You’re just a body. You can’t be trusted.

Posts

Content note: Mentions of sexual assault survivors, but no graphic imagery or descriptions.

 

This blog post is also available as an audio version through SoundCloud. Click here to listen

I just read a piece by Melissa Gira Grant, titled ‘All Bodies, No Selves’, about a problematic trend in media reporting and policy making that reduces survivors of sexual assault to just bodies, and it resonated with me in regards to disability reporting and policy. It reminded me of why I decided from day one of planning my podcast that I would only invite people with chronic illnesses and disabilities on as guests.

Grant comments that people who write about gender/sex/sexuality politics from within their own experience are often expected to do no more than present a compelling personal narrative. She says:

If you have something political to say about gender or sexuality, you will be expected to voice it through what your body is and what it has done, what has been done to it.

Media interviews expect little more than a “peep show”, Grant says, requiring you to create value with disclosure after disclosure. I had an experience like this in a recent radio interview, for which I had been invited to comment on the government’s drive to push people aged under 35 off the Disability Support Pension. I had expected that I was invited in my capacity as an advocate, given that I had written about this subject and hosted a podcast about young people with disabilities. However, when the radio host turned the discussion to me, her voice became sad and she adopted a funereal air as she introduced me. For, you see, I am young, and … d i s a b l e d. I had a dozen statistics and facts that I kept trying to bring to the conversation about government welfare policy, but the host talked over me, asking instead for me to disclose the sorts of cruel things people say about my disability.

I was taken aback because – maybe thanks to my white cishet privilege and the fact that usually people can’t see my disability so assume I am able-bodied – I had presumed that they wanted my opinions. It surely helped that my opinions were informed by personal experience as well as professional work, but I was just happy that the mainstream media was inviting a young disabled person to comment on policies specific to young disabled people. The commentator the show had had on before me was an older man from a disability advocacy body. (He wasn’t asked what mean things people say about him.) I didn’t realise that my status as someone possessing a chronically ill body was the only thing they were interested in.

In ‘All Bodies, No Selves’, Grant wrote this passage about sexual assault survivors that could easily be about people with disabilities (two groups which as a Venn diagram would be nearly circular):

Be a good poster girl. Get vulnerable enough for someone to step in with the right story, the perfect #hashtag, the slightly more powerful person to carry your cause for you. (You’re just a body. You can’t be trusted.)

This reads to me as a perfect account of inspiration porn.

Some of this was in my mind when I began planning my podcast Just A Spoonful, back in mid-2014. I liked the idea of a disability-only space, where able-bodied people’s voices were denied access. Not out of a grudge – but to pound out a level playing field for us. Each episode I have a guest with a disability. Everyone on my podcast has a disability. So there’s no opportunity for novelty – you already know that they’re disabled or living with some chronic illness, because otherwise they wouldn’t be there. What this also means, is that nobody has to be the poster child for disability or for their particular condition. I’ve had three episodes where my guest had bipolar disorder, and none of their stories are the same.

I tell each guest when I invite them onto the show: we don’t need to talk about your condition, your impairment, your illness, your disability. The fact of it is already there, baked into the show’s premise. There’s no need for you to relive your diagnosis story, or talk about “what it’s like” if you don’t want to. You’re here because I want to know about you, because I wanna pick your brain. Your band, your clothing store, your sustainability advocacy, your pet kitten – like, that’s why I invited you. (More guests with kittens, please.)

That being said, an incredible amount of guests choose to talk to me about their conditions. After all (and this is kinda the point of the podcast), our bodies are huge part of our lives. They’re sort of vital to everything we do. But they’re not the whole experience. Too often, the wider population gets stuck at the ‘body’ part of people with disabilities. Nobody talks to us because we’re just bodies. That’s how The Australian can run a piece about the closure of a residential institution in NSW in which the journalist visits the building, profiles some of the residents, and only includes quotes from their family or advocates. I actually spoke to that piece’s author, Rick Morton, via public tweets, and he offered that,

In this case I wanted to tell the story of one resident who moved from Westmead. He is non-verbal. But I should have tried harder.

I have a really wide network of people with disabilities who I call frequently, to orient my reporting from their perspective.

I understand Morton’s bind in wanting to present the most compelling story but also report respectfully. I do not think he accomplished his goal in this case. Martin Ryan, the 54-year-old man Morton was profiling, was presented as merely a body that was tended to and spoken for. Ryan’s 84-year-old mother (not a resident) was interviewed about what the closure of the institution meant to her, and NSW Disability Services Minister John Ajaka was quoted describing disabled people picking out their own linen and paint schemes. Yet group home residents themselves were still absent, a silent group being shuffled from one building to another.

I can’t help wondering, why couldn’t the journalist covering that story, any disability story, be someone with disabilities. If you don’t have someone in your network who has a disability and is appropriately qualified, why not train someone up? People with disabilities are more than capable, and a very diverse community. A bunch of us are writers, freelancers, and if we lack the commensurate professional experience of our able-bodied peers, it’s probably because we either can’t physically manage full-time work or because workplaces are structurally inaccessible to us. These are not huge obstacles to getting more disabled voices out there. Got a story about the NDIS? Put someone with lived experience on that beat. Then you’re less likely to get subpar reporting that forgets to interview any of the people directly affected.

As Grant asks in her piece, who actually benefits from reducing people to tragic circumstances? We hear a tragiporn story about a 29-year-old who has to stay in bed all day. We hear about her diagnosis, her illness, everything about her life that we hope won’t happen to us. Then, to quote Grant, we

take from it a gush of feeling, and then move on. We’ve consumed. Now that we’re done with it, we can put the body back in its place.

 

 

Advertisements

An act of political bravery: Speaking plain English

Posts

 

“All we are doing with this bill is allowing two people who love each other to have that relationship recognised by way of marriage. That is all we are doing.”

This video is from last month, when the New Zealand parliament passed a bill amending the definition of marriage. Essentially, they made it legal for same-sex couples to marry.

I am still recovering from this video.

It took me some time to get my head around it, to get some space from the initial emotion. Only then could I reflect on the significance of this MP’s speech to the New Zealand parliament. Maybe it’s because I’m Australian. Maybe it’s because I have lived in our colourless political landscape for so long that any act of political bravery stands out like the Land of Oz. Maybe I just wasn’t thinking about it. (I mean, hey, I just discovered The Voice. I’ve been busy.) But you know what really stands out for me when I watch this video again?

He’s speaking English.

I know, I know, cue Kiwi jokes now. “Fush and chups,” etc. It’s not about accents, or dialects. It’s about clarity of thought. He’s not just speaking English – he’s speaking plain English. The kind of English George Orwell would be proud of. (Or is it the kind of English of which George Orwell would be proud? I dunno, grammar skipped over my generation. And I will continue to use that as an excuse to begin sentences with “and”.)

As Orwell points out in his famous essay, Politics and the English Language, politicians commonly use “bad” English – superfluous words, stale metaphors, meaningless phrases – because it requires little thought and is helpfully vague. If you want to say something without actually saying it, go for vague language every time. But you’ll still want to sound like you’re saying something substantial and you’ll want to fill the press conference with a lot of noises, so add a bunch of syllables. Sound familiar? That’s exactly how our politicians communicate with us. It’s annoying.

But this New Zealand MP, Maurice Williamson – what can I say … He is a legend. That, right there, was an example of a declarative statement with no qualifiers added to soften its impact. These are the kinds of sentences that Williamson used as he stated his position on same-sex marriage. Declarative. Sharp. Strong. He was using these kind of sentences while he was talking about policy … Whaaa? No wonder I needed a couple of weeks to recover.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart recently ran a three-part story on Australia’s success with gun control and the Howard government’s (at the time) controversial legislation. John Oliver, who “reported” on the story (I mean, yes, it is technically reporting, but I find it hard to write “reported” without quote marks given that he takes his pants off and spars with a man in a kangaroo suit) … He paints Australia as a hopeful nation where cynicism has no place in politics and the politicians are philanthropic souls who put governance before personal ambition.

Um. Yeah.

Look, I know we have it good here. I think the public discourse in Australia is far too bitter and hyperbolic. We have it pretty good! Look at Greece! Worse things happen at sea, you know! (Another one of those dead metaphors … What does it even mean? What happens at sea?? One more reason I am unlikely to join the Navy.) From a global perspective, we’ve weathered recent financial crises and wars and social changes quite well. I get annoyed that, amidst our relative prosperity, I have to hear fearful, uninspiring speeches from Tony Abbott and similar.

It would be nice, for a change, to hear our politicians speak in a plain fashion. Particularly the Opposition. The Opposition! Even the name suggests a reactionary position. Imagine, if they tempered their language when speaking about the government – if they found some ground between “toxic” and “dying of shame” … Imagine what it would be like to hear the Opposition acknowledge a success of the government, a job done well. The same goes for the government: What if they respected the Opposition? What if politicians respected us, the public, enough to trust that we won’t suddenly flip our vote to the other party every minute that we’re not hearing something negative about them? Incredible.

Ideally, in a perfect world, this is how I see it: Politicians are motivated by a desire to see the country governed as effectively and fairly as possible. That’s it. They just want to see Australia prosper, its people live happily, its future look bright. They are not fussed about who makes that happen. If they think the current leaders are getting the job done, they are comfortable with that. If the current leaders are neglecting their people, the other politicians step in to provide balance. The needs of the nation come first.

But that is not how it is.

It was refreshing to hear Maurice Williamson state his position so clearly, so certainly, with the light heart of someone who is confident in his assertions. Sir Ken Robinson (oh, Sir Ken) once said, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original”. Our major political parties are not prepared to be wrong, thus they are too afraid to make a firm statement. Even former Prime Minister John Howard, lauded in the Daily Show sketch as a politician committed to his ideals, used to talk about “non-core promises”. I would like our politicians to be honest about what they can promise, and to be frank when they make a mistake.

And could they please, please, please let gay people get married? Just let them get married. For goodness’ sake.

 

"I'm not trying to buy the road … I just wanted to park on it"

Transports of Delight

Last week, a letter entitled ‘My Rejected Parking Appeal Retort’ went viral on Facebook. It was written by a known troublemaker a dear friend of mine, who recently received a hefty parking fine. She appealed the fine, but her appeal was rejected. (When you read the letter, you might figure out why.) Subsequently she wrote this letter to a representative of the City of South Perth – a poor man named Phil – outlining her general feelings on the rejection. This letter is about a parking fine … but it’s so much more than that.

In it, she ranges wildly in tone and philosophy, from questioning the role of government in our daily lives, to oblique (and seemingly irrelevant) Tom Cruise references. She dismisses feminism, endorses privatisation, and accuses South Perth of careening towards an Orwellian dystopia in which Big Brother is always watching. Remember, this started because she parked slightly outside the lines of a parking space.

This letter is hysterical. In every. Sense. Of the word.

I initially took the letter at face value, as just another eccentric thing my friend Jess did. But as more people have read it and discussed it, full-blown arguments have erupted.

“She’s making a valid point! Why do we have to pay to park on roads that we drive on for free?”

“We pay for what we use! We pay so that the City can afford to maintain the roads!”

“Isn’t that why we pay taxes? Why are they punishing us for using roads for which we’re already paying taxes?”

“It’s not punishment, it’s a clear set of consequences that you agree to when you participate in civilisation!”

“Civil liberties, blarrh!”

(And that was just the argument going on inside my own head.)

So, before you read the letter, I want to ask you: what is your opinion on parking fines? Is it reasonable for the City to issue punitive fines when we’re parking on public roads? Are roads something to which we have a right as citizens, or must we pay extra for the privilege? Are parking meters and fines a “revenue raising” scheme, as my friend suggests, or are they in the interests of public safety?

On a broader philosophical note, I would also like to ask: Do we serve the government? Or does the government serve us?

I’m going to copy in my friend’s letter for you, now. By the way, she really did send it. (The addressee’s name has been changed, because I believe in protecting privacy, even if ‘Gov’ doesn’t. Ooh, ideological burn!) After reading it, I suggest punching the air and yelling “WE ARE THE NINETY-NINE PER CENT!”

My Rejected Parking Appeal Retort

Dear Mr McKay, (if that even is your real name)

I understand that you feel that the City of South Perth could really use the $100 from my parking fine – it being “tough times” and all… In fact, I’m pretty sure there is a parking inspector in Greece that is blaming their crisis on being lenient on the Gucci laden women that park so recklessly in their suburban streets. So, how do you even sleep at night? I’m just taking a stab in the dark here Phil, but I’m guessing it’s on thousands of $100 bills that you’ve collected from poor, naive women like me; who just have terrible depth perception and can’t tell if they’re parked in the right space or not.

Surely there is a “women driver” clause that gives us a bit of grace? What about a warning to be more careful, or simply be more attentive? Or issue a forced public apology even? Now I’m all for equality, but I think the feminist movement has a lot to answer for. I’ll be honest, Phil, I don’t like lifting heavy things, or opening doors for myself; they’re just dirty.

Now, I don’t have a clever segue-way for my next point, but did you ever see that film, I think Tom Cruise was in it (shame about the divorce) Minority Report maybe? Anyway, it was about convicting people of crimes before they could commit them? Which in the end turned out to be a terrible idea and I’m pretty stoked we don’t have that kind of technology to enforce that in our society. Japan may be the closest to it – or Germany, for different reasons – but hey, I don’t live there, I live in Australia – quite possibly the greatest nation on this planet, despite it’s petty parking laws and over zealous Rangers – but alas, I digress. We just don’t punish people for victimless crimes these days, Phil! It’s just not hip! Maybe all the cool kids are working at the City of Perth or something, because they’re certainly not hanging out on the south side of the basketball court if you get my drift….

This whole spiel about parking laws being in place for public safety seems like its just bureaucratic jumping-on-a-couch-mumbo-jumbo. As if anyone has been hurt because someone hadn’t parked exactly inside the yellow lines in the first place? Enlighten me, Phil – just how are those solid yellow lines of paint on Mill-Point Road saving lives?

Let’s be honest, it’s not really about safety is it, Phil? It’s simple revenue raising! It always is! And without parking laws, we can’t create over-paid jobs to enforce them, or pay for the office Christmas Party now could we? Gina is keen to import labour from overseas – maybe you should try that to reduce your costs? Perhaps then you could issue more affordable fines, for say, twenty or even forty dollars, whilst still being able to go out for lunch on the corporate credit card. I’m sure Gina would agree that $100 for a parking infringement, in this circumstance, is pretty steep – even with the new carbon tax in place. You know Phil, I’m not actually trying to buy the four meters of road I was parked on – I was just borrowing it for half an hour.

In all seriousness, I find it pretty lowbrow to be issued a fine for parking slightly out of the space, but still within it mind you. Perhaps you should give out vouchers for parking lessons, as it looks like there is a minimum standard of competency that I have missed out on. I don’t believe this violation of your South Perth lore is fair, and I reckon it’s worth appealing.

That said, I would love to see the photos the Ranger took of my car. Please email them to my email address – I most certainly don’t have the resources to come to visit the rangers of the mighty South Perth Civic Centre during work hours to view in person, and I’m sure the photographic evidence is already on your system. Surely your department isn’t still taking snaps with Polaroid’s? Well, it seems there are so many of these wandering Rangers about – can’t one of them just bring the photos over to me? Alternatively I am happy to send you a self-addressed envelope for you to send them to me via post. You already have my address, license plate number, car description etc. – so finding my postal address shouldn’t be too difficult.

It may be worth noting that my blood type is O+ just incase you need me to sign another form with it – I know how you local government types love to see things jump through hoops; whoa, hold up – is that why the City of Perth has a circus camped out on the foreshore?! My God, is that what it’s there for??!!!

I’m not a believer in ponsey appeal processes and I am looking forward to writing to you for the long-term.

Kind Regards,

Jess

 

Pelican article: “Man Gives Birth?” 2009

Posts
*This article I wrote about gender reassignments was published in Pelican magazine, August 2009 – but not a whole lot has changed since then, so here it is again.

About a month ago, a man named Thomas Beatie (dubbed ‘the Pregnant Man’ by the media) gave birth to his baby daughter in the USA. This story sparked a highly intriguing headline: ‘Man Gives Birth’. Bad news for women – giving birth was the one thing we could claim over the male gender. Men get higher salaries, the Presidential candidacy, and standing up while they pee – and now, apparently, they can get pregnant as well. But … is Thomas Beatie really a man? He was born a woman, then went through a gender reassignment and had his gender legally changed to male. However, he kept his female reproductive organs. So, at least in a biological sense, it was a female giving birth. Yet Beatie is legally a man. Confused much?

In an article that Beatie wrote for an American newspaper, he repeatedly affirmed that throughout the pregnancy his ‘gender identity as male [was] constant’. I find it interesting that a transgender person such as Beatie can so emphatically claim a fixed gender identity. What defines the male gender? Beatie has had his female breasts removed, and has taken testosterone to grow facial hair, but kept his female reproductive organs. So does this mean that every woman of flat chest and hairy upper lip is actually teetering on the edge of the male gender? Or, that any man who cannot grow a full beard is not a man? (I’m sure there are numerous Facebook groups with opinions on that.) Gender is not governed by indisputable boundaries, not for anyone, and the issue of gender identity can become confusing when you are trying to shoehorn each unique individual into one of two categories. Philosopher Judith Butler stated that the body cannot serve as a foundation for gender definition; there are simply too many different kinds of bodies for us to categorize all of them into ‘male’ or ‘female’. When you consider gender as a fluid concept, it becomes easier to accept a wider range of gender identities.

In Oregon, where Thomas Beatie lives, he is legally recognised as a man. Despite this, he reportedly still has trouble convincing some of his neighbours to recognise this. However, the media coverage of the Beatie story has consistently referred to him in male pronouns. Since the story came to the media’s attention, even the most sceptical headlines said ‘Man Claims To Be Pregnant,’ instead of ‘Pregnant Woman Claims To Be A Man’. Looking closer to home, how does our own state treat its transgender community? If Thomas Beatie were a Western Australian and had delivered his baby in this state, would the papers have announced ‘Man Gives Birth’, or would WA have denied Beatie’s status as a man? It is true that in the last decade WA has radically improved its legislation with regards to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. However, many of WA’s transgender residents are still stranded in legal limbo. It all comes down to the question of defining gender, at least in terms of the law. Under the Gender Reassignment Act 2000, a person hoping to apply for a recognition of gender change must have taken on the ‘characteristics’ of their adopted gender. The Act defines gender characteristics as ‘the physical characteristics by virtue of which a person is identified as male or female.’ Whether this extends to include such physical traits as muscle size or hair length is not specified; in fact, the Act’s definitions are extremely vague. At one point in Australian history, it was commonly considered a male characteristic to wear trousers. That social viewpoint has clearly changed; what else could change? Who decides which characteristics belong to each gender?

In 2006, New York City proposed a new rule, to allow people to legally change their gender without medical alteration or surgery. The intent of the new legislation was to let people decide for themselves which gender they are. In WA, however, in order to legally change your gender, you must have undergone ‘a medical or surgical procedure … to alter the genitals and other gender characteristics of a person.’ Gender reassignment procedures can be extremely expensive and painful, and are not within everyone’s means. Some transgender people don’t view surgical alterations as necessary. Is gender, therefore, a personal choice or governed by our physiology? If it were the latter, where would that leave Thomas Beatie?

So far, in this article, I have used the word ‘gender’ twenty-four times. Often, when you have used a word so often within a short space of time, it begins to lose its meaning. Perhaps gender is beginning to lose its meaning and its importance – after all, why are we so concerned with gender? In making it difficult for people to change their gender, what is our society so jealously guarding? For many people, an ideal world would consist of men and women having equal opportunities and an end to gender discrimination. For decades, activist groups have been fighting for this very cause. In practicality, gender discrimination still occurs in Australia. For example, women in the army or navy are not permitted to fight in direct combat, on the basis that their physiology is inherently weaker. Where do transgender people fit into this? Could a man who was born a woman fight in combat?

If everyone was considered equal regardless of their gender, it wouldn’t matter which gender we claimed. Thomas Beatie is a man who wanted to have a baby, so he did. As Beatie said himself, ‘Wanting to have a biological child is neither a male nor female desire, but a human desire.’ While Beatie’s pregnancy may not quite be a biology-defying miracle (some women may have been thinking, ‘Damn, so I can’t get my man to go through labour for me, after all’), his story’s worldwide exposure has shown that our society’s view on gender is gradually broadening. And that, in itself, is a miracle.