The concept of identity is a vibrant one, but although currently susceptible to increasing regression, at least according to the estimable Brendan O’Neill. Certainly – he’s got a leg to stand on (an Irish, Catholic, lower middle class leg – we mustn’t forget that!).
During the “Identity politics dissected” debate at the most recent Battle of Ideas festival, O’Neill was heard to branded gender fluidity as “the weakness of identity” and named the phrase “I identify as” as both “weak and contingent”. Additionally, the concept of an “aerogender” – a newly coined term fresh from Tumblr’s ample uterus, referring to a gender dependent upon one’s surroundings/situation. According to O’Neill, this proposal is “insane”, reminiscent of a “split-personality”, indicative of the irrevocably “fragile, hollow” nature of identity. (My exaggeration detector just went off like mad.)
O’Neill’s attitude is as unhelpful and puzzling as those he criticises. By feeling the need to justify why the existence of an “aerogender” bothers him, he instead appears threatened by these freshly “ludicrous” developments in transgender politics. One is able to envisage a boa constrictor striking forth, immediately imbibed with the need to defend. Is he the white knight, mounting the brave opposition against our teenaged termagants? No. Instead he’s tilting towards the Conservative, traditionalist angle: “this is ludicrous – because I say so”, revitalising the archaic “hysteria narrative” of a bygone age – PC run amok.
“Identity politics”, as it is commonly known, is appealing to the needs of a “minority” or a “marginalised group”. It needs to exist, because our harried, put-upon society does not possess the wherewithal to address each and every concern of these minorities. In its more useful manifestations, it can be pretty darn effective: during the 1960s and 70s, “positive discrimination” allowed for certain economic gains for people of colour, particularly those unfortunate enough to be interred within the stifling, stagnant confines of that ethological horror: the “Southern state”. Now, however, doubts have been cast upon the relevance of its existence.
Currently, to our deepening sorrow, racism has become the only way to beat racism. If being “racially superior” is what gains rights and power, minorities must also prove themselves superior, in order to gain these rights. Let’s consider a black and white example (no pun intended), in which the tables are gradually being turned. White individuals are increasingly being viewed as “weak”, due to their distinct lack of melanin – that esteemed, now enviable chromosome, guaranteed to banish all quenchable “pastiness” and transform you into the much desired, glowing brown goddess. The term “strong, black woman” is now ubiquitous; “strong” and “black” are almost interchangeable within our 21st-century sociolect. Hatred begets hatred – or rather, disdain begets disdain. And how do the non-marginalised respond? Now they’re bemoaning the onset of “white guilt”, and are now compelled to deliver reparations (peruse at your own risk): Each side clinging onto their identity caps, with the tenacity of a small child embracing a much mangled teddy bear. Never was a small child so dissatisfied.
Certainly, regarding the mandatory need these days to “identify as X”, O’Neill clearly has a point. The need to impress diagnostic labels upon ourselves demonstrates our society’s fundamental need to compartmentalise. According to O’Neill, the assertive “I am” scotches all sense of fragility. However, let’s indulge our inner-grammar Nazi for a brief moment – the terms I “am” and I “identify as” are largely interchangeable; both are conditional, based upon context. What is present, exuding potential, within the core of both, it the implacable need for transformation – the desire for a metamorphosis, a transfiguration, a bid for self-advancement. For now, let’s address O’Neill’s biggest concern – the “aerogenders”. So, people feel like a change in accordance with their environment. How exactly does this entreaty pose a threat?
Transformation is the name of the game. ’Fess up to it. Although transgender and gender-fluid teens may cling desperately onto the shores of their “identity”, in the manner of a Catholic priest threatened with a condom, all of us deal in flexible identity cards, hoarding them on the sly. If it’s not your race/class/sex/religion it is instead your position, your Marxist past, your political affiliations, which are transitive. You are the esteemed “education correspondent”, the “luxury automated communist”, the “tech evangelist” or even worse, the “prime minister”. These names also smack of self-importance – another example of a “desperate need for validation”, this time discernible within a wider demographic. An unsettling number of the parental population also feel the need to include their familial status within Twitter bios, alongside their hard-earned noteworthy positions, as if to celebrate the “achievement” of succumbing to one’s biological urges. Again, this is an example of an inherent, congenital fragility – or, in the words of the venerable O’Neill, the “fragile self” in need of a “therapeutic scaffolding”. (Maybe they need to reassure themselves that two years of nappy-changing and vomit-cleaning was worth it. Either way, we don’t need to hear it.) All of us are slaves to our self-image, known to members of our youth as the “#imagegang” epidemic: the evidence is scattered, yet apparent. We are all guilty.
The gender politics advocated by our young, transgender-aware populace – e.g. the usage of the recently coined pronoun “ze” – may, at first glance, appear entirely perverse when compared with the plight of homosexual males in Chechnya. I get it. They’re complaining of a first-degree burn, whilst there are others roasting out there on the spit of their humanity. Get off that cross, kids; someone else needs the wood. As the estimable Joanna Williams observes, dictats upon language: “reveals the narcissism inherent in much of the current obsession with the idea of gender as a construct […]The truth about gender, […] is located not in objective reality, and definitely not in biology, but in an individual’s head. People are to be referred to as what they say they are, irrespective of all evidence to the contrary.”
Yes, Mrs Williams, perhaps narcissism is at the root. Regardless, don’t besmirch the narcissistic state – it’s not necessarily a bad thing. What’s wrong with a good, honest narcissist? Half of them are ruling the country – scratch that, the world. If transgender teens were indeed narcissistic, they would be demanding recognition each and every second. Your eight year-old daughter’s desire to hurriedly change clothes every hour is not deemed “fragile” – your small son’s penchant for Disney princess dresses is not viewed as repugnant, or as O’Neill so skilfully articulates, “a bit tragic”. Both are infant expressions of transformation, a desire to regenerate. In a similar manner, the introduction of the pronoun “ze” is by no means revolutionary. This level of disparagement is hardly expedient, nor should it be directed solely towards the “gender-fluid” youth of our society.
Journalists such as Brendan O’Neill have a pay check motivation to criticise the young, I understand. All’s fair in love and business: exaggeration is the aim of the game. But consider this: I’ve never been directly bullied. I have no issues with the gender I was assigned with at birth, when I stop to give it a passing thought. Did I incessantly long for the chance to slam The Second Sex into the face of every classmate who pronounced herself bisexual? (There were ten born every minute; you’d need the I-Spotter’s guide.)
Yes. But I abstained; my fingers stilled, albeit reluctantly, on the sword hilt.
To unequivocally deride those who campaign for social justice is to entirely disregard those who are religiously indoctrinated from birth, and consequentially deprived of knowledge: there is another way of life, in which you are not shunned for your sexuality. They are not simply “reading a blog post and deciding ‘I feel like that too'” (O’Neill, verbatim). This assertion, whilst exuding an unpleasant odour of paltry concern infused with arrogance, is also an entirely facile judgement. Not all of us have the good fortune to exist within a heretical, atheist-ridden world, blissfully drenched in hedonism, devoid of such nonsensical, exemplary values. Not all protestors are “Tumblrinas”. Some are facing increasing abuse, and imminent death.
I look upon our young, aerogender, “pro-ze” campaigners as the lesser of two evils. Better to raise the issue than to completely disregard it, or deny its existence. I’m not standing up for Tumblerina caterwauling – I am standing up for sexual assignment therapy in the U.S. I’m standing against the rising occurrence of transgender suicide and self-harm – now at a staggering 30% and 42% respectively. And so what if they use social media as their principal forum? Tumblr may be populated with #fandom, squealing teenaged girl diatribes and the immortal “nyan cat”; however, at certain times of need, it can be put to good use.
If I gave you a gun, or pack of hand grenades, you wouldn’t simply fling them out in all directions, and then proceed to shoot yourself in the head. Or maybe you would. However, if you were of an inquiring disposition, you might instead think: hey. What do I have in my hands? The ability to get others to respond; an indomitable Valyrian-steel sword; imbibed with the power to defend. They will listen to me, when I’m holding a gun to their head. No, I’m not comparing a Twitter feed to being shot in the conk. Perhaps a slight peppering of bullets instead.
The mainstream media is certainly responsible for shoving a brutal spotlight onto transgender rights: articles consist of purely nonsensical assertions, circulated by anxious parents, who, blinded by false media rhetoric, believe that social media is “convincing” their darling little Tommy that he instead harbours a strong desire to become Tilda. Tumblr, circulating useful information regarding gender fluidity (aero-sexual notwithstanding), can be viewed as an alternative source of information – one of paramount importance to those unfortunate youngsters who remain interred within the tomb of fundamentalist prejudice. These aerogender fanatics may be still in their pre-operational, toddler-tantrum stage of development, but they’ll grow up soon. And they’ll come for you, trailing their social media barrage. O’Neill, you’d better start hiding. We’ll discover your tattered remnants during the next archaeological dig through Twitter.
Above: Final tumblr post of Leelah Alcorn, 17 years old transgender teen: 1997-2014). Just remember: unwavering, derisive indifference can culminate in an execrable end.
Older generations may regard the rise of transgender rights and visibility something that have been manifested through Beatniks – simply a lapse into classic counter-culture, easily disregarded as a “phase”. However, these young activists are also precipitating our society into shades of understanding; scrubbing away the cobwebs of self-doubt, the need for a binary gender. Certainly, those who regard themselves “gender-fluid”, transgender, or aero-sexual are coining rigid, almost absurd terms of identification – but they are present, in all their undisguised, angst-ridden, Tumblr-fuelled nonage. These ideas are gradually trickling into our present rhetoric, flitting from cyberspace, across the border to the “real world”, rootling their way into every waking mind across the world. And that makes them tangible. Their oscillation can be viewed as strength – for an idea to gain such traction, it is satisfying a lingering drought with a long-desired drenching of spring rain.
Ideas are created in response to deprivation. Every social media hashtag, each tweet proclaiming oneself as x/y/z – is comparable to peeling off a wet stocking with ease, allowing the skin beneath to breathe at last.