Last week I had the honour of attending a launch event for an appearance of the Rainbow Pilgrims travelling exhibit at Bristol University Students’ Union. The project is being headed by my good friend Shaan Knan, and once again he’s done a great job.
As part of the event we were treated to talks about how refugees and asylum seekers are treated in the UK today, and it is a clear indication of how much of a police state the country has become. The first talk opened with a quote from Tony Benn to the effect that the way the government treats refugees is an indication of how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it. Well listen.
They are not allowed to work. They are not allowed to study. They are often interned, and if not have to register on a regular basis at a location specifically chosen to be hard to get to. They are at the mercy of bureaucrats who can brazenly give them incorrect instructions knowing that this won’t be accepted as an excuse and the refugee will be punished for doing the wrong thing. Some asylum staff have a policy of never approving a claim, despite that fact that this results in lots of expensive law suits which the government is more likely than not to lose.
It is, to put it mildly, a totally inhumane system. And for LGBT asylum seekers it is even worse. Despite government protestations to the contrary, they are still required to undergo deeply personal and humiliating questioning, often requiring pictorial evidence, of their sexuality and/or gender identity.
I suspect that the way we now treat disabled people is equally horrific.
With all of this in mind I was interested to see that the latest episode of the Charlie Jane Anders and Analee Newitz podcast, Our Opinions Are Correct, focused on the portrayal of refugees in science fiction. The special guest for this episode is Mexican poet and performer, Baruch Porras-Hernandez. He started talking about how some immigrants are very keen to fit in and “pass”, if you will, for members of the dominant culture, while others are proud of who they are and insist on keeping their own language and culture.
I listened to this on Saturday morning, with Kate O’Donnell’s theatre production, You’ve Changed, still fresh in my mind. I was struck by how what Porras-Hernandez was saying paralleled the discussion that Kate and I had after the show.
Back in olden times when Kate began transition (2003), and even more so when I did (1994) the accepted advice was that you must fit in. You must become undetectable as a member of the gender into which you were transitioning. Anything else would risk ostracization and possibly violence. The whole ethos of Kate’s show is that she’s proud of who she is; and doesn’t want to hide away.
Now of course there is no right way to be trans, or to be an immigrant. Some people naturally fit in to the world they are joining, others will always stick out like a sore thumb. No one should have to “pass”, but no one should be punished for wanting to do so. However, I do think this parallel is an interesting way of understanding the trans experience. I’d be interested to know if anyone else finds it useful or illuminating.