Monthly Archives: August 2016

A question of identity

To quote the Vorlonwho are you?

It turns out that this is a difficult question to answer, with all attempts feeling unsatisfactory. God side-steps this question with a rather cryptic (on might say Vorlon-like) I am who I am, and nobody since then has made much of a better job of it. When faced with this question over and over again, Delenn finds herself falling back on her relationship with others: “I am the daughter of…”.

Yes, one of my identities is that of a fan of Babylon 5.

I say “one of” because each of us exists at the intersection of many distinct tribal memberships and identities, the combination of which is unique to ourselves and contributes to our individual identity yet, somehow, still fails to completely define it.

I am a Christian. In fact, I am a Roman Catholic Christian. There are some Christians who would take issue with my second statement there, and say that Catholics are not Christians, they will go on to give many reasons why Catholics are different to real Christians and do not deserve to stand under the same umbrella. Conversely, there are Catholics who think that the Reformation was a waste of time and merely served to distract millions of people from the revealed truth that came through Jesus Christ and to reject certain fundamental truths left to us by the man who was also the son of God. That debate will not be resolved in a single thousand-word blog post, and I will leave it to those more qualified than I to do the arguing.

I am a member of the Scout Association. This is the newest of my identities, and I find myself fiercely proud of this membership. For reasons best known to themselves, a group of children and their parents trust me (and the other leaders) to provide a stimulating environment where they can learn new things, do new things and experience a slew of activities that are hard to come by in any other environment. I’d be happier if they paid more attention when I’m trying to teach them how to tie a knot, but that’s kids for you. The Scout Association has been working for over a century to provide youngsters with friendship and adventure in the (well-founded) belief that being a part of a wider movement with a focus on helping others and having as broad an experience of life as possible will produce well-rounded and mature adults and be a force for good in the world. We try to show the Scouts the world from as many perspectives as possible, and to instil respect for all people and for the planet. It’s not perfect, of course, LGBT Scouts can have a wide range of experiences, not all of them good.

I am a member of the World Tang Soo Do Association. They have been teaching me Tang Soo Do for a good number of years, and I am moderately not-bad at it. Their belief is in self-improvement through martial arts training. You don’t have to go out and fight everybody to get better at martial arts: the main focus is on doing better each week. That thing you couldn’t do last week is the thing you look at this week and, through practise over years, you get to the point where you can not only do the thing, but do it well. This approach works for things outside of beating seven shades of shit out of a plastic breaking-board, and the discipline of martial arts training serves well in wider life.

I am an engineer. This is one of my core identities. Since I was seven years old, I have wanted to become an electronic engineer and it was with some trepidation that I started my first job fourteen years later. You see, I had pinned all of my hopes for life on this single career path and my focus throughout my time in full-time education was on obtaining a suitable qualification and entering the electronics profession. Having completed that education, I found myself staring at that first job with considerable trepidation: what if, after fourteen years of slog, it turned out that I didn’t much like electronics after all. I am fortunate indeed that, upon starting work, I discovered that I do enjoy electronics and I am actually quite good at it.

I am an engineer. I know I just said that, but engineer is a personality type as well as being a job title. I think in certain ways, I enjoy certain activities, I value intellectual rigour and clearness of thought. I can be quite arrogant and can be unpleasant to argue with. The sum of these traits means that I am an engineer even when I’m not at work. At church, I am an engineer; at home, I am an engineer; at Scouts and at TSD, I am an engineer. Other words for this identity are geek and nerd. It is an identity I embrace freely, because it provides a shorthand to describe the way I think and the way I relate to the world around me: it also provides access to a community of like-minded individuals with whom I can have stimulating discussions that would leave non-geeks bewildered.

I am a fan of Science Fiction. Most hard-core fans would dismiss me as an amateur. This part of my identity has never been huge or all-consuming. I do not think that Star Trek is all that wonderful and I can take or leave Star Wars. I also do not spend every waking moment devouring the work of Peter F Hamilton or Frank Herbert. I find Philip K Dick to be completely impenetrable. I do, however, appreciate the thinking-outside-the-box approach that makes good SF a great read. A decent SF story is not all about talking computers or epic space battles, it is about people and what happens when you put a bunch of people (people, in this case, doesn’t exclusively mean human beings) in a certain situation, throw in a bit of narrative tension and see what happens. Put a hundred people together in a closed environment on an island and it’s mainstream; do it on a space ship and it’s SF, but the tensions are the same.

I am a man who wears skirts. I see no reason why these hugely comfortable garments should be limited to people who look a particular way, and I have no truck with those who conflate sex with clothing.  Take a peek at the Oscars (or any other glitzy event) and you will note that all of the men look exactly the same, and all of the women are wearing dazzling clothes. (The fact that the men are judged by their abilities and the women are judged by their wardrobes is a discussion for another day). I think that the notion that exciting fabrics and beautiful garments are reserved for women and that a man wearing such an item is compromising his masculinity is completely ridiculous. My favourite skirt is box-pleated blue taffeta and resembles the bottom half of a ballgown. Can’t wear it because I’m a man? Balls to that notion.

I am bisexual. Yes. It exists. It doesn’t mean I can’t make up my mind between Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley: I simply think that you shouldn’t have to. They are both aesthetically appealing and I would not feel my identity had been compromised were I to wake up in bed with either of them. It doesn’t mean that I would particularly want to wake up in bed with both of them, either. In fact, the person I most like waking up next to is my wife and I’m not going to dump her for the next good-looking guy either (even Johnny Depp).

I carry other identities as well. I’m a man, I’m tall, I’m white, I’m British (I’d prefer to be Scottish, but I was born and raised in the Midlands), I’m a father, I’m a husband.

All of these identities put me in relationship with other people yet, alone, I still carry them with me and none of them defines who I am. Some identities must be validated externally by membership of organisations, others can be claimed simply by stating “I am this”. There are people who will take issue with my claim to certain identities and others who seek to impose identities on me from outside. In order to be fully and freely human, however, my identity must be my own, and I must be allowed that identity.

I am a person.

Pope fucks up

It’s a strong headline, but it works on two levels.

During his trip to Poland for World Youth Day 2016, Pope Francis had a meeting with Polish bishops. The transcript of this meeting was released last week. The bishops spoke of various things, but one thing the pontiff highlighted was gender theory. This has been reported in various places, but here are the articles from the Washington Times and the Catholic Herald. He spoke of this last year, too.

I really don’t know what is causing the pope to get quite so exercised about this. The only conclusion I can draw is that he has never spent very much time around transgender people. In my limited experience, most people who oppose the rights of others have many theories about those others, but no experience of actually knowing them.

Let’s hypothesise. Sofia is a transgender woman living in Buenos Aires, attending Mass regularly at the cathedral. She attends social gatherings and speaks to bishop Bergolio on a regular basis. In turn, he learns much about her life, how she knows that she has always been a woman, regardless of what her parents, her brothers, her priests, the media and the whole church have told her her entire life. This is a fundamental truth about her existence. There is nothing in who she is that challenges the notion that men and women are different from each other: she acknowledges that they are different: she simply demands that the world sees her as the woman she knows herself to be. Over the course of several years, Bishop B learns more about her life, and about the huge obstacles that the world has placed in her path, that she has had to fight to overcome. Sometimes, she has the strength to climb over or tunnel through them, sometimes not. Every day is a struggle just to be alive. Sofia’s family threw her out when she was young; she has found it very hard to find and hold down a job. Everywhere she turns, people reject her because her face doesn’t look right, because her voice is too deep, because she is too tall, because she doesn’t fit the mould. Many of her transgender friends have taken their own lives, either because they have been forced to live lives in the wrong gender, or because constant rejection by everyone you love takes its toll over years: they simply could not face another day and took the only road left open to them.

Bishop Bergolio’s heart breaks every day when he thinks of Sofia, of the hardship she faces simply by being who she is. He has known her several years and has really listened to her. He knows how she ticks, and can see the full journey she has travelled: she and her transgender sisters and brothers. He can see how their society, their laws and the church all conspire to rob her of the very essence of her humanity, of her dignity as a child of God. He can see all the forces of the world ranged against her, simply because she chose to stand up and be the person God created her to be. She decided that to live as a man was to die a little more every day. Sure, it made the people around her comfortable, but Jesus never, ever, changed who he was simply to make those around him more comfortable. He delivered his message in clear, often shocking, sometimes scandalous ways wherever he went. She is fully aware of what they did to Jesus because of this: she has weighed everything in the balance and has decided that, if she is to die, it will be at another’s hand, and not her own. She will no longer pretend just to pander to those around her. He sees this in her and he understands her.

When Bishop Bergolio becomes Pope Francis, he brings this friendship with him to Rome. He sees how his church systematically snuffs out the God-given light in so many people’s hearts. He stands before the bishops of Poland and gives the example of his predecessor, Pope St John Paul II, who as a priest in Poland would go on trips with the university students in his care, taking them to the mountains and playing sport. He would listen to them, he was with the young people [from the Catholic Herald article]. He tells the bishops to listen to people, to understand their lives, and to stop forcing identities onto people from the outside and to fight injustice against LGBT* people the world over, because that injustice, so long perpetuated by the church, is driving these little ones to stumble [Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2].

So, my headline for the week? I believe in my heart that the pope has fucked up with his comments about gender theory. I believe that he simply has not taken the time to understand what gender theory actually is before rejecting it as a symptom that we are living in an age of sin against the Creator [Benedict XVI].

I also believe that the pope is fucking up the lives of every transgender person whose lives are affected by Catholic teaching. He should look at the statistics for suicides of transgender people, the number people murdered each year simply for being who God made them to be, the number of teenagers thrown out of their homes by their families for the same reason.

The church doesn’t have to hold onto ancient laws in the face of new evidence. The church has accepted (after a century or two) that the earth is not at the centre of the universe. It does not have to cling to the theory that all humans are born with unambiguous genitalia and that those genitalia clearly and unambiguously reveal fundamental truths about who that person is as a person. The only way to determine someone’s gender is to ask them. People are usually pretty sure of their own gender, at least from the age of 2. Sometimes the answer you get is not what you expect. It may even be “some days I’m a girl, but today, I’m a boy”.

If we are to hold, as Christ taught us, that God loves each person wholly, fully and passionately, we must give each person the right to be a person. And in this, I believe, the pope has fucked up.

Human rights are for far away places

After the second world war, the United Kingdom put together a team of legal experts to draft a document that would, they hoped, put an end to the senseless suffering and slaughter of millions and would prevent a recurrence in the future. The result was the European Convention of Human Rights, the ECHR. It lays out basic human rights granted to everyone living in territories controlled by the signatures of the Convention, and establishes the European Court of Human Rights to oversee the application of the Convention.

It’s pretty good stuff (see here for a summary).

The problem, really, is that the UK wants to withdraw from it.

Yes, you read that right. The country that wrote the rules now want to withdraw from being bound by them.

The motivation for this is different depending on which politician you ask, but it boils down to a combination of the following:

  • Article 5 links security and liberty as a single concept. This is inconvenient for politicians, particularly current Prime Minister, Theresa May, because she wants to delete large quantities of liberty in the name of “security”.
  • Article 8 gives us the right to a private life. Again, inconvenient to Mrs May, because she wants to spy on all of our internet traffic, both Web and E-Mail. Article 8 will stick right in her throat.
  • Article 2 gives us the right to life. This includes the state taking steps to avoid unnecessary deaths.

The first two of these relate to the Investigatory Powers bill currently limping through Parliament, which I have covered elsewhere.

The third is more relevant, and links to the UK’s obligations both under the ECHR but also under the UN rules because it relates to the Conservative government’s drive for austerity.

The theory given is that the UK economy is heading towards bankruptcy: we have been borrowing money year-on-year for a long time, and our national debt is growing. At some point, we’ll be borrowing money to pay interest on borrowed money and the whole thing is going to vanish down the plughole. In order to fix this, the government, under the sensitive direction of former chancellor George Osborne, has been slashing public spending on unnecessary things like public health, education, legal aid, libraries, housing and welfare. But we’re all in it together, he said. That must be why he cut corporation tax and inheritance tax, because those taxes tend only to affect those with large amounts of wealth.

The UN disagrees that the UK has done its best to keep things equitable, however. In a damning report published on 14th July, it repeatedly urges the government to amend laws and policies that are actively causing hardship to those least able to look after themselves.

This has, of course, not been widely reported across the kingdom. We’ve had our head buried in the shitstorm surrounding the vote to leave the EU, but this report does exist, and it does highlight the fact that our government doesn’t give flying coitus about its poorer citizens and wants, in fact, to further erode their footing. I suppose if poor people all starve to death, they cease to be a problem for government, but that model has, historically, proven to be unreliable. Poor people have a nasty habit of clinging on. And, truly, if all the poor people went away, who would do the washing, cooking and moat-cleaning for the rich?

Ooh, it makes me mad.