Gendered Voices – Day 2

Following on from yesterday’s post, here’s what we got up to on the second day of the Gendered Voices conference.

Session one was all about representation and began with Rosie talking about her research into coming out experiences. This is very valuable work, and the sort of thing that Berkeley and I will keep a close eye on as it can be used as evidence to encourage action by local and national government.

Next up an emergency fill-in from Louise (always a brave thing to do) about the 19th Century gothic writer, Lucas Malet, noted for her particularly morbid imagination. Malet was the daughter of novelist Charles Kingsley who wrote The Water Babies, an exceptionally unpleasant piece of Christian allegory aimed at kids. It is no wonder the poor woman grew up warped. There are a lot of people doing research on 20th century women Gothic writers, but Louise is the only one I know who is working on the 19th Century. I’m sure she’d welcome some company.

The final paper was from Jenn and was about trans and non-binary representation in literature, in particular the literary fiction market. Jenn says that they know of only nine literary novels featuring trans characters. I’m pretty sure I could name nine from the past year in SF, and a similar number in realist YA, but thus far Jenn is resisting all of my attempts to lure them to the Dark Side.

Session two was all about violence and was very intense. It began with Jassi, a lawyer, talking about girl soldiers. When we hear about child soldiers in the media it is always about boys, but in fact between 30% and 40% of child soldiers are female. Not only are they erased by the Western media, but if the war they are fighting in is halted then they will be forced back into subservient social roles by their supposed rescuers.

Elena talked about group counseling for victims of sexual violence. Apparently this is quite effective, whereas one-to-one counseling can often further isolate the victim. Elena says that it is very rarely used in the UK. That’s interesting, because this sort of counseling is specifically mentioned in the Equality Act as a circumstance in which trans women can be excluded from women-only spaces. I had assumed that it would therefore be common, but no, the government made all that fuss about trans women not being women over a situation that was very unlikely to arise.

Encouragingly, Elena said that the rape crisis center she is working with is trans-inclusive.

The final speaker was Patrick who talked about women volunteers in the IRA. There were apparently a lot of them, and the way that they worked reminded me a lot of the French Resistance. Interestingly the IRA, despite being Catholic, were (and presumably still are) pro-abortion. I gather from social media that one of these IRA women is now a Conservative parliamentary candidate.

The keynote speaker for the conference was Thangam Debbonaire, the current MP for Bristol East. It was really good of her to keep the commitment despite there being an election on and her seat being very much at risk. She also gave a great speech. She’d make a brilliant WEP MP, but I can’t blame her for going with a party that can get her elected, even if its policies on women’s issues are not as good as ours.

Session three was on masculinities and opened up with Katherine talking about Priapus and modern masculinity. Priapus, you may remember, is the Roman god with the massive dick. The Romans used pictures of him to demonstrate how supposedly virile they were. Katherine compared Roman poetry and graffiti to modern social media posts and came to the brilliant conclusion that dick pics are modern day Priapus images. If cameras had been around in Roman times, they would have sent people pictures of their own dicks too. And they would have sent them to men that they wanted to dominate as well as to women.

Charlotte talked about the contrasting portrayals of King Richard and Henry Bolingbroke in Shakespeare’s Richard II. It bemused me as to why Shakespeare, writing during the reign of Elizabeth, would have written about an effeminate king being replaced by a manly usurper. So I asked, and discovered that the play had been sponsored by Essex, who was in the process of plotting a coup at the time. I have no idea how Will talked his way out of that one. I’m sure that Elizabeth must have been tempted to do the “Off with his head!” thing.

The paper that generated most social media chatter was one by Henry on the gender of mediaeval clergy. Some historians hold that the clergy were seen as a third gender by the rest of society. Henry, by examining the writings of late mediaeval chroniclers, made a convincing case that many of them did not see themselves in that way, and indeed went to great lengths to show how manly they were in their own domain (which was the spiritual war against sin).

The final session was on feminism, and kicked off with Ana looking at the educational reforms promoted by the lesbian author, Bryher. She had some really good ideas about how to give kids better education, but they did not go down well with the Great British Public. The Daily Mail asked readers to give their own views on the proposals. One man wrote in to say that it was the duty of school to educate girls out of having an imagination.

This was followed by Teresa talking about historical fiction writer, Sylvia Townsend Warner. She sounds like someone I would like to read, especially her fantasy novel, Lolly Willowes.

Finally we had James, a philosophy student, asking, “Why is there Feminist Epistemology at all?” The title apparently riffs off a well-known paper about the theory of mathematics. James made some very good points, particularly about Standpoint Theory. However, I don’t think you can even begin to talk about what feminist epistemology might be until you have first defined what feminism is. As that’s enough to keep many philosophers busy for decades to come, I think James’s question will have to wait.

You will note that I found something good to say about every paper. Huge congratulations to the organizers. That’s what I call a quality conference. I do hope it runs again next year.

The LGBT History Showcase

Every November Schools Out, the charity which founded LGBT History Month, has a showcase event to launch the following year. I’m not entirely sure why it is so far in advance of February, but I’m guessing that in January people are busy with preparation and the weather is bad, while in December everyone is tied up with Christmas, so late November is about the earliest they can do it.

This is my first year attending the event. It took place at Queens’ College in Cambridge, which is very nice. During the afternoon there was a marketplace where various LGBT-friendly organizations had stalls. Then in the evening there was entertainment. Being a hopeless party girl, I was mainly there for the latter. The theme of this year’s event was religion, belief and philosophy.

The hosts for the evening were Claire Mooney, a lesbian musician, and Cyril Nri, a gay actor. They are both lovely people, and they kept the evening moving smoothly.

The evening was bookended by Rev. Razia Aziz. While her family background is Muslim, she’s a non-denominational minister, making her an ideal person to do the blessings. She’s also a singer and voice coach, which was very obvious from her performance. Sufi mystics have produced some of the best poetry ever.

There was a fair amount of civic stuff to get through. The university, city and county had all signed up to the following Equality Pledge:

We believe in the dignity of all people and their right to respect and equality of opportunity. We value the strength that comes with difference and the positive contribution that diversity brings to our community. Our aspiration is for Cambridge and the wider region to be safe, welcoming and inclusive.

There was a variety of speakers on religious and philosophical issues. Robert Brown (proudly wearing his King’s Cross Steelers rugby shirt) talked about equality in Nichiren Buddhism. My friend Surat Knan gave a great talk about being trans and Jewish. Terry Weldon took on the near impossible task of representing Catholicism to LGBT people, which he did best by regaling us with scandalous tales of gay popes. Dr. Lucy Walker played us some of Benjamin Britten’s church music. Dr. Alison Ainley, from Anglia Ruskin’s philosophy department, talked about some of her favorite LGBT-friendly philosophers.

We had a little bit of film, in the form of two really great animations produced by Bobby Tiwana. They don’t appear to be online anywhere, so if you do see Bobby advertised for an event locally go along and see his films.

Another South Asian contributor was Manjinder Singh Sidhu who became an internet celebrity all over the subcontinent thanks to this amazing YouTube video in which he talks to his mum about how parents should deal with a child who comes out to them as LGB or T.

Music was provided by Mark Jennett who sang “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, a Rogers & Hammerstein song from South Pacific. Take a look at the lyrics. It is rather depressing that people could write such things in 1949 and we don’t seem to have learned anything from it.

Topping the bill was Labi Siffre, who performed his massive hit, “So Strong”. It is as much about being gay as it is about other types of civil rights. Labi also gave a short talk from a rationalist point of view, asking religious leaders who condemn LGBT people to provide evidence that we should believe in their invisible friends, and that they speak for such beings.

What a trooper too. When I was chatting with Sue on email earlier in the week she told me that Labi was unwell and had needed to go into hospital. She wasn’t expecting him to be able to make the event. And yet there he was.

Thanks are due to Sue Sanders, Tony Fenwick and the rest of the Schools Out team who put on the evening. Thanks also to Tony for starting off the evening by stressing the importance of intersectionality to LGBT rights. As he said, if you suffer from intersecting oppressions, difficult choices do have to be made. I have some sympathy with Terry Weldon, because there are times when I have to defend feminism to trans people. I can’t not be a feminist, but sometimes what is done in the name of feminism by others is utterly abhorrent.

After the event a bunch of us headed back to the hotel where the Schools Out crew were staying for a drink. And that’s how I ended up in a hotel bar chatting to Labi Siffre about science fiction. It turns out that he was a huge fan as a kid, and read just about everything that was going. These days he’s more into song writing and poetry, and doesn’t have much patience for long, rambling novels, but I shall hit him up with some recommendations anyway.

To finish up, here’s Labi, doing pretty much what I saw him do last night (except that I think last night was better).

Am I Transhuman?

Over the weekend I spotted an interesting article on a philosophy blog. In “Queering the Human: Is the Transhuman already here?” BP Morton argues that trans people, especially if medically modified in some way, can be defined as transhuman. Morton’s argument also touches on the cyborg nature of people with medical implants, and on groups such as Otherkin who openly reject human identity. A major inspiration for the article was the work of my philosopher friend, David Roden.

It is an interesting question, and one that is very much tied up with politics. As I explained to BP and David on Facebook, the struggle for trans rights is currently framed very much as one of human rights. Trans people spend a lot of time being treated as if we are sub-human; as if we don’t deserve the same rights that are accorded to supposedly “normal” people. Because of this, it is politically important for trans people to be seen as human. However, the philosophical argument is very different. From a science fiction point of view, it is obvious that the concept of “human rights” won’t survive contact with intelligent aliens. Furthermore, we don’t seem to be that far away from a point where we start granting rights to other Earth species on the grounds that they too are intelligent.

I note also that these issues are addressed in Pat Cadigan’s wonderful Hugo-winning novelette, “The Girl Thing Who Went Out For Sushi”.

Convention panel, anyone? It is a bit late for this year’s BristolCon, but maybe we can lure David along next year.

In Which I Learn A New Word

Social media is a rapidly evolving space, and not just because of changes in hardware and software. We monkeys are learning new ways to interact, and devising new rules for it. Part of this involves coining new words. We are probably all familiar with “trolling” and “derailing”. We may be less familiar with the term “gaslighting”, though use of both the technique and term are quite common in posts I see. Yesterday I learned a new word: “sealioning”. There’s an explanation here. Again the technique is very common, so I’m not surprised that it has acquired a name.

What interests me about this is that these are all forms of rhetorical device. It is almost as if we were back in Athens learning the rules of public discourse once again. I suspect this is a very fertile area for research.

New Book on Posthuman Life

My friend David Roden, who is a Professor of Philosophy specializing in transhumanist thought, has published a new book called Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. You can read more about it here. Being an academic book, it is fairly expensive, and there’s no sign of an ebook edition. It does look very interesting, though. I mean, how can you resist an academic book, one of whose chapters is titled “Weird Tales”?