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Laurie Penny: Proud to say nope to the Pope

Those planning to protest the Pope's visit are not instinctively anti-Catholic. But justice demands that we challenge religious oppression.

What is the Protest the Pope movement really about? Ask ten different activists why they object to Mr Joseph Ratzinger's state visit to Britain and they'll give you ten different answers. My own mother, a lapsed Catholic who is not normally the sort of lady to spoil her shoes on noisy demonstrations, looked me in the eye when I inquired about her reasons for attending the protest and said, very quietly, "it's personal".

For many of the millions who are dismayed at the prospect of the papal visit, it is indeed personal, and it is also political. Deep-rooted resentment drawn from first or second-hand experience of the institutional brutalities of Britain's largest "minority" faith - there are nine million Catholics in this country- forms the basis of legitimate liberal indignation.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what offends most about Ratzinger's visit: it his attempts to rehabilitate child-rape within the church, or his intolerant stance on safe sex and abortion? Is it his relentless persecution of homosexuals, or the fact that public funds are being spent on driving this horrible old man around the country in his shiny white popemobile? It is all of these things, and none.

It is about religion. It is about what organised religion does to human societies. It is about the British and our unique distaste for being told what to do by celibates in silly cassocks. It is about modernity, and the limits of what modernity will tolerate.

Anarchist journalist Angelo Quattrocchi wrote in his recently-released polemic "The Pope is Not Gay!" that Ratzinger's backward-looking moral crusade is "spitting into the wind" - expectorating intolerant bile that can only cause unnecessary suffering as a tremendous tsunami of modern tolerance surges forward to swamp the rotten structures of family, patriarchy, superstition and sexual prudery. The Protest the Pope movement is, in fact, so terribly modern that it can sometimes come across as a little smug.

This week's Southbank launch of Quattrochi's book, replete with heartfelt performance poetry and expensive box-wine, was a restrained orgy of liberal self-congratulation. But why on earth shouldn't we congratulate ourselves? We are one of the most tolerant cultures on the planet, taking a stand, in the midst of domestic turmoil, against global religious oppression. Can't we feel just a little bit proud?

Most of those planning to 'Protest the Pope' this weekend are not instinctively anti-Catholic; we have no issue with belief itself. The notion of taking special exception to one religion over and above any other dodgy cult cobbled together by deranged desert patriarchs should be abhorrent to any secularist who believes in freedom of thought. When Elizabeth I granted private amnesty to English Catholics, she declared that she had no desire to "make windows into men's souls", and nor do today's Pope Protestors. We simply wish to register our displeasure when the same believers dash around smashing in the animistic vitrines of their fellow citizens with big bricks made of bigotry and intolerance.

A few short weeks ago, senior priest Edmund Adamus condemned Britain in general and London in particular as a "hedonistic wasteland" - the "geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death' - because of our dirty little fetish for protecting homosexuals from discrimination, supporting single parents and preserving limited access to abortion services.

If believing in a woman's right to choose is anti-Catholic, then I am an anti-Catholic. If believing that homosexuals deserve absolute legal and social equality with heterosexuals is anti-Catholic, then Britain is full of anti-Catholics.

If it is anti-Catholic to believe that child-rape ought to be eliminated, that stopping the spread of AIDs in Africa trumps religious squeamishness about condom use, and that human happiness is more important than dogmatic adherence to cobweb-crusted notions of purity and morality, then I for one am proud to be part of the geopolitical culture of death.

On Saturday, I'll be marching through my home city beside thousands of others to tell bigots and dogmatists everywhere that if they try to push back at the raw edge of modernity, they're going to get cut. If that conviction makes me anti-Catholic, then just give me a pen and show me where to sign.

Read Laurie Penny's column every week in the New Statesman.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis

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Should feminists talk about “pregnant people”?

Two writers present the arguments for and against.

NO

“I’m not sure what the public health issue is that would require a focus only on those who become pregnant, as opposed to any of those involved in pregnancy, either becoming pregnant or causing someone else to become pregnant,” Dr Elizabeth Saewyc, a Canadian professor in nursing and adolescent medicine at the University of British Columbia, recently told journalist Jesse Singal when he asked her for clarification on a study she conducted into trans youth and pregnancy.

Her statement is, on the face of it, extraordinary: unlike those who “cause someone else to become pregnant” (males), those who “become pregnant” (females) actually, well, become pregnant, with everything that entails from the risk of varicose veins and pre-eclampsia, to having an abortion or being denied abortion, to miscarriage or giving birth and living with the economic strain and social discrimination that come with motherhood.

As absurd as Saewyc sounded, her position is the logical endpoint of “gender neutral” language about pregnancy. Pressure on reproductive rights groups – especially those in the US – to drop references to “women” and instead address themselves to “people” have been growing over the last few years, and the American body Planned Parenthood now regularly mentions “pregnant people” in its communications. In theory, this is supposed to help transmen and non-binary-identified females who need reproductive health services. In practice, it creates a political void into which the female body, and the way pregnancy specifically affects women, simply disappears.

The obscuring of the female body beneath obscenity and taboo has always been one of the ways patriarchal society controls women. In 2012, Michigan Democratic representative Lisa Brown was prevented from speaking in a debate about abortion after she used the word “vagina”, which Republicans decided “violated the decorum of the house”. Now, that oppressive decorum is maintained in the name of trans inclusion: in 2014, the pro-choice organisation A is For was attacked for “genital policing” and being “exclusionary and harmful” over a fundraiser named Night of a Thousand Vaginas.

Funnily enough, trans inclusion doesn’t require the elimination of the word vagina entirely – only when it’s used in reference to women. A leaflet on safe sex for trans people published by the Human Rights Campaign decrees that “vagina” refers to “the genitals of trans women who have had bottom surgery”; in contrast, unaltered female genitals are designated the “front hole”. And it’s doubtful that any of this careful negation of the female body helps to protect transmen, given the regular occurrence of stories about transmen getting “unexpectedly” pregnant through having penis-in-vagina sex. Such pregnancies are entirely unsurprising to anyone who knows that gender identity is not a contraceptive.

It does, however, protect from scrutiny the entire network of coercion that is cast over the female body: the denial of abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland, for example, affects the same class of people who were subjected to the medical violence of symphysiotomy — a brutal alternative to cesarean, which involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered — the same class of people who were brutalised by Magdalen Laundries (institutions established to house “fallen women” which operated from the late 18th to the 20th centuries), the same class of people who are subject to rape and sexual harassment. That class of people is women. If we give up the right to name ourselves in the service of “inclusion”, we permit the erosion of all our hard-won boundaries.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who focuses on feminism.

YES

No matter who you are and how straightforwardly things go, pregnancy is never an easy process. It might be a joyous one in many ways, but it’s never comfortable having to lie on your back in a brightly lit room with your legs hitched in stirrups and strangers staring at parts of your anatomy some of them hesitate to name. Then there are the blood tests, the scans, the constant scrutiny of diet and behaviour – it may be good practice for coping with a child, but the invasion of privacy that takes place at this time can have a dehumanising effect. And that’s without having your gender denied in the process.

If you’ve never experienced that denial, it might be difficult to relate to — but many women have, at one time or another, received letters addressing them as “Mr” or turned up at meetings only to discover they were expected to be men. It’s a minor irritation until it happens to you every day. Until people refuse to believe you are who you say you are; until it happens in situations where you’re already vulnerable, and you’re made to feel as if your failure to conform to expectations means you don’t really deserve the same help and respect as everyone else.

There is very little support available for non-binary people and trans men who are happily pregnant, trying to become pregnant or trying to cope with unplanned pregnancies. With everything geared around women, accessing services can be a struggle, and encountering prejudice is not uncommon. We may not even have the option of keeping our heads down and trying to “pass” as female for the duration. Sometimes our bodies are visibly different.

It’s easy for those opposed to trans inclusion to quote selectively from materials making language recommendations that are, or appear to be, extreme – but what they miss is that most trans people going through pregnancy are not asking for anything drastic. We simply want reassurance that the people who are supposed to be helping us recognise that we exist. When that’s achievable simply by using a neutral word like people, does it really hurt to do so? I was always advised that manners cost nothing.

Referring to “people” being pregnant does not mean that we can’t also talk about women’s experiences. It doesn’t require the negation of femaleness – it simply means accepting that women’s rights need not be won at the expense of other people’s. We are stronger when we stand together, whether pushing for better sex education or challenging sexual violence (to which trans men are particularly vulnerable).

When men criticise feminism and complain that it’s eroding their rights, this is usually countered with the argument that it’s better for everyone – that it’s about breaking down barriers and giving people more options. Feminism that is focused on a narrow approach to reproductive biology excludes many women who will never share the experience of pregnancy, and not necessarily through choice. When women set themselves against trans men and non-binary people, it produces a perfect divide and conquer scenario that shores up cis male privilege. There’s no need for any of that. We can respect one another, allow for difference and support the growth of a bigger feminist movement that is truly liberating.

Jennie Kermode is the chair of the charity Trans Media Watch.