In any very large event where the people attending do not know most other attendees, there are two things, which characterize the event. First will be some kind of activity: athletic competition, a march, a concert. Second, and usually most important, there is a complicated and evolving dynamic of shared identity, which binds the attendees together and erases individuals (with their enthusiastic consent). Virtually everyone will seek to participate in at least one event like this, more often several, because these events provide a unique combination of powerful experiences that enable a person to feel both special and part of a larger group, with the added security of knowing the event will end, and a bittersweet pleasure of having had “an experience”.
The Olympic Games are an obvious global case. After winning a bidding process dominated by wealthy nations, and then making their city as tourist friendly as possible by cracking down hard on the poor, a host gets to have the lion’s share of the pre-games nationalist circle jerk. There’s some noise made about how the tourist money will help infrastructure and jobs, which is just as much mere ritual as the torch procession, and then “glorious sport” for several days. Some amazing feats of physical prowess from the very well sponsored, and somewhat less hooliganism than Premier league football.
And tons of flags. The Beijing games must have been especially convenient for everyone’s nationalist needs what with so much of the global textile industry near by, happy to produce symbols of any nation, while the sweatshops themselves testify to the ultimate power, capitalism. Fans can get pumped over strips of red, white and blue, or blue white and red, whatever they like and all from the same vendors with the same values. Taking for granted everyone’s subordination to wealth and power allows a neat trick; any and all tribal markers are welcome, even encouraged, since they are quaint and non-threatening, but at the same time people can believe they’re in a “global village” full of diversity.
That’s what we’re sold, that this is meant to be humanity at its finest, with no racism or bigotry, engaged in sport for sport’s sake, only amateurs allowed. This is how the games can be in Greece one year, China another, or the United States, or England, because they are “above all that”.
Of course looking at what else the participating nations agree on before hand is also instructive. Everyone seemed to be in total agreement, after her gold medal at the World Championships, that Caster Semenya was a serious threat. Not in the “we have to train harder to compete with this amazing athlete” way. No, her win prompted a ban from competition for nearly a year while her sex was investigated, launching a series of panels and tests since applied to many female athletes:
“There are female athletes who will be competing at the Olympic Games this summer after undergoing treatment to make them less masculine.”
These treatments include mandatory surgery and hormonal adjustment, on top of constant scrutiny, often secret. They have moved forward with these rules despite not yet determining what, in fact, is the “natural” female threshold for testosterone or other supposedly immutable biological proofs.
It goes without saying that, if this is what the authorities think is a rational response, the comments from sports fans often went straight for the worst racism and gender based hatred. They don’t merit repeating here. It is enough to point out that there are now hundreds of medical practitioners, and several harsh governing bodies determined to enforce a narrow definition of acceptable womanhood. Even if they can’t agree on just what exactly “objective, medical” womanhood is based on hormones, they can agree that a black woman besting her “betters” while not fitting their beauty ideals is all the provocation they need to force the most invasive of tests on all women competitors who “look manly”.
We probably all expected that and aren’t surprised. The next Olympic Games are already tarred with failures of human rights, and this time it’s London, not Beijing. Of course if she were well within everyone’s comfort zone of femininity, a new study shows how it is still, apparently, foolish to expect respect for her accomplishments.
At least we can take comfort in how our own explicitly queer events and spaces are properly inclusive, right? Take a look at the Federation of Gay Games policy regarding gender identity and you decide. It’s interesting how much of it mirrors the medical gatekeeping and extra legal burdens reflected in the good old Standards of Care. I’m not dismissing their guidelines as thoroughly oppressive, merely noting that. Right down to the scientifically unsupported hormone requirements, and … is that actually a “real life test” requirement of two years living in their self-identified gender? Oh damn, that takes me back.
Well, by only a year or less, but still, I can smell the nostalgia. That or the cat litter needs changing. At least in this case, the hormone requirement presumably works both ways, and does not erase trans men, and there doesn’t appear to be anywhere near the same invasive testing requirements. My history of personal and professional erasure and disrespect probably just makes my knee jerk when similar things occur elsewhere, even if there is some evidence based reasoning behind the guidelines.
That’s rather my point though. Where’s the damn evidence? I won’t object to definitive proof of a causal, not just correlative, relationship between hormones and performance. I just want to see it, and not the general set of assumptions out there, which seem to always blow away under the least bit of scrutiny. I won’t even demand a single, universal characteristic, objectively measurable, which determines valid womanhood. I’ll simply accept some kind of generous range for the qualities people keep claiming are immutable and definitive, and by generous, I mean generous to those doctors and politicians stamping their feet about “real women”, while so often parsimonious and grudging with their “care” and acknowledgment of us.
But I’ve strayed from the larger point. Enough writers have already done countless takedowns of science’s attempts to define sex, and if people want their athletic competitions policed like MichFest, then I’m happy to stick to private home bouts of polyamorous freestyle wrestling, at least for the duration of this article.
What I’m talking about is how identical mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion function to establish the character of any big event. This is how events so otherwise different from one another, the Olympics and MichFest, share incredible similarities. And because they are so different, their similarities may give us the key to understanding larger social forces behind oppression, enabling us to combat those forces or redirect them towards justice.
In both cases, there’s a serious component of mythmaking that is just as important as clearing physical space for the event. The “Olympic Village” shares characteristics with “The Land”. They are constructed along both inclusive and oppositional lines. People willingly surrender individuality during large portions of the events. “Purity” and “pride” are major themes of both, and as such, both have powerful incentives for the built community to construct an “other” to exclude. With the Olympics, this means preventing cheaters from tainting sport (the rationale behind invasive gender testing), and hiding any evidence of suffering or discontent among natives of the host city, among other things. At MichFest, along with qualitatively positive incentives to do things like take responsibility for the space, trans women are one of the most high profile “others” who threaten purity.
The consequences of both forms of exclusion are also similar. Participants get a constrained, managed view of what the environment is like. Beijing, London, and Michigan all exemplify this. Without the other around to speak or be seen, they and their issues are effectively erased, and it takes exceptional effort from the outsider to overcome how they have been framed and be recognized. Leadership develops tendencies towards harder and harder lines, less and less negotiation, and enjoys an echo chamber for its policies, fostered by cronyism. Stereotypes of the poor as criminal and violent, or of trans women as predators, are easier to reinforce, especially as their resistance to such marginalization can be framed within the event, by its organizers, as evidence of the stereotype.
I stress here that I’m talking about situational, event based marginalization. This is the kind of thing where you might find yourself struck hard by believing yourself among allies and find that the event changes normal behaviors. This woman’s story exemplifies that mechanic in action. You could also think about the guy you think is fantastic until you see him acting out at a large gaming convention. Actors who otherwise seem to take you seriously and care until some kind of gathering where the values and ethics trump your experience and validity.
After all, China isn’t exactly blind to the plight of the poor, per se. They’ve been convenient symbols for the People’s Republic at the very least, but when is that ever not true just about anywhere? Again, the poor remain objects for either dissembling or disappearance at whim.
On a cynically entertaining side note, the “State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China” just released a report on human rights abuses in the United States. Even the council’s name drips of propaganda, and yes, this is largely similar to 30’s Germany pointing out America’s hypocrisy on race issues, but that doesn’t mean the things they list don’t belong there. Sure, they ultimately wind up making a “don’t point out our wrong shit” argument, embarrassingly mixing petulance with propaganda, but there are real abuses listed there. Oh, but before you bother, I pored over it, and no, there’s not one mention in their report of human rights abuses against gender or sexual minorities. Again, guess we don’t count.
A really interesting thing they do choose to cover though, as an example of American hypocrisy regarding human rights, is how authorities responded to the Occupy Movement. Maybe it’s a little rich coming from the place that gave us Tiananmen Square, but they’re right.
And it’s a segment of the Occupy movement, called OccuPride, which shows us another form of resistance to the marginalization inherent in large events, this time one of our oldest traditions, San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade. If OccuPride is right though, we shouldn’t even be calling it “our” tradition anymore, because of how it’s changed over the years to reflect a more and more economically, racially, and gender privileged group of people who at times actively support the erasure of radicals, the poor, the non-conforming.
Obviously they’re not alone in their criticism, but where others opt out, OccuPride plans to actively disrupt. Nor has Occupy itself avoided criticism from many of its own firm believers, from how everything from sexual assaults to littering were handled at its various satellites, to its own insistence on solidarity to the point of erasure.
I can’t help but agree, Pride events are more and more for the well heeled, more for bending over to thank allies, more for the sponsors. It’s a serious question why an ally would be made grand marshal. And maybe an Occupy style response will turn out to be creative, fostering real dialogue. Before more space is given to allies at such events, it’s pretty clear they need to get up to speed on how not to be disrespectful or appropriative. A reader sent us notice that Ontario’s Center For Inquiry had plans to attend Toronto Pride this year … in drag. It is painfully hard to try imagining how that could have worked out for the best. Expect a much more thorough post from Queereka on that specific matter this weekend, and there’s already great coverage here.
So. With respect for ally enthusiasm, with patience, with certainty that we can foster a global community of rational, justice oriented, secular folk, I still have to ask, how many reminders do we need that it is critical for us to not get swept up in the madness of crowds?
Blaming women for their own harassment at skeptic events, or blaming their speaking up for low attendance by women has to stop. Blaming radical queers for their own oppression by not conforming has to stop. And while we’re at it, ruthless, unforgiving, “call out” culture where writers within skepticism and social justice defend egos before ideas and hordes of readers poison the well with hateful comments also has to stop.
We can build, and find pleasure and meaning in communities, in events that celebrate our various families or fandoms, without unconsciously or maliciously constructing an “other” to hate. If we are committed to principles of free thought, challenging our cognitive biases, to understanding, to science and not scientism, and ever to justice, then it should be repugnant to us, not red meat for the mob, to dehumanize anyone, anywhere, no matter how easy a crowd or internet anonymity makes it.