Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Open Letter to Metro's The Scene

In today's copy of Metro, the free daily newspaper, there was a column about Jenna Talackova, a transgender woman who was disqualified from the Miss Universe Canada competition and is challenging that decision as a case of discrimination. The column argued that Jenna should just accept it, because she shouldn't have lied about her gender on the application. This is the email I sent. Oh, and the title of the article? "There he is, Miss Universe Canada?" Horrible. You can send an email to complain to scene@metronews.ca.

Dorothy Robinson,
In 1916 when Manitoba was the first province to give women the vote, I am certain that there were people who argued that the country wasn’t “ready” for it. When Rosa Parks in 1955 decided to disobey the bus driver’s order to move to the back, she faced more than her share of disapproval. The fact is, the fight for equality is always an uphill battle, and sometimes it takes people breaking or bending the rules to get there.
You may not be aware, but transgender people are not protected from discrimination in the Human Rights code of Canada. They are also one of the most vulnerable demographics for violence, discrimination, and abuse. In the media, transgender people and issues regarding anything beyond strict adherence to traditional gender roles is almost exclusively portrayed in a negative light or as something to be mocked. People like Jenna Talackova face the threat of violence and harassment on a daily basis.
Your column begins with an insult in the title, calling Jenna Talackova a “he”. That is an insult to her, and to all transgender people, and a clear sign that they are still not regarded as equals for who they are, and instead must face constant discrimination for something that is beyond their control and does not harm anyone.
Transgender people face a catch-22 when asked to state their gender on a form. If a transgender person states the gender they identify as, they risk being called a liar or worse, and if they state the gender they were born as or assigned, they cause confusion when they present as something completely different. Imagine if you were told every day that you were not a woman? No matter what you feel, deep in your core, every person you met told you that you were wrong. How is that any way to live?
This is clearly a case of discrimination, and just like before women got the vote and before the civil rights movement, it is an uphill battle to convince the rest of the world that there is a problem. Well, there is a problem and it isn’t with transgendered people, it’s with the rest of us.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Please sign this petition - Protect Trans people from Discrimination in Canada

Hey folks, just like the title says sign this petition! Also, pass it on to any Canadian you know. I'm not an expert, but trans people are not protected in Canada on our Human Rights Code. There is a bill to be presented next month, and maybe we can bring something into action even with a Conservative majority.

Beards and politics

So, there is now a new leader of the NDP, and obviously the big story is whether or not his beard will prevent him from becoming Prime Minister. I'm partial to beards, I like them, in just about any shape or size (...er...except for the pencil-line chin strap. I guess I am prejudiced against pencil-line chin straps unless done ironically. And even then....). I support the NDP's choice of a bearded leader.

Beard or no, I still miss Alexa McDonough.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Liar, Lunatic, or Lorax asks us to check our privilege, and today I can say that I am very privileged indeed. I am able-bodied, male, white, and adult well before retirement age, literate, employed and employable, articulate, with a good support network, a roof over my head and food in my belly.

In some areas I am less privileged: I have and do face occasional discrimination due to my sexual orientation (but again, I live in a time and place where the discrimination I've faced (that I'm aware of) has been limited and minor). I have a few mental health issues (primarily depression, anxiety, and an alcohol addiction which I am currently treating via sobriety). That's about it, actually.

I haven't always been so lucky. While I would not say that we were poor, when I was growing up my mom did struggle to raise me and my brother. There were times where we lived in a motel for weeks as we had no other place to stay. My mom has struggled with employment at various points in her life, and, as an adult, so have I. I have also lived in a hotel because I had no other options (don't tell mom!). I've also stayed in worse places than a hotel. My (thankfully) brief experience with homelessness was fueled in large part because of my mental health issues, primarily my alcoholism, and so at the time it was difficult to explain to my friends the kind of trap that I was in. I do not have any friends left from that period of my life: anyone I'm friends with now, I knew from before or after that 2-year period, five years ago.

I don't write much about poverty or mental illness, because to me they hit too close to home. Both conditions are incredibly isolating. If you aren't poor, it is impossible to really understand the toll it takes on every aspect of your life. To those of us with good jobs (or good-enough jobs), it can seem like laziness for someone to be unemployed. After all, getting a job is simple: you send your resume, someone calls you, you do a few interviews, and then bam, you've got the job. All it takes is for you to work hard and to be a good person.

But for anyone who has been poor knows that that's a bunch of bull. How do you send a resume if you don't have the internet or even a computer? What if you have difficulty with reading? What if you don't have a good suit, or the one suit you do have is ten years old and is fraying at the ends? How can you pay for several bus trips to reach multiple interviews? How do remain calm while answering questions when you know that there are kids at home that have been living on one meal a day for weeks? How, when the world seems stacked against you, do you maintain that state of "hope", which one person told me is the key missing element for people who are poor, and the reason why they can't get out of it? (As in, "If those poor people weren't just so hopeless and despairing all the time, maybe they could get some jobs!")

Mental illness is another difficult challenge that, unless you deal with it yourself, is hard to understand. For most humans, we tend to attribute our bad characteristics to circumstance, but other peoples' bad characteristics are attributed to character. If I can't get up in the morning to go to work, it's my depression, but when my colleague can't it's because he's lazy.

It's interesting, but not all that surprising, that these two conditions are often paired. Mentally ill people are more likely to be poor, and poor people are more likely to be mentally ill. I bet if someone looks, I'd expect to see a bit of a feedback loop here. Poverty is incredibly stressful, and everything about it is perfect for aggravating most kinds of mental illness, and mental illness can make it impossible to hold all but a few kinds of jobs for any length of time.

I don't have much to add to the discussion, except that I'm very glad that Lorax's privilege list includes poverty- and mental illness-related issues, because I know from my experience that there's a lot of folks out there who need to check their privilege before I'll talk with them on those subjects again.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lady Scientists and the Age of Wonder

This entry will be wikipedia-heavy, be-warned.

One of the best ways to demonstrate the existence of sexism in science is to ask people "How many scientists can you name?" and then ask, "How many women scientists can you name?"

I don't do very well here, because off the top of my head, without looking it up, I get three: Jane Goodall, Marie Curie, and Roberta Bondar. They're all on the list because of entirely self-centred reasons: Goodall because I like biology, Curie because she's french and was a bit loony about those magic rocks of hers, and Bondar because I did a project on her in junior high, she's Canadian, and a neurologist (which is what I wanted to be once upon a time).

Three is definitely not enough (I'm not counting bloggers that I read, because for most of them, like Isis, I don't know their real names). I mean, I can count ten male scientists right away.

Well, I am now able to add a fourth name, the luminous Caroline Herschel, "Lady Astronomer". I'm reading a great book about the scientific trailblazers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries called "The Age Of Wonder: How The Romantic Generation Discovered The Beauty And Terror Of Science" by Richard Holmes, and he devotes a lot of time to Caroline Herschel and how she helped to shape astronomy in ways that we are still affected by today.

She was the sister of William Herschel, most celebrated for his discovery of Uranus, which was the first new planet to be discovered in our solar system since Jupiter, thousands of years earlier, and it's very reasonable to assume that William would not have found his great success had he not had his sister by his side. Their life stories are deeply intertwined. William was much older than she was, and rescued her from a bleak life with her neglectful family in Germany, whisking her away to England where he was established as a musician and was just beginning to delve the depths of the skies. Together, they developed a strategy of "sweeping" the heavens, methodically using their self-created telescopes to methodically scan the skies, cataloguing every star and nebula and making notes of any unusual thing they saw.

One of William Herschel's more famous achievements was his giant, 40 foot telescope, basically the Hubble Telescope of its day (with the same history of technical difficulties), but even before the 40-footer was made, the telescopes he used most often were unweildy and required great help from an assistant for him to use them to any effect. And for William Herschel, the only assistant who would do was his beloved sister Caroline.

It would have been impossible for Caroline not to learn something about astronomy after assisting her brother night after night, and over time she began to be recognized as a talented astronomer herself: she discovered several comets and received a lot of recognition from the Royal Society and other groups, which was nearly unheard of for women in those days (and really, has that much changed? See my opening paragraph).

While Age of Wonder is a great read all the way through (er, actually, not finished yet, so the last third could be terrible, I guess), the chapters devoted to Caroline and William are the ones that really grab me, and give me a better sense of what the world was like in that place and time. I'm grateful to Richard Holmes for including her story and if anyone out there has more books about women in science, let me know! Because, 4 female scientists on my list is still pitiable (er...and don't ask me about people of colour in science. Which you won't. Because other than  Neil deGrasse Tyson we know they don't actually exist).

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What if your mom had an abortion?

Comics are amusing in a lot of ways, not the least of which is how my perceptions of them have changed. When I was a kid, I was a huge Garfield fan, though not so much anymore (but the Garfield Minus Garfield strip is worth a read). I was not a big Doonesbury fan until I was well into my 20s, though. Of course, right now Doonesbury is getting a bump in the ratings due to the abortion storyline, examining the bizarre and crazy anti-abortion laws imposed by Texas and several other states to limit women's rights in what they do with their own bodies. Guess where I stand on the issue.

One of the comments that seems to come up whenever abortion is discussed is "Well, how would you like it if your mom had had an abortion?" The point being that every fetus has a potential and is therefor equal to an actual human life. By aborting a fetus, we are destroying the potential of another person coming into their own and having the chance to live a full and wonder-filled life.

So, how would I, personally, feel about the idea of my mom aborting me?

I love my mom. She's been a great mom, and a lot of what I value in myself, I learned or inherited from her. She raised two boys, a lot of the time by herself because my dad's work, then their divorce, meant that he wasn't always around (my dad's great, too, in his own ways, but a very generous assessment would show him being my primary caregiver for about 1/7th of my childhood, which was the every-second-weekend visit). In some ways, I imagine, my mom might have had a better life if she hadn't become pregnant with me (before my parents were even married yet! Shocker!): she might have had more opportunities, she certainly wouldn't have lived the same life. Raising two kids on your own makes it difficult to be a go-getter at work, I imagine.

Personally, I love my life. Yeah, I could make better choices, but overall I'm happy I was born.

But here's the thing: ultimately, I know that my mom chose to have me. Yeah, there were pressures that affected her decision, but because of Canadian Law and the culture at the time she was pregnant, my mom had the choice available to her. I know that, once I was conceived, I was wanted.

I respect my mom, not because she's my mom, but because she is a force of nature. She is intelligent, and kind, and compassionate, and funny, and she gets angry sometimes, and sad sometimes, and goofy to the point of cringe-worthiness. As I've gotten older, I've watched her make decisions: about her career, about dating, about where to live and who to live with. Some of her decisions weren't great, and I imagine that some of her choices were actually disasterous. But as someone who loves her and cares for her deeply, I would not want to remove her power to make decisions for herself.

The question of "what if your mom aborted you?" is so backwards to me. What if she had? I would rather that she made that difficult choice, and had the resources and support to make it safely and sanely, than for her to have been forced to use her own body in a way she did not want because some stranger had made the decision for her. I would give my hypothetical life so that she would have the right to make decisions for herself as an adult and a human being. I mean, how selfish could I be? If I value my life, then I need to value hers and her choice to have me.

The world is full of potential, and for everything that actually does happen, there are, literally, an infinite set of other things that didn't. There's a sense that people who argue against abortion along these lines are thinking compassionately about the child, but they might as well by fighting for Unicorn Rights. Did you know that everytime a man jerks off, a unicorn is brutally tortured and put to death? End the tyranny of male masturbation now!

Like any good leftist liberal, I'll agree that this isn't a situation to be dealt with lightly. Life and death are important, and how we act, the decisions that we make, will inevitably be individualistic and unique each and every time. To me, it's hugely more important that people have the right to choose rather than have that decision imposed upon them by a faceless organization that has no knowledge of the factors and the possibilities involved. What about all the young women's lives who have been damaged because they were forced to carry a child to term?

What if my mom had aborted me?

Well, then I would take comfort that she lived in a society where her rights were respected and protected, and where she chose her fate. What kind of a monster would force his own mother to live a life she never wanted?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Video Games and Sexism

According to the Penny Arcade Report's story about a reality fighting game competition (that's a reality show about people who play video games of the fighting variety, eg Tekken, Streetfighter, etc), sexism is a part of the culture and so it's all okay.  My favourite part was:

"...the fighting game scene is a chance for them to relax and be themselves, away from an insane, politically correct culture,” a member of the Shoryuken forum wrote. “For some guys, being themselves means making mildly lecherous comments or racial jokes."

If "being yourself" means making lecherous comments or racial jokes then you just happen to be a jerk and the rest of us don't need to give you any special compensation for that.