Friday, 22 May 2020

Gender Corrigenda

Influenced by the current precautions against infection by the Covid virus (recently changed by our government to "Stay Alert", whatever that might mean) we were tempted to keep a brazier burning by the front door, so that incoming mail might be fed straight into the cleansing flames with tongs. Most of what comes through the letterbox is junk, anyway. However, we were persuaded that visibility within the house would be substantially reduced by the resulting smoke, so we are just letting the letters, bills, and fliers lie there for a day or two, instead, on the assumption that a little carpet-quarantine will render them safe to handle before we open them, add them to the pile of unread mail, or drop them into the recycling bin.

Certain junk items still present a dilemma: should you open them, just in case, even against your better judgement – after all, there might be money inside [1] – or consign them directly to the bin? I've mentioned before the sinking feeling that accompanies the arrival of the Annual Record of my old college. It's really nothing more than an upscale school magazine, containing the sort of news and notes on academic achievements, sporting activities, and college societies that only lifelong "joiners" enjoy reading about. At least, I assume they do: never having been one I wouldn't know, and the Record barely nudges the needle on whatever mental meter measures the spectrum from "complete lack of interest" to "wow!". But in recent years the college has made a concerted effort to move with the times (it was founded in 1263, so has had a lot of experience of falling behind and catching up with the times) and now gathers the more eye-catching accomplishments of its graduates [2] into a colourful A4 brochure, primarily intended to stimulate cash donations. Sadly, all universities have gone down this dubious route. As a graduate of three universities and an employee of two more, I'm in a good position to compare and contrast their efforts, and my feeling is that for any elite educational institution to plead for monetary subsidy by rubbing your underachieving nose in the glossy, overachieving lives of a fortunate few is a really poor strategy. Oxfam does this sort of thing rather better, but then their cause is rather more compelling. So, on balance, into the bin it goes: there is definitely not going to be any money inside that one.

However, accompanying this glossy puff is another A4 brochure, which contains "news and notes" from old members (or "alumni", as we must learn to call ourselves), formerly included in the old Record, but now produced separately, reducing its interest still further to zero. In either form, these personal items have always had the grisly fascination of a car-crash: you know you shouldn't look, but... Inevitably, you scan them to see whether anyone you know or knew has had anything to report: it's simple enough, as the list is sorted by matriculation year. Oh look, this year there's a picture of old chum Paul, being presented with some fancy gong by the Czech ambassador. Meter reading: "medium interest". And isn't that the really odd guy from my English tutorial group, apparently now retired and volunteering at Citizens Advice, as well as helping to run some local arts setup? Well done, you! Meter reading: "mild interest". But, wait, what's this? Matthew is now Matilda? Ping! Now that is a definite "wow!".

Actually, that last one took a little time to sink in. There were no women at our college in 1973 – more catching up needed! – and Matilda's contribution makes no reference to having formerly been "Matthew", merely describing herself as "one of the first women at Balliol, even though nobody was aware of it". Eh? But how...? Ah... The surname. Crikey. Well I never... Naturally, an enthusiastic email exchange between various old college friends ensued (we're too old for Zoom), in which amusement and bafflement grappled with sympathy and lightly-held but politically-correct views on "the trans thing". My old friends may be grey-bearded patriarchs, but they are incorrigibly decent.

The years between 1973 and 2020 have seen many major changes, not least in attitudes to gender and sexuality, but changes like this happen gradually and unevenly, and not without struggle and opposition. After all, same-sex "acts" between males over 21 had only been legal in Britain since 1967, and most young men from my background paid little or no attention to the emerging feminist and gay scenes, not least because we were investing so much time and effort into discovering and, indeed, "performing" our heteronormative masculinity, as the current idiom has it. Which may account for why – as far as I know – I had no male gay friends at the time. That famous "gaydar" probably screamed "take cover, enemy approaching!" whenever the likes of me hoved into view. If so, I regret that. Matthew/Matilda was not and AFAIK is not gay, however: he has a female partner and children. As my fellow grey-bearded patriarchs speculated in our email exchange, hard as it must have been living with and suppressing such a potentially disruptive secret desire for so long, it may have been the wisest thing to wait until your children had grown up before making any profound changes. Parenting is quite difficult enough as it is.

I've explored my views on these identity issues before (see The Tallest Short Man & The Shortest Tall Man) and have nothing of substance to add. As for the latest, longest, ever more inclusive iteration of the "gender-queer" initialism – now LGBTIQA+, I believe – I never had any real problem with "LGB", whatever they may have made of me, but still struggle a bit with "T", although the personal stories of people known to me like the one mentioned here add substance to what is otherwise an abstract and rather alien proposition. I remain perplexed by the rest. In fact, the whole thing has clearly become something of a generational marker: feminists of my generation are often enraged by the demands of trans women to share women-only safe spaces (especially trans women who "feel" female but remain physically male), whereas those of my daughter's age have what seems to me a disproportionate commitment to the rights of some tiny if vociferous minorities. It has made for some lively discussions in recent years across the Christmas dinner table. I suppose in the end it's a case of "no-one is free until we are all free", although a lot depends on your definition of "free", and whether "all" might eventually include inclinations or behaviours still regarded as beyond the pale.

I was struck by an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme (28th February) with Tom Holland, author of Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind, in which it was proposed that the impact of the period from the 1960s to the present day may be compared with that of the Reformation, but that we cannot yet know its full nature or dimensions, or even come up with a convenient name for it. After all, no-one in the 16th century would have imagined that, by countering the excesses of the Catholic Church, they were laying the foundations for capitalism and a secular-scientific worldview: from their point-of-view, it would all have been about the fate of your immortal soul. In the course of that radio discussion the baffling importance of trans identity to the young today came up, and the interviewer, Simon Jack, said, "It's as if the young had a town-hall meeting to decide something, and we weren't invited, or didn't get the email". Well, exactly. I suppose, put another way, that is a pretty fair description of what it feels like to realise you're getting old. Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

Meanwhile, I hear the clatter of more mail arriving through the letterbox. Who knows what fresh surprises it may bring? There may yet be money... Give it a day or two on the floor first, and then we'll find out.

Lisbon, 2015

1. I think I've already described how I still reflexively check Christmas and birthday card envelopes for stray banknotes. Also, I was certain I had already told the tale in this blog of the 500 Bulgarian Levs that fell out of a junk-mail catalogue sent to my parents in 1978, but I cannot find it anywhere. Mysterious. It's a good story, remind me to tell it sometime.
2. Strangely, these are often its most eye-catching graduates, too. Are chemists usually so glamorous? I wonder if they use actors?


amolitor said...

As a bog-standard het male, I am fond of joking that from my perspective it's really just L+. Lesbians and then a bunch of perfectly lovely things I don't care much about, all jumbled together.

On trans rights issues, something that nobody seems to say is this: There is no rule, no law of nature, that says there is a solution that is fair to everyone simultaneously. Sometimes, there are simply unresolvable conflicts.

People seem to fall in to multiple camps, all earnestly believing that there is a perfectly fair and reasonable solution, that they know what it is, and that everyone in the other camps is both an idiot and a lying dog. This is rather a shame, in my eyes.

Mike C. said...

A friend used to be fond of intoning, in a mock-solemn voice, "That's life, hard but fair!". Which I have always thought is what is written on the other side of the coin that reads, "Why can't we all just get along?" In the main I agree with you, but I suspect both sentiments come more easily to those of us in the majorities for and by whom society has been shaped.

As a left-hander, though, I accept my disadvantage with pride, knowing that it also makes me a superior person. And I certainly don't want any corrective surgery.