Currently Listening: Against Me!: The Disco Before the Breakdown
I recently talked about how punk rock and sobriety had a big effect on my life, and the appeal that punk had because of its foundational ideals of acceptance of all people. Black, white, gay, straight, fat, skinny – there wasn’t any room for to judge people over such superficial things.
That doesn’t mean people didn’t bring their own prejudices and insecurities into radical or punk communities. It’s easy to say, “We stand for this,” but being ‘not prejudiced’ against a given group or type of person isn’t as simple as saying you aren’t racist/homophobic/transphobic/sexist and then denying all responsibility when you end up doing or saying something which actually happens to be prejudiced.
That’s because not acting or thinking in prejudicial ways is a process that evolves as we erode our own ignorance. You can be well-intentioned in your ideas and words, but that doesn’t always mean you don’t do or say anything that isn’t offensive to someone – particularly something you have zero exposure to or experience with.
This week sees one well-known punk musician coming out in a very public way over a matter which will put a lot of these issues to the test. Tom Gabel of the band Against Me! (yeah, they spell it with an exclamation mark) has a six page interview in this week’s Rolling Stone coming out as transgendered. She (Tom) will be changing her name to Laura Jane Grace and doing hormone therapy. She and her wife will remain together. It’s all over the internet already, so I won’t bother repeating all the same details that are available everywhere else.
What I do want to talk about, though, is the knee-jerk reactions to this news. While I’ve seen more supportive comments and discussion than anything, the general lack of education on trans* issues is apparent by some of the things being said. And, it’s the internet of course, so people often make no effort to hide their ignorance or bias.
First, to get it out of the way, gender dysphoria is a real thing. I can only imagine the personal Hell it must be to truly feel as though the body you have is not reflective of who you actually are. Add on some socially constructed gender norms which forbid certain behaviors or styles of dress, and I bet it can get pretty damned claustrophobic just living in your own skin.
I’ve heard some people insist that people who are transgendered are ‘sick in the head’ or attempt to explain it away with similarly dismissive phrases. Suddenly, we’re all psychologists! The thing is, sometimes the people in our society who actually experience these things find their courage and voices long before we catch up, and find our senses, and learn how to respond to them with the dignity and respect they’ve always deserved.
It’s worth noting that homosexuality used to be listed in the Diagonostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a mental health disorder until research in the 1970’s demonstrated that, aside from their sexual orientation, people who identified as gay were no more or less crazy than anybody else. And, especially in the past ten years, I’ve been pleased to see the growing acceptance of LGBTQ people, something I partially attribute to the way social media and the internet has drastically changed our ability to communicate ideas quickly.
But, there’s just one problem. The conversation seems to usually just be about the L, G, & B, and the T and Q are nowhere to be found. That’s because the idea of gay or lesbian is still stuck in the gender binary which strictly defines gender and strictly defines sexual orientation. Some of the questions and speculation on message boards has involved the implications for Tom’s marriage – does this mean her wife is now gay? No, it just means that the person she loves and is married to happens to be transgendered.
Regardless of whether or not you understand it or like it, there’s a whole segment of the world’s population that don’t feel as though they fit neatly into the sex they were assigned at birth or the expectations placed upon them by society to act, dress, or think a certain way based on their biology, let alone who they’re attracted to or love. I try to avoid discussing things that are overly political on here because I don’t consider eating disorders, body image, or mental health to be partisan issues. However, human rights aren’t partisan issues, either, however politicized they have become. Full equality before the law as citizens and human beings shouldn’t be controversial.
We defend our own intolerance or discomfort with complaints that these issues are ‘weird’ or ‘not normal.’ So what if it seems weird? And when it comes to gender identity or self-expression, the only standard for ‘normal’ is based on a societal majority. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to need some time to absorb information and work towards a real understanding of a particular issue, but at the same time, our own ignorance on a subject doesn’t justify any amount of judgment or disrespect.
I’m writing about this because I think acceptance of people for who they are and how they express themselves is a critical part of working towards an ideal where we have a culture of true body acceptance. I personally don’t see a huge difference between fat shaming, weight stigma, sexism, and transphobia, because they all stem from socially constructed biases that demand we all be a certain way.
Furthermore, the idea that someone who happens to be gay or transgendered is perverted or unwell is rooted in patriarchal gender norms – the very same gender norms which establish the mores that dictate how men and women should dress, act, and behave. We can’t have it both ways, to push away from those antiquated gender roles but then place limitations on how a person can define, experience, and express their identity.
Personally, I think it’s fantastic that she’s found the courage to come out in such a public way, and more importantly, she’s doing it with the support and love of her partner, bandmates, and friends. Instead of running our mouths with misinformed opinions, this is an opportunity to educate ourselves on this lesser known and infrequently discussed aspect of the human experience.
This song, from the first Against Me! full length, seems appropriate:
“…and the sun’s always rising in the sky somewhere. and if young hearts should explode from all the lies they’ve been told, let the new night bring you peace. and the promise of tomorrow. where can we wake to a new beginning.”