‘Beliefs are choices. First you choose your beliefs. Then your beliefs affect your choices.’― Roy T. Bennett
[Content warning: sexual violence, rape, transphobia, hate speech, discrimination]
Let’s face it, lockdown had very few upsides. A lot of it was hell. But it did provide me with a much needed opportunity to start reading again. I used to read so much more than I do now but it had fallen off my priority list and, although I cannot believe that it took a global pandemic to get me reading again, I am glad that it did! I feel like I’m choosing good books too. Books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages and books that I’ve only just bought that are really exciting. (As an advanced warning, this is one of two blog posts currently in my drafts folder that start ‘I’m reading the most incredible book at the moment…’)
So I’m reading the most incredible book at the moment!
It’s called ‘Believe Me: How trusting women can change the world’ and it’s a collection of essays edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman, and the title says it all. Well, actually, it doesn’t say it all as the book is about what would happen if we, as a society, believed anyone in a minority – especially women, whether cis or trans, and AFAB people, but also more generally people of colour and disabled people. Essentially, anyone who is not an able cis white man! How much better would the world be if we stopped default believing cis white men and believed everyone else too? ‘Believe Me’ was written as a response to Brett Kavanagh’s appointment to the US Supreme Court so much of it is about believing reports of sexual violence and rape (and does need a content warning) but much of the wisdom could be applied to other conflicts. Honestly, it’s amazing – you should read it!
Among the essays, one really stuck with me. It was written by Julia Serano, updating and adapting her 2015 blog post about the distinction between being Marked and Unmarked and describes how the double-standards this division creates affect if we are believed or not. It’s such a simple idea but I have found it incredibly illuminating so I wanted to share it with you.
According to Serano’s theory, society can be divided into two groups – the marked and the unmarked. The unmarked are considered normal or standard, and are typically that same cis white man. Their choices and behaviours are also unmarked – they are literally unremarkable because they are what we expect to see. In contrast, everyone else is marked, a deviation from the norm and, therefore, intrinsically remarkable. Noticeable. Different. Their existence and actions prompt questions because they are unexpected, whereas we accept unremarkable people and behaviours without question.
The example Serano uses in her essay in ‘Believe Me’ describes a work scenario with a strict dress code. If you comply with the code and wear appropriate clothing, no one will comment – you will remain unmarked. But if you were to show up wearing something different that deviates from the dress code, people will ask questions! What are you wearing? And why? And these questions might be innocent. Perhaps they genuinely just want to understand.
But what happens if you continue to wear clothes that aren’t included in the dress code? If you don’t go back to the norm and persist in being different? How long before the questions become more judgemental? What are you thinking, still wearing those bizarre clothes? Why can’t you be like everyone else? And, of course, you’re the one who is being unreasonable because you’re the one who is trying to disrupt the norm. Using this framework, it becomes your fault that you’re being harassed because you are the one who is creating problems by deviating from what is expected; you have become marked. The questions won’t stop until your very integrity is in doubt. Why are you like this? What are you trying to do? Until you are no longer reliable. I don’t understand why you’re doing this. I don’t understand you. I don’t believe you.
It works in reverse too. If you stick within the expected norms, anyone questioning why you chose to behave in a totally normal and unremarkable way would be thought odd. No one interrogates the cis white guy in a suit or asks him to justify his outfit choice! In Serano’s essay, she uses this analogy within the context of rape culture to explain why cis men face so little questioning when accused of sexual assault whereas everything the woman, femme-presenting, or AFAB person does can be questioned and be used against them. The Patriarchy makes us believe that it is normal for men and masculine people to be sexually aggressive and dominant. It is normal for them to expect sex and not expect resistance. Similarly, the patriarchal norm paints all types of women as compliant and non-complaining. And, of course, trans and non-binary people are often misgendered to fit into one of these boxes. To make an accusation, particularly against someone who is considered a ‘good man,’ is to mark yourself out as someone trying to disrupt this normality. You make yourself an unreliable witness just by being marked.
Importantly, whether someone is marked or unmarked is not up to them – it’s entirely dependent on the opinions of those who are looking at them – but that doesn’t change the outcome. They become questionable. They are no longer believed.
And this really struck a chord with me. It is such a simple way of looking at the world but reveals so much about the way we face conflict and how we react to accusation.
The sex blogging community is divided and in crisis. A community that was supposed to be a safe place has been revealed as one full of hurt and sadness and anger, and even though time has passed since this crisis broke (I’ve been sitting on this post for too long), it has not gone away. A few cis bloggers turned against the trans and non-binary members of our community and repeatedly misgendered them, called them Nazis and fascists, blocked them and generally made their lives hell. And, understandably, trans bloggers have been hurt by these actions – hurt that they have not found the support that they expected within their community and hurt that they have still not received any meaningful apologies. Worse, many of the bloggers who initiated and perpetuated the attack on the trans members of our community continue to insist that they’re good people and haven’t done anything wrong.
Obviously, as a cis blogger, this isn’t my story to tell so please do check out the posts and resources by trans and non-binary bloggers, Quinn Rhodes, Sarah Brynn Holliday, Mx Nillin and many others. Listen to their podcasts and read Mx Nillin’s Twitter thread on how they have been treated. It’s horrific, and know that this hasn’t stopped. Read their experiences and believe them.
Because it has become clear to me that much of the damage done to the trans and non-binary writers has occurred because they have not been believed.
None of this pain or hurt was intended, you can’t really be hurt by it. Why can’t you just get over it? Don’t you understand free speech? It’s not my problem if you’re upset by it. And that sex blogger didn’t mean to hurt you, stop bullying them! Anyway, it cannot possibly be that damaging to you for someone to get something as insignificant as your pronouns wrong – they don’t mean anything to us so we don’t believe they mean anything to you. Stop harping on about it! Why are you insisting on bringing your difference into our standard, normal existence?
Even in the supposedly inclusive sex blogging community, trans and non-binary people are marked. And each variation from the norm adds another mark, another reason why they shouldn’t be believed.
When I look at everything that has happened in the sex blogging community through this lens, it makes a lot more sense to me. It makes sense why people who I had never previously considered to be discriminatory could be doubling down on hurtful sentiments. Don’t misunderstand me, it does not make it forgivable in any way as it makes their ignorance and prejudice much, much more obvious, but it did help me understand how this mess could have occurred within our community.
Because, as a cis blogger, it is only possible to claim victimhood here if you believe that you are normal and they are not. As a cis person, we can only centre our own hurt and anger without seeming to even understand how and why the trans bloggers can be so hurt and so angry if we believe that their ‘differences,’ their marks, mean they are to blame for our mistakes and our prejudices. It is their fault for being different, ‘abnormal,’ not ours for being ignorant. This othering may be subconscious and so we may not consider ourselves to be actively transphobic, but this division of us and them, this marking of a minority group, is discriminatory and in this context, it is transphobic.
And, for me, ignorance is the key to this process of othering, of marking. Is it still discriminatory to ignore a minority because you didn’t realise they exist? If you were organising awards with only male and female categories, is it transphobic to simply forget about non-binary people?
I believe it is, and I believe that focuses on the core issue. It can only be possible to forget or disregard an entire category of people if you think of them as inconsequential, unexpected or unimportant. If they are different enough from the unremarkable normality that they need active thought to be remembered. If you don’t know enough about them to accept them as a part of the norm.
Which is why trans and non-binary bloggers keep telling us that it’s not up to them to change the world. They simply can’t do it alone because, most of the time, it’s not their problem – it’s ours! The fault lies with the cis majority for not considering the trans minority as part of our whole, for still thinking of them as different and marked.
Our community needs to change to become inclusive in action as well as word and the burden should be on cis bloggers to do this work. Trans and non-binary people may be willing to help us, although it is important to acknowledge that this does involve emotional labour on their part. They can educate us by telling us about their experience and guide us if we make mistakes, but the only way that we can really create change is if cis people stop looking at trans people as deviations from the norm.
And this needs more than just good intentions. To my shame, I only became aware of the idea of being ‘anti-racist’ during the most recent protests following the murder of George Floyd. Black Lives Matter activists and POC have been telling the white majority for a long time that it is simply not enough to passively oppose racism. Claiming you are not a racist but doing nothing to change the systemic racism within our white supremacistic society is not enough. ‘To be an anti-racist must demand a complete rejection of business as usual;’ we must completely change our understanding of what is normal. I don’t mean to directly compare the fight for trans rights and BLM and the fight against white supremacy as they are very different, but I do find it interesting how many activists come from the intersections between these and other minorities groups. They know better than anyone that we must stop marking one group against another.
And it’s the same within the sex blogging community. It’s not enough to claim to be trans inclusive unless our actions prove it. We have to be anti-transphobic. We have to change our mindset to stop othering trans people and be more actively inclusive.
To quote from Quinn Rhodes’s firehouse of a post about self care vs community care, ‘right now, cis sex bloggers are ignoring the transphobia in our community because they have the privilege to do so. You, dear cis reader, have the privilege to say that this issue doesn’t bother you, because you’re just here to write and you don’t care about all the drama and politics, you’re friends with everyone! Except by remaining ignorant and saying that you shouldn’t have to educate yourself because it will be stressful and make you feel unsafe, what you’re actually saying is that your comfort is more important than my human rights. Ignoring the transphobia in our community is the same as saying that you’re ok with it.’
We, cis people and cis bloggers, have to do the work. We have to change our world view to make it more inclusive. It will be hard. It is hard. No one wants to hear that they are wrong or wants to accept that they are discriminatory. And we definitely don’t want to hear that we are subconsciously discriminatory when we believe that we are doing our best! But it is impossible to change our subconscious biases until we know about them. Until we are told. It’s why I’m so sad that so many trans bloggers have been blocked by those who have been attacking them – how can they change if they cut out the voices that could help them?
Because we do need their help. We are going to fuck up! I have never thought of myself as transphobic but these last few months have still been an enormous learning curve for me. I know I have made mistakes about when I have chosen to speak and when I have kept silent, and I am sorry for that and for the hurt my actions have caused. I also know that, even with the best intentions and having learned so much from listening to my friends, I am still making mistakes. Just today, EA pointed out that I had accidentally misgendered a friend and it made me feel awful – but I know that I needed that awful feeling and that personal shame to (hopefully!) stop me making the same mistake again. Of course, shame isn’t always the best motivator for personal growth but that’s another story…
We, as cis people, have to listen and learn and make mistakes and apologise without centering ourselves and without trying to dismiss the hurt that we cause. Trans people are allowed to be angry and upset and hurt, even if we don’t understand why, and they don’t have to be polite about it! We have to read and believe trans and non-binary writers and we have to believe them when they say we are wrong. And we do have to stop taking it personally when we fuck up – how we respond to criticism says a whole lot about what we really think of the mistake we made! When these mistakes can be blamed on ignorance, they don’t necessarily make us bad people; just people who didn’t know any better at the time. If we accept the error, learn from it and move on, there is no need to be cancelled or vilified. Of course, loudly protesting innocence in the face of obvious hurt sends a somewhat different message…
Instead, we should analyse our discomfort as it gets to the root of our privilege. We have to fill our lives and our timelines with trans and non-binary voices so that they can be heard above all the noise that is trying to drown them out. So we stop seeing them as different and stop making them remarkable.
We have to believe trans and non-binary people when they tell us what they need. We have to stop marking them as different.
I mentioned hir above but Quinn Rhodes (ze/hir) is doing ridiculous amounts of work to educate cis people on how to be better allies so I wanted to mention hir again! Follow hir on hir own sex blog, On Queer Street, and check out all of the resources ze has shared on hir educational blog, Be Nice to Trans. Hir Patreon also has a tier where ze can do a trans sensitivity reading of your writing – an offer that I took advantage of before I published this post!