s interests” in a time when medical advances allow new reproductive techniques.

“There are limits to how much we should experiment with how life is created,” she says. “Every day I meet people who are seeking their identity and their background, asking where they come from,” she says. “Men don’t give birth to babies. A daddy can’t at the same time be a mummy. Just because you can, does that mean that you should?”

Trans progress alerts

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

This season of Bigg Boss, India’s answer to Big Brother, features celebrated hijra activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. This isn’t a first for the show, which even in its first season starred transgender actress Bobby Darling; nor for Tripathi, who is a TV star in her own right, having been on programs like Sacch Ka Samna (the subcontinent’s Moment of Truth) and Raaz Pichle Janam Ka (“Past Life Secrets,” where participants go back to previous lives).  Like its multiple international cousins, Big Boss places people in a house with constant cameras and no access to the outside world; viewers are exposed to controversial social issues, personalities, and identities walking around in their underwear. The latest contestant thrown out of the house complains of Laxmi,

“She wants to play her transgender card 24×7. She forever goes ‘mera beta’ ‘meri beti’ and one feels like telling her to shut up.”

That you can talk of “playing a transgender card” in India is probably a victory in itself. Strange that even in a country with its proud, independent, and distinctive cultural traditions, the bitching and backtalk and blahblahblah that go with reality shows are exactly the same. 

Meanwhile, and more momentously, the Indian government announced that 12,548 transgender people across the country have already received the aadhaar,  a new ID system designed to provide simplified, official proof of identity to every Indian.   Many hijras have been unable to obtain state IDs in the past, because they lacked documents or their appearance clashed with their recorded gender. The aadhaar application form allows one to check “transgender” under “sex,” and applicants need not provide documentation of their identity if another aadhar holder will vouch for them. It’s a significant step toward ensuring that hijras, as well as other marginalized people including migrants and the homeless, can access full citizenship.

Max Zachs

Several thousand miles away, the UK may soon have its first transgender rabbi. Maxwell Zachs (his blog is here) says:

“In my early 20s I was dealing with my gender and also decided that I wanted a more Jewish life. Judaism has been so important for me because I felt connected, when not a lot else made me feel connected. When I first started my transition I did not know whether I would find a community that would welcome me.

“I did a lot of text-based study on my own. I loved that and it formed a big part of my life. I fell in love with how we work as a community to support each other and draw so much from these texts. …

“I’ve never had a negative experience within the community – people sometimes have no idea how to include me or help me, but they are always willing to learn, which is great. But as a community we still need to do more to educate about transgender people. …

“For me it’s not really about becoming Britain’s first trans rabbi, it’s just about doing what I want to do with my life.”

Sex talk and Indian classes

say it, girl, or whatever

Now that Section 377 is in the dustbin, Indian college campuses are hearing a chorus of voices speaking out about sexuality — a “silent revolution,” says this account, and one that doesn’t seem silent at all:

[W]ith the decriminalization of homosexuality by the Delhi High Court, young students are now more confident than ever and talking about sexuality openly and utilizing all available media to reach out en masse. “I chose to write about it in my blog because I could reach out to more people at a go instead of telling them one by one, and also if it was there in black and white, it would prove that it wasn’t just another gossip or rumour, since rumours in my college campus were created every hour,” says Deepak.

You’ve got to figure in a bit of Foucauldian wonder at all the talkativeness of it, and the sheer compulsion to speak that powers all this talk:

Apart from being a support group for queer students, these groups also realize that if things need to change in the society, society at large has to be educated on matters relating to alternate sexuality. “Our secondary aim is to build a positive environment and sensitize the student community. People should not be very afraid to come out. They should be more confident. They never talk… the silence is the problem and with Saathi [a queer group at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay] we aim to get them talking,” says Nivvedan.

It was with this aim that Saathi addressed freshers during the induction program at IIT Bombay. Apart from an introduction about Saathi, the address also clarified that homosexuality is nothing unnatural. The impact of the address can be gauged when Nivvedan tells, “Some of the freshmen posted in our mailing list saying ‘Thank you so much you have helped me. Just knowing that I am not alone and there are a lot of people around to help me is emotionally very reassuring.’”

Ardhek Akash also tries to engage the students of Presidency [Presidency College, Kolkata] through regular talk shows. The group invited Rituparno Ghosh and other actors of the movie Aarekti Premer Golpo, which was an acclaimed Bengali movie about a jatra artist and dealt with same-sex love. The whole cast and crew, along with Chapal Bhaduri – the jatra artist on whom the movie was based – answered questions fielded by students. Next the group invited noted lawyer Aditya Bondyopadhyay, who has been a key figure in the case involving Sec 377, to talk about his experiences and the misuse of Sec 377. The group has also invited a male-to-female transgender to talk about transgender issues.

And if you start with the personal giving voice to itself, it doesn’t instantly feel comfortable with the political:

A very remarkable thing about these student initiatives is that they very clearly state themselves to be non-political, away from the politics of sexuality. “Queer Campus [a Delhi-based independent queer student and youth collective] is a very personal space and not political. It is a celebratory space where you can just come in, share stories and develop friendships,” says Rahul.

But the politics will come. As Foucault knew, talking is always political, even more so the less politics is the subject. The talk just needs, in the process of talking to itself, to become self-aware. It also needs to become aware of its privilege — the particular situation that educated Indians occupy in relation to the rest of society, and how that affects their freedom to say, to experience, and to be.

Maybe the most remarkable thing, though,  is the immediate effect that a judicial decision, a simple change in the dry letters of the law code, can have: all the babbling variety of voices that technical, arcane, and dust-encrusted verbiage can let loose. The trickle-down effect is from the specific and elite discourse to the general, from the language of the law to the language of human beings. Let’s see if it trickles down still further, out of the colleges. Let it roll.

Identity without community

An Indian trans man movingly describes some of the multiplicity of gender identities in South Asia, and the difficulties of falling outside a “traditional” identity with a structured community:

I identify as a Thirunambi. Female to male transgender. Long before I knew what I was, I knew I was gender non-conforming. Only recently did I find the terms that best describe what I am and found people who are similarly gendered. A person born as female but with the gender expression that is male. I struggled for several years of my life trying to articulate what I am. To tell my family, friends and lovers that I am not a woman who is boyish. But a man.

There are diverse ways to be a transgender man. Some of us want sex change surgeries, some don’t, some of us identify as heterosexual, some as lesbian or gay, yet others as multi-sexual. Some of us are more fluid with our genders than others. Some of us have been forced into marriages with men by our families, while others managed to leave our biological families to find limited freedom by migrating to other cities.

But the oppression that we have faced due to our “deviant” gender expression cuts across the variety of gender expression within the community. The levels of oppression of course vary according to the caste and class positions that we occupy. I write as a Nair-born, English-speaking, middle-class FTM. I write for my working class, dalit, non-English-speaking FTM brothers. I write because our voices are never heard.

We are silenced before we can speak. We face the double oppression of being female-born on top of our non-conforming gender expression. We don’t have a system like the hijras. We don’t have Gurus who will mother us when we leave our biological families. We are invisible because we are conditioned to “pass” in public as men, to say that our bodies don’t matter because we feel disconnected with them. Is that body that bleeds every month, the body with breasts, that is seen as female mine? This is a question that all of us have grappled with.