Sunday 28 June 2009

A black man or a white woman?

It was early in 2008 and the television show host was talking about the Democratic Party’s leadership contest: “It looks like the Democratic field has really narrowed down. It’s going to be a black man or a white woman.” The opportunity seemed too good to miss, so he went on: “A black man or a white woman. You know, this is the same decision Michael Jackson has to face every morning of his life.”

There was shock and dismay from the black community when Michael Jackson first began to ‘lose’ his colour, but that particular change seems to have arisen as a consequence of the condition vitiligo, which causes de-pigmentation of the skin, rather than alienation from his Afro-American roots. As Jackson explained to Oprah Winfrey, whether to be ‘black or white’, to quote his own lyrics, was not something over which he had any control.

It is, of course, an exaggeration to imply that Jackson was faced with a daily dilemma concerning his gender identity, but the gradual feminisation of his face, followed later by implants to produce a manly cleft chin, suggest that he oscillated, quite dramatically at times, in his self awareness as masculine and feminine. He was, though, without a doubt, gender variant in his self expression.

And so are lots of other people. Not just transsexual people, many of whom go through the once-in-a-lifetime process of transition from female-to-male, or male-to-female. Gender variance can be found in cross dressers and among those who choose to defy conventional stereotypes of what it means to be a man or a woman. It is common among intersex people, some of whom identify with both genders, while others find it difficult to relate to either. There are people whose sense of gender identity is fluid and shifting, as Michael Jackson’s seems to have been. And, of course, gender variance is not unknown among lesbians and gay men. Indeed, studies show that gender variant children – tomboy girls and ‘sissy’ or effeminate boys - are more likely to grow up to be lesbian and gay as adults rather than transgendered.

During the recent reading of the Equality Bill, MPs tried to get across to the Minister this huge range of gender expression, and that the term ‘gender reassignment’ – hitherto used specifically of transsexual people – used in the legislation, should be replaced by the broader concept of ‘gender variance’, so that the Bill’s protection could be extended to anyone who is victimised because of their gender expression.

In her reply the Minister said that she was not aware of any specific evidence of discrimination against this wider spectrum of gender variant folk. Really? Snide tabloid attacks on the ‘gender bending’ behaviour of celebrities like Michael Jackson, and, more recently, Cristiano Ronaldo, are very public expressions of the transphobia that does exist in our society (as well as a deep underlying misogyny).

The Sibyls, who offer Christian Spirituality to the Transgendered, could cite many examples of people who have been rejected by their churches simply because they did not conform to gender norms. Nowadays, though, mainstream churches seem more ready to welcome those who are different, including those who are not gender normative. Long may that continue: and let there be no resorting to ‘ecclesiastical exemptions’ to the Equality Bill, provisions which only serve to frustrate Christ’s invitation and welcome to all.

On the night Michael Jackson died, Paul Gambaccini, a personal friend of the star, as well as an authority on pop musical history, was at pains to point out that Jackson was tall – over six foot. Other friends emphasised his firm handshake and that in private he did not speak in the high-pitched voice that he adopted in public. In other words, he was not really girly at all. One can understand the desire to ‘protect’ his friend at that painful moment, but in the cold light of day, it has to be said, that being girly – or butch for that matter - is not something to be ashamed of - not at all.

Christina Beardsley

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