Introducing Trans Issues Week

Every day this week, the New Statesman website will host a blog exploring gender issues.

In the twelve months preceding November 2012, at least 265 transgender people were murdered across the world. That figure comes from the Trans Murder Monitoring group, and covers only documented cases in 29 countries, so the true tally is likely to be higher.

For anyone interested in equality, it should be obvious that trans people are subject to harassment simply for the way they express their gender identity. If they do not "pass" in the street, they can be subject to everything from cruel comments and sideways glances to assault or rape - just for standing out. The kind of dehumanising language which most people would find outdated and offensive if used against women, or a racial group, is routinely used when talking about trans people.

In recent decades, there have been great improvements in the way that both the medical community and the wider public deal with issues around gender identity. But sometimes it seems that a lack of knowledge, or awareness, is preventing people from engaging in what should be an important cause. Many people I know would never deliberately set out to offend, but are clueless about what pronouns to use, or how to refer to trans people. 

For that reason, the New Statesman blogs will be hosting a week devoted to trans issues, with a new blog every day on the subject. We hope to dispel some myths - and also offer some hope. Talking about trans issues purely in negative terms does not do justice to the many trans people living happy and fulfilled lives, and so there will also be pieces celebrating positive trans role models in pop culture, and describing the reasons to be optimistic about the future of trans people in Britain. 

The aim of the series is to reach out in a straightforward and friendly way to people who haven't considered these issues before: potential commenters should know that no one is waiting to jump down your throat for an innocent mistake. 

There won't be room this week to cover the breadth of trans experience, and so the articles that follow should be viewed only as trying to start a conversation. We hope that you will continue it in the comments here, on social media, and in your own lives. 

Monday: How a trans teacher showed adults have more hang-ups about gender than primary school kids by Jane Fae

Tuesday: Everything you've always wanted to know about trans issues (but were afraid to ask) by Jennie Kermode

Wednesday: Trans people, pronouns and language by Juliet Jacques

Thursday: Trans role models: Janet Mock, Paris Lees, CN Lester and Luke Anderson by Matthew Reuben

Friday: Trans people and the current feminist movement by Petra Davis and Non-binary: An introduction to another way of thinking about identity by Sky Yarlett

PS. I should add upfront that this theme week was planned before the recent Twitterstorm about Julie Burchill's article. We won't be hosting a response to that, as the idea of a New Statesman comment piece about an Observer comment piece about a Guardian comment piece about Twitter comments made after a New Statesman comment piece might be testing the patience of a casual reader.

PPS. You can find our previous theme weeks at the following links: Britishness; censorship and pornography; masculinity and British comics.

Backstage at the Pink Pageant, sponsored by human rights group Blue Diamond, in Kathmandu. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Just face it, being a parent will never be cool

Traditional parenting terms are being rejected in favour of trendier versions, but it doesn't change the grunt-like nature of the work.

My children call me various things. Mummy. Mum. Poo-Head. One thing they have never called me is mama. This is only to be expected, for I am not cool.

Last year Elisa Strauss reported on the rise of white, middle-class mothers in the US using the term “mama” as “an identity marker, a phrase of distinction, and a way to label the self and designate the group.” Mamas aren’t like mummies or mums (or indeed poo-heads). They’re hip. They’re modern. They’re out there “widen[ing] the horizons of ‘mother,’ without giving up on a mother identity altogether.” And now it’s the turn of the dads.

According to the Daily Beast, the hipster fathers of Brooklyn are asking their children to refer to them as papa. According to one of those interviewed, Justin Underwood, the word “dad” is simply too “bland and drab”:

“There’s no excitement to it, and I feel like the word papa nowadays has so many meanings. We live in an age when fathers are more in touch with their feminine sides and are all right with playing dress-up and putting on makeup with their daughters.”

Underwood describes “dad” as antiquated, whereas “papa” is an “open-minded, liberal term, like dad with a twist” (but evidently not a twist so far that one might consider putting on makeup with one’s sons).

Each to their own, I suppose. Personally I always associate the word “papa” with “Smurf” or “Lazarou.” It does not sound particularly hip to me. Similarly “mama” is a word I cannot hear without thinking of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, hence never without a follow-up “ooo-oo-oo-ooh!” Then again, as a mummy I probably have no idea what I am talking about. If other people think these words are trendy, no doubt they are.

Nonetheless, I am dubious about the potential of such words to transform parenting relationships and identities. In 1975’s Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich describes how she used to look at her own mother and think “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” It is, I think, a common sentiment. Rejecting mummy or daddy as an identity, if not as an individual, can feel much the same as rejecting the politics that surrounds gender and parenting. The papas interviewed by The Daily Beast are self-styled feminists, whose hands-on parenting style they wish to differentiate from that of their own fathers. But does a change of title really do that? And even if it does, isn’t this a rather individualistic approach to social change?

There is a part of me that can’t help wondering whether the growing popularity of mama and papa amongst privileged social groups reflects a current preference for changing titles rather than social realities, especially as far as gendered labour is concerned. When I’m changing a nappy, it doesn’t matter at all whether I’m known as Mummy, Mama or God Almighty. I’m still up to my elbows in shit (yes, my baby son is that prolific).

The desire to be known as Papa or Mama lays bare the delusions of new parents. It doesn’t even matter if these titles are cool now. They won’t be soon enough because they’ll be associated with people who do parenting. Because like it or not, parenting is not an identity. It is not something you are, but a position you occupy and a job you do.

I once considered not being called mummy. My partner and I did, briefly, look at the “just get your children to call you by your actual name” approach. On paper it seemed to make sense. If to my sons I am Victoria rather than mummy, then surely they’ll see me as an individual, right? Ha. In practice it felt cold, as though I was trying to set some kind of arbitrary distance between us. And perhaps, as far as my sons are concerned, I shouldn’t be just another person. It is my fault they came into this vale of tears. I owe them, if not anyone else, some degree of non-personhood, a willingness to do things for them that I would not do for others. What I am to them – mummy, mum, mama, whatever one calls it – is not a thing that can be rebranded. It will never be cool because the grunt work of caring never is.

It is not that I do not think we need to change the way in which we parent, but this cannot be achieved by hipster trendsetting alone. Changing how we parent involves changing our most fundamental assumptions about what care work is and how we value the people who do it. And this is change that needs to include all people, even those who go by the old-fashioned titles of mum and dad.

Ultimately, any attempt to remarket parenting as a cool identity smacks of that desperate craving for reinvention that having children instils in a person. The moment you have children you have bumped yourself up the generational ladder. You are no longer the end of your family line. You are – god forbid – at risk of turning into your own parents, the ones who fuck you up, no matter what they do. But you, too, will fuck them up, regardless of whether you do it under the name of daddy, dad or papa. Accept it. Move on (also, you are mortal. Get over it).

Parenting will never be cool. Indeed, humanity will never be cool. We’re all going to get older, more decrepit, closer to death. This is true regardless of whether you do or don’t have kids – but if you do you will always have younger people on hand to remind you of this miserable fact.

Your children might, if you are lucky, grow to respect you, but as far as they are concerned you are the past.  No amount of rebranding is going to solve that. This doesn’t mean we can’t change the way we parent. But as with so much else where gender is concerned, it’s a matter for boring old deeds, not fashionable words.

 

 

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.