Originally published at a denizen's entertainment. You can comment here or there.
Last week I ran into a post that made me pretty angry. It was this post, Race, Gender, and the Oppressive Public Gaze. No, not the bit about the appalling attitudes and actions of the IAAF, the media, and the public toward Caster Semenya and intersex people (which I have not previously written publicly on, but short form: outrageous that she'd be singled out for testing on the basis of winning a race and not looking 'sufficiently feminine' while doing so, plausibly racist that she was so singled out when black women are already made to suffer for not conforming to white standards of beauty, outrageous that the media would refer to her as a 'hermaphrodite' in defiance of their own style guides, painfully ignorant and outright damaging to many, especially Semenya herself who as the linked article states has been placed on suicide watch, that when news of her reputedly intersex biology was leaked to media outlets before she herself was informed, people considered this reason to degender her, call her 'he' and accuse her of cheating even though these days an abnormally well-suited biology seems almost a prerequisite to excellence in world sports, without raising such a storm of ignorance and horrid behaviour in cases that don't concern women and race). No, I had grown accustomed to be disgusted at the behaviour of people around this topic.
It was the middle section that outraged me anew, by referring to what from timing and other details I inferred was this posting in the community , the handling of which had already given me cause for much infuriated anger.
Let us get some things straight. No one has the right to know details of my body, or how it functions, or how I have sex, or what kind(s) of sex I enjoy, unless I choose to give them that information. This is a matter of privacy and personal autonomy. Generally (I am not sure if generally is true, but let's say it is for the sake of rhetoric) people will respect the expressed boundaries of others, and by default respect also the boundaries their social context leads them to believe are commonly in place, although there are some people who take pleasure in violating the boundaries of others as a 'joke' (or for other reasons).
Which leads to another thing. Generally marginalised people are Othered, are treated as something fascinating and alien and not quite regarded by those socially privileged over them as being as fully nuanced and human as those privileged over them regard their own class, in most cases without careful thought and work. Generally, the socially expected default boundaries are weakened or less regarded in the case of marginalised classes of people, as seen with men hollering out sexual remarks to women generally, or white people wanting to touch the hair of black women specifically. It might be because in the milieu they grew up they were trained to regard the boundaries of some sets of people as less than their own, or it might be that their privileged situation leads their curiosity to override restraints behaviour they might otherwise recognise as intrusive and likely unwelcome, because they have the luxury of not considering the situation. Or other reasons I might not have considered.
All this, and disproportion of effect. When you have some noticeable variance from those in power in the wider society you inhabit it makes sense they would be curious about it. Especially when you have been Othered by this society, information about you obscured or unavailable. Especially when you are a relative minority to them, and thus again a novelty to their eyes. Especially again when you are marginalised relative to them, and they are accustomed to seeing your boundaries weaker than theirs, to be overrun without care, or treated as less credible and serious entirely in your expressions of yourself. And because you are yourself, and they are many, what seems to them like a harmless single encounter may be to you an endless feeling grinding intrusion.
So, curiousity is natural, and many in privileged situations would be inclined to shrug it off, based on their own not unpleasant experiences of being its subject. But for someone who occupies a marginalised position in the society they inhabit, they are at particular risk of being subjected to unwanted intrusions and incessant questioning, and generally it is a sign of oppression that people would behave as though they are entitled to details of a person's existence, that they would invade eir individual or collective space to demand answers and be disinclined to respect refusals, or to take under consideration that those they question are likely often subject to this and likely do not want to be subject to it again.
If someone is a member of a marginalised group, it is more likely rude to ask em details of eir existence than it is to ask members of non-marginalised groups about theirs. Boundaries should be drawn wider, not weaker or smaller, and anyone who seeks information from and / or about them ought take much greater care to be respectful of boundaries, which generally means "do not approach them specifically unless you know for yourself the person in question is willing to entertain your request (and friendship is not a guarantee of this - to presume it is would often be a swift way of losing that friendship)", "do not approach them in their own communities or spaces unless those spaces have been established for the purpose of educating outsiders". Or, more simply: If you seek information from or concerning marginalised peoples, particularly about any aspect of their personal lives or bodies, do so only from sources which have been explicitly established as venues for seeking such information. Otherwise it is likely you will be treading on the boundaries of people whose boundaries are frequently trodden on, frequently betrayed, frequently ignored.
All that said, why then am I angry with karnythia concerning eir post linked at the beginning of this one? Because is a writers' information community. Its purpose is for writers who have not been able to find information for their stories elsewhere to seek advice and resources from other members of the community. It is not specifically a trans space, nor specifically a space for any marginalised class of people unless you count writers, which I certainly do not. The poster of the question in question did not so far as we know approach any specific trans person and demand information about or access to eir genitals. Ey did not do this with a trans community or safer space. Ey made a request, in a community purposed for the exchange of information, that if anyone were willing and able to help em produce an accurate and respectful portrayal of a trans man (specifically the one who was a character in eir story) in a sexual scene. No one was hounded or intruded upon by this, and no one was obligated to answer, but if anyone were able and willing to answer that question, to provide advice on an accurate and respectful portrayal, the option was there.
Instead we got a storm of outrage. People saying, effectively, no cis person should ever write about a trans character, they should never, ever request information on how to do so better, that there is no context (other than being, we assume, a trans person seeking information to aid in orienting eir life) in which seeking information about trans people can be anything other than offensive and wrong. People demanding to know why it is necessary for that character to be trans, when as far as I am concerned a big problem is that marginalised persons do not exist in stories unless somehow 'justified' in ways others are not, and that this is a problem which contributes to Othering, ignorance, prejudice and stereotyping which can be addressed in part by precisely the sort of behaviour the original poster has been engaged in. There was some problematic language in the original post (now crossed out and replaced) which was eventually pointed out and explained - those previously attempting to shut down the subject they had inserted themselves into then thanking the person who explained this for doing what they had apparently showed up in order to not do.
This then is continued in karnythia's post. What was a request for information and advice in an open forum intended for that purpose on how to construct a respectful portrayal, if indeed the connection I made between the two postings is a correct one, gets framed as a personal intrusion. The message we are given is it is not okay for a person in a privileged position to seek this information, ever, for any reason, and it is even less okay for them to ever pose that as an active question. We are told that is prurience and the message gleaned from this post and much of the community response is that this information should simply be unavailable concerning marginalised persons.
If this could be considered in aggregate 'the activist position' then I cannot in good conscience assent. I think it an anti-intellectual, simplistic and ultimately harmful position to take. As I said above, I think it is a problem, endemic in the society I am familiar with, that people especially fail to recognise or respect the personal boundaries of marginalised people. I think, because of this tendency, it is moral, polite and pragmatic to take extra care not to transgress those boundaries. As a rule, neither individuals nor communities should be solicited or imposed upon for information by outsiders - the appropriate venues would typically be intentionally informational resources, not people who are already likely frequently put upon by such unwelcome demands.
This does mean I consider the problem in question neither the existence of information about marginalised people, nor that others might have interest in that information. Rather, the problem lies in how this plays out under the various dynamics of privilege / marginalisation which leads typically to intrusive enquiries running roughshod over boundaries. Merely to ask the question or seek the information is not in itself an act of oppression. Behaving as if it is, I think, contributes to the problems of invisibility, ignorance and poor representation I oppose. So reading that I got angry.