Monday, 14 June 2010

Rhyme and Irreason

You'll forgive me, I'm sure, for not blogging over the weekend. I was busy Friday and Saturday night performing - and watching others perform - new writing at the INK festival in Newcastle. There were poems, plays, short stories and dramatic monologues, all of which proved - if proof were needed - that the North East has a thriving writing community every bit as vibrant and inspiring as that of Edinburgh or London. The final piece of the evening and perhaps, for many people, the highlight was Lee Mattinson's 'Lucille, Lucille', an Alan Bennett-esque monologue about a fading soap actress who embarks on a love affair with her make-up boy until things take a darker turn. One of the great comedy set-pieces of the monologue was the narrator's description of her visit to a gay club with her beau and the rest of the make-up boys, during which, inter alia, she 'got off me tits on black sambucca and pickled-onion crisps...tried poppers...and fell and twatted me head on a transvestite.'


I admit I laughed at that last line, but I laughed uncomfortably. Why a transvestite? Why not, say, a bear, or a twink, or a leatherdyke? Well, for one thing, not everyone knows what a twink is; whereas we do have a cultural reference point of what a transvestite will look like. We know they will be overly made-up, flamboyant, outre, OTT, funny. Or we think we do. There's no reason why a transvestite has to be loud about it - Eddie Izzard's on-and-off-stage crossdressing has grown ever more subtle over the years, to use just one example - and, to use another, I myself was engaging in an act of transvestism at the Friday night gig, albeit a minor one - the black pinstripe Cyberdog armwarmers I was wearing are actually, technically speaking, girls' gloves. Most people, when pressed on the point, would probably accept it, but it might be argued that a transvestite in a nightclub context is likely to be 'working it' to some extent and will probably conform to the stereotype.

But while the cultural stereotype of the transvestite explains the resonance of the gag, we're on a hiding to nothing if we imagine that's the reason. Lee Mattinson is a writer, and he has chosen 'transvestite' for an obvious linguistic reason, which is that it forms a partial rhyme with the word 'twatted' earlier in the sentence. 'Twatted my head off a leatherdyke' is still funny (and I'd contend you'd be more likely to concuss yourself falling back on a big butch bird with a pair of steel-toecapped DMs on her feet than a t-girl with a pair of breastforms shoved into her bra). But it doesn't have the rhythm. It doesn't sound as good. It doesn't scan.

None of which excuses any harm Mattinson's line may do, though I suspect it won't do much. Mattinson isn't demonising the transvestite, describing them as unnatural, and he isn't conflating transvestites and trans gender women and men. But if Mattinson's line were harmful, and written out of spite, the rhythmic, rhyming quality of the piece wouldn't save it. And this is where I have a problem with the results of a survey released by Ofcom last week, which reported, with a straight face, that:

"As the phrases ‘gender-bender’ and ‘chick with a dick’ rhyme, some participants expected them to be used in comedies, in a lighthearted way, and therefore thought it was unlikely that these phrases could be seen to be offensive."

So now we know! Two of the biggest cissexist slurs against trans people are, it turns out, alright because they rhyme. Well, that's a relief! I suppose all us gender non-conforming folk can just relax now, and next time some gang of beered-up fuckwits hurls one of these babies at us we can just smile in a wry manner at their 'lighthearted' banter. Before they presumably gives us a similarly-'lighthearted' kicking.

I couldn't believe this 'research' when I came across it. I genuinely feared for a moment that I had fallen down some Life on Mars-style hole into the seventies, and would go home and find the Black and White Minstrel Show playing on the TV.

I am apparently not the only person who's done so. It seems most of the American Psychological Association think so too, having revised their proposed 'Transvestic Fetishism' category in such a way as to make it even more of a fascist diagnosis. According to the APA, my wearing girls' gloves on Friday makes me mentally ill. According to Ofcom, it's acceptable for those fortunate enough not to share my affliction to mock me in the vilest terms. Am I mad? In a coma? Or have I really gone back in time?

Edited 15/06/2010: Jesus, that's a terrible ending. It's lazy and glib, it makes light of a serious issue and, most heinously, it repeats a joke I've already made on Twitter at least twice, now. But when I got to the part of this blog where I had to write about the APA's lurch even further away from common sense and towards weird right-wing bigotry, I actually couldn't go on. Unlike the bigots, who now have Ofcom's sanctions for their lazy slurs, I had no words. What do you say against something like that? What do you say to the fact that psychologists, people who should know better than to give succour to prejudice and marginalisation, apparently believe that people should be labeled as mentally ill for not conforming to socially-constructed gender norms? As the article points out, there's no more sense in having a category for 'transvestic fetishism' - for any fetish that doesn't involve nonconsensual harm, for that matter - than there is in having a category like the bang-out-of-order 'ego-dystonic homosexuality' bullshit the APA used to flog.

It isn't people like me who'll be unduly affected by this kind of thinking, of course. I'm educated, middle-class, and able to pretty much argue the living shit out of any mental health professional who decides I must have some kind of problem because I enjoy wearing make-up and accessorising with something other than an identity bracelet and the watch Daniel Craig wears as James Bond (well, I do have a problem, actually: a meta-problem, in that my real problem is the people who think I have a problem). It's the young, the poor, the people who are already marginalised in some way or other by race, class or disability and also happen not to conform to the 'Men eat Mars Bars, Only Women Own a Gilette Venus*' school of thought, who are going to get it in the neck under the DSM-V Dispensation.

Eddie Izzard once characterised the reaction of transphobic shop assistants who reacted with horror when he asked to try on a blouse as 'you can't do that...surely the world will blow up!' It's come to something when I - a person who used to work in retail (albeit in a bookshop rather than a blouse emporium) - have a more sensible attitude to the possibility of Transpocalypse than the (allegedly) best and brightest minds in American psychology.

* Full disclosure: I actually don't own a Gillette Venus either. Your correspondent achieves hir silky-smooth skin through a combination of Veet for Men, the King of Shaves Azor razor and shaving oil, and regular sessions with Buffy the Backside Slayer. And yes, it does amuse me that two of the products I use to achieve a more androgynous look are unambiguously male-gendered.

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