GUEST BLOG: Kelly Ellis – Privilege Lost

By   /   July 30, 2014  /   28 Comments

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I’m pulled three ways by the blog that Whale Oil produced a few months ago when I won the candidacy for Labour here in Whangarei. Having my genitals talked about, being called a man, having comments made about my teeth and hair so offended me that I avoided reading them until long after I’d been told of it.

Cameron-Slater-Bug

Elton John didn’t get it wrong when said that sorry was the hardest word.

It’s a word whose mere utterance can be seized upon as a sign of weakness and topic of ridicule, while simultaneously expressing understanding and opening the door to forgiveness. Few words in New Zealand’s recent history had had such attention or been more polarising.

Meanwhile, in Northland, the Land the Government forgot, my blush has turned into a slow burn; a cruelly twisted combination of embarrassment and anger whose public expression will no doubt brand me as a sensitive wee sausage.

I’m ashamed for having an over-rated sense of my own self-awareness. Some things are slow-dawning on me. Sure, I’ve always meant well, but, of course, good intentions pave the way to a well-known Biblical hot-spot. My intentions, we all know, mean nothing; my actions mean everything.

I meant well when I studied feminist legal theory, challenging the existence of the omnipotent male privilege that was so often talked about. Where was my free ticket to the footie or complimentary fries with my Big Mac? Nah mate, I said over a beer with the only other guy in the class, we were an endangered species in a faculty where women outnumbered men. Male privilege was a unicorn I actively hunted and declared a myth.

It was no coincidence that the things complained of by women did not affect me.  My grip on male privilege might not have been as secure as some, for I was often called queer or a homo around the motorbike races I used to frequent as a student. But I brought that on myself, I thought. After all, they asked, what kind of faggot would wear a Calvin Klein shirt and Chanel Antaeus in the pits at a motorbike race meeting? At these meetings filled with black non-Japanese bikes, I heard, only a queer c**t would ride a white bike and wear red boots.

And although my privilege was a little less secure in the places I pursued this addictive sport, I had another kind of privilege which was good currency – speed. In this sport which doesn’t divide genders, speed is the universal currency and most things can be forgiven if there’s enough of it. I didn’t escape without earning the nickname of QC which, sadly, didn’t stand for Queen’s Counsel, but something rather less complimentary.

While I may have been at a social disadvantage in this crowd, I did indeed have a blissful time as a bloke, with no real appreciation of the physical and psychological advantages that Club Membership carried. But there had come a day when I’d been called “ma’am” despite my suit and tie. The ravages of hormones and the War on Whiskers had eroded my already dubious masculinity to the point of androgyny and then some. It didn’t take much of a tweak of my look and suddenly I blended back into the binary gender world, albeit now presenting as a woman. I no longer attracted the odd looks and comments my queer presentation had provoked.

No longer looking and being treated as queer was great, but the pleasure was short-lived. Almost overnight I had changed my status. It took me a while to realise it, but by the third time I’d put up with an unauthorised breast grope, I knew that I had lost the physical security that men, even QCs, enjoy. I dared not complain. Who would listen to me? Who would care? The social difficulties I would face lawfully protecting my body meant I was silent. After all, who wants to be seen as a sensitive wee sausage?

No, my confidence had taken too many knocks in my gender transition. And while it had tested my courage, I wasn’t willing to speak up. I could just imagine the witty comments. “Making a mountain out of a mole hill” sprang to mind. The prospect of that joke alone silenced me.  Instead, I bought a pocket knife, tucked it into my purse and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before I threatened its use. Never in my life had a man grabbed me by the wrist at a party and tried to drag me off the deck into the dark garden. I wrestled my wrist from his grip, losing skin in the process. I told him that he’d better stop before someone got hurt.

“Slap me then,” he guffawed.

“I don’t slap, I cut,” I hissed, reaching into my purse and retreating backwards into the house.

I learned a lot of lessons in that first six months:

I learned not to look men in the eye when I walked down the street. I learned to keep my eyes down demurely lest I “invite” predators to engage me. I learned that while keeping my eyes down, I also needed to be hyper vigilant or else I could be sexually assaulted. I learned that my body was up for grabs and that I had to protect myself, for in this society of men, I learned, my complaint would not be welcome.

I learned I was now an alien. I learned that the social contract men had was different from the one for women. I learned that male privilege was not a free ticket to the footie or a free upsize on a Mac Meal; male privilege is simply the freedom from prejudice that everyone else gets for not being a man.

I learned that my voice, no matter how right, carried less weight in the company of men. I learned that I could not discuss camshafts on a car sales yard because colour was all the sharks wanted to talk at me about. I learned that if I wanted, god forbid, I could trade my body for booze at almost any bar. I learned that my tits were up for grabs and that the rights I thought I had as a human were gone. It turns out they weren’t rights, they were a privilege granted by men for men.

I learned that I was not safe. I learned I could not complain. I learned to see myself as blameworthy. I wore flat shoes, buttoned myself up and kept my eyes peeled. I learned that some places I had previously visited were now forbidden or too dangerous. I learned that there was a culture that reinforced this and through my anger I also burned with shame at having been part of it. I cringed with embarrassment that I had not seen something so obvious. My silent neutrality I now saw as shameful complicity.

My jaw hung, slack, in disbelief. The sudden demotion simultaneously shocked and fascinated me. I learned that I had unwittingly, but negligently, been part of this oppressive culture. I learned that in my plea that “not all men…” I had somehow forgotten not only a basic legal doctrine (the fact speaking for itself) but had ignored the now appallingly obvious money trail of male privilege.  I guess for me, I didn’t know what I had until it was gone. And while I mourned the loss, it was overwhelmed by the joy of looking into my lover’s eyes for the first time and seeing her as my equal.

I looked into the eyes of my transgender clients who didn’t bother with complaints while they were raped in prison, the police cells and even those in the court cells beneath my feet as I worked. I knew – we all knew – that no one would ever get charged and that complaining only increased the danger in a culture that was as evident on the inside as the outside.

Almost nothing is as corrosive to self-confidence as sexual assault. It is so attended by shame that most events are never complained about. And, inevitably, when consent is raised, an examination of conduct ensues. Only the brave or foolish put themselves on the chopping block by making a complaint. But the silencing of victims is not just the doing of the perpetrators; it is the surrounding culture that silences victims as effectively as if it had cut their tongues out. It was men like me who had contributed, perhaps just in a little way to an overwhelming tide of male oppression. Now I was drowning in it. The irony was not lost on me.

In this culture where sexually active men are celebrated as studs and women are condemned as sluts, I learned that the commodification of women was everywhere. Even my olive oil bottle was emblazoned with a word which devalued women for having sex with men. I learned there were coded messages like this wherever I looked. Every snigger at every blonde joke, every time a woman was talked over, every time the sexist comments male lawyers made when the last woman left the tea room. The Minister of Justice who made a rape joke about prisoners – all of it contributes to the erosion of security those without male privilege suffer.  All of this, I realised, was connected and the smallest act of sexism – silence in the face of it – is the thin end of an ugly wedge. An ugly wedge indeed that divides those who have male privilege and those who don’t. How could I have failed to see this? It wasn’t as I hadn’t been told.

Part of my loss of privilege was in the work I did. Working on drug cases is much nicer than working on ones involving sex and violence. With drugs, at least the adults are consenting. Fighting over the line about when agents of the law can come into a house is always a worthy battle, no matter how unworthy the owner of the rights. Because that’s the thing about rights, isn’t it? We should ascribe them universally, rather in a discriminatory fashion. But it seemed I was not wanted any more, a transgender lawyer just being a bit too much for white power gangland.

With a move to Whangarei and a focus on the local courts, violence mingled with sex became my staple professional diet As I saw rape and violence more and more as a tool of oppression, it was easier to see the more subtle messages used to control women. I saw it in the way men protected men from the consequences of their sexism, just like when men helped a man slither out of the country to avoid facing a charges.

As I pushed back on behalf of clients, it became clear to me that I would lose my anonymity if I spoke out. But I did not anticipate a culture so pervasive that a man, lauded on TV as a good guy, a winner of an award sponsored by Canon and an advisor to a major political party would publicly carve up my body up in his blog http://www.whaleoil.co.nz/2014/03/guess-one-way-around-manban/. I did not anticipate my body being publicly stripped and ridiculed just for being an advocate for victims of this culture.

I remember a time when my body was safe from the threat of molestation or being hauled up Whale Oil’s slipway for a flensing on his blog. I was carefree. I could wander around the marina in nothing but shorts and no one would say a thing. I remember being able to strip off my clothes, yelling “avert your eyes, my darlings” as I shed my undies and dived over the side of the boat during a race to free a rope caught around the rudder. Those days were carefree because I had security. I was safe.  It was a privilege. It was paradise. Lost.

I haven’t been swimming for years. These days I keep myself buttoned up and I keep my back to the wall. I am ashamed and sorry to have this body, this topic of ridicule and contempt. I know that I am not alone with these feelings about body image which are reinforced in every medium.  I know this is a world filled with danger and men who promote it, perhaps with a simple snigger at a sexist joke or a look, or perhaps just by enjoying the profits of being a man and making no conscious effort towards gender equity.

I’m pulled three ways by the blog that Whale Oil produced a few months ago when I won the candidacy for Labour here in Whangarei. Having my genitals talked about, being called a man, having comments made about my teeth and hair so offended me that I avoided reading them until long after I’d been told of it. Part of me wants to disappear and be silent so I can avoid my body being such a topic of public conversation. Another part of me wants to be silent, for doing otherwise gives oxygen and life to this hate speech.

The other part of me, the stronger part, it seems, wants to push back, albeit belatedly. It’s the consistency of Cam Slater’s contribution to this culture that has prompted me to write this. And, I guess, his evident fascination with my genitals is something I find a little disturbing. While I’ve been told I should be flattered by his interest, surely he must know that, sorry, I’m married.

 

 

Kelly Ellis, Whangarei Labour Candidate, former journalist and current lawyer grubs her living from the criminal justice coalface but dreams of being a better parent and more dutiful partner to her long-suffering family.

 

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28 Comments

  1. genevieve McClean says:

    Great piece.

    Slater has a meme on his page that is a spoof on the labour party campaign billboard: ‘I’m in’, is altered to read ‘I’m inphantile’. Unreasonably this stupid non-existent word has stayed in my brain as it says more about slater than anything… that in his self doubting bully brained head he thinks infantile is one of those hard words that may have a difficult hidden spelling in it like phantom or elephant or phallus. The laziness involved in not bothering to spell-check while creating a visual image is astounding in itself. The lingering attention to analysis that he has left me with as a result of his dubious preoccupations and lack of integral development (perhaps in his early years), is like the residual slime that a garden slug leaves on the washing. It’s gross but it goes away after a second wash.

  2. Tiger Mountain says:

    Highly evocative piece on so many levels and issues Kelly. This should be shared far and wide and big thanks for your bravery.

    There should be no doubt what it takes from Louise Nicholas to Tania Billingsley and yourself to confront the dirty filthy male kiwi culture.

    Many of us heap deserved abuse on the revolting Slater, but he seems desensitised to basic human decency of any kind. You have skewered him however with a totally different approach–honesty.

  3. Mark the Lefty says:

    I guess Georgina Beyer had some similar problems in the 2000s, except that internet blogs hadn’t really developed at that stage so loathsome trolls like Cameron Slater didn’t have such a ready audience for their spite. Also Georgina won in Wairarapa twice, the first time beating Paul Henry (yes, the same one) who promptly threw all his toys out of pram in anger. If you know Wairarapa it is a fairly conservative place and not where you would generally expect trans-gender candidates to win, even though Labour were in government at the time. The point is: anything is possible. Good luck to you!

  4. Louisa says:

    Such a thoughtful, articulate piece of writing. This kind of thing is what the NZ mainstream media needs.

  5. Mistery Mistery says:

    Awesome article Kelly.

    It’s actually more than an article.
    Its like reading a diary, of your journey into enlightenment.

    You walked in the shoes of the feminine and discovery was there.

    So very well said.

    God bless your truth.

  6. Lara says:

    Wow. What a powerful piece of honesty. Huge respect to you for writing this publicly.

    Recently I read Kristen Schilt’s “Just One Of The Guys”. I realised in reading that book that there is a small unique segment of our society who have an invaluable insight into sexism, transgender people.

    You have made this so clear. Living as a man, believing male privilege to be a myth, then transforming to a woman and realising it is not.

    You describe the danger of living as female so well, so clearly, and the danger of being transgender which adds yet another layer.

    I don’t see how anyone could read your piece and not realise that rape culture in NZ is real, not realise the differences we face as male, female and transgender.

    Thank you for being so brave.

  7. Dianne Khan Dianne Khan says:

    Wonderful piece, Kelly. You offer a perspective not many can, and you share it, which not many would. You’re a good soul, reflective and intelligent, and a far better person that Mr Slater ever could wish to be. Kia kaha, you have my utmost respect.

  8. unsol says:

    White bike & red boots – how awesome! Oh how I would have loved to have seen the stir you caused – I too have spent a bit of time with petrol heads..,consider myself one too..and it was often with a male friend who was known to do things like go out & about in his homemade cat suit (he was obssessed with cat woman!)…..thankfully we were in a very cool supportive community so no one battered an eyelid.

    But it was clearly a very different experience for you so thank you Kelly for such an incredibly honest & courageous post.

    Sadly & unbelievably the Cameron Slaters of this world are the least of your worries – he at least is very obvious in his vile & cruel comments that show no empathy & seek to destroy ones spirit.

    The real hatred however, often comes from the quiet biggots – they may always be polite to your face, but often go with those who seek to deny you basic rights that are naturally afforded to them…just because they happen to fit within the confines of what they consider to be normal.

    It is sad & disillusioning that we have learned nothing from the difficulties Georgina Beyer faced years ago, that despite law changes society is in many ways still stuck in the dark ages.

    Our biggest issue is our tendency to put people in a box & crush them if they dare to step outside the lines of normalcy, if they dare to argue a point of difference. We are so quick to put labels on anyone who offers a dissenting view or take on life, who dares to be different. And sadly it is the people who need the support the most that get caught in the crossfire.

    Yet differences should be celebrated, we should be encouraging uniqueness.

    My only criticism would be that I think you are on the wrong side of the political spectrum! 😉

    • Unsol – “My only criticism would be that I think you are on the wrong side of the political spectrum! ”

      Believe it or not, Unsol, I think that’s a marvelous compliment to give Kelly.

      Good on you!

      • YogiBare says:

        I want people to talk to one another no matter what their difference of opinion might be. -Studs Terkel, author and broadcaster (1912-2008)

      • unsol says:

        Frnak – of course it’s a compliment, she is an amazing woman, a true inspiration & I wish everyone could see her value rather than just trying to mock her differences because they don’t understand them.

        Btw what the heck is going on with the down votes – is this blog being hijacked WO? Sure seems that way when I write a comment that differs to the main view offered on here (e.g. Whyte) & it gets less down votes than those who are opposing me.

        Seems a little juvenile as I doubt you guys spend all your time dredging through WO posts! Anyone would think they feel threatened….perhaps because the so-called stats aren’t what they seem! 🙂

        • Lara says:

          Yeah, I noticed that too.

          And only one comment, a very weird one, about building a road so Kelly should stop complaining.

          That’s the best they’ve got.

          It is such a forceful truthful piece. Her experience is amazingly insightful. Its so hard to argue against that kind of experience. I think WO readers just can’t come up with any response to it. So they just down vote it.

          I’ve only ever been over to WO a very few times, and I don’t stay long. The posts are… rambling and incoherent. And its bollocks. Nasty vile redneck vindictive negative stuff.

          There’s only so many showers in a day I’m prepared to take. I’d expect its the same for many other DB readers.

  9. raegun says:

    Slater and so many of his sycophants claim to be Christians, one wonders whatever happened to live and let live.

    • unsol says:

      Yes one has got to love these self-proclaimed Christians who are all about judgement & never about love, compassion, grace & empathy! 😉 They score in the double digits on Whale Oil that’s for sure.

      Ironically, by being so judgmental these types of people become complete hypocrites as they are disobeying what is in fact only 2 commandments: love thy neighbour & love thy God.

      So yep I too am inclined to think that Cameron is about as far from the Christian faith as one can get as his ridicule of Kelly, West Coasters or 10 year old boys or anyone else for that matter tells me that he does not seek to address issues from a good place, a place of humanity, of love.

      And genuine faith – whether Islam, Buddhist, Confucianist or Christian etc – just cannot exist if there is no love. It is that simple.

  10. Amy says:

    Slater is a dispicable cretin. He is totally offensive and rude and he means to be. He uses humor as a guise to demean. You are very brave being in the public eye, and sadly having to deal with horrible people like that.

    One of the things that I beleive we m-f tg people have is strength. Both physically and mentally. Physically, from an unfortunate biology – still take the good with the bad. And, mentally, from what we have to deal with every day. Tg people are amongst the most denigrated and marginalised members of society. We have lost friends and loved ones. We have moved forward and been true to ourselves. We have overcome insurmountable odds. Between 20-25% of us attempt suicide. Those most represented in these stats are those of us who, sadly, don’t have the support of their family.

    Being a woman is hard sometimes, being tg too. We live in a horrible patriarchy sometimes. I hide inside my liberal bubble of friends and loved ones quite happily. I spend time doing things I like, with people I like. I play music, I play dungeons and dragons, I enjoy the company of a lovely private club. Oh, and I fight bigots when I come across them. The most effective weapon is education I have found, and to educate it is important to be honest. I may not have a biological families support, but I do have friends who love and appreciate me. I have had a good education and have enjoyed working as a medical scientist.

    Oh. And I have the strength to stand up for myself and others. As do you.

  11. Kelly, I read your piece…

    Thank you. 🙂

  12. adam says:

    The hard right are always going to be spiteful and hateful. They can’t help themselves, they fell on their heads as children, and can’t accept their human like the rest of us.

    Being human with all our flaws, ruff points, and our fubar inclinations.

    Well written Ms Ellis, and good luck with your campaign.

  13. Dale says:

    The government is building a highway to you so stop your fukin moaning!

    • YogiBare says:

      Dale,
      This government would have us believe they are building a stairway to heaven for us all.
      I do hope your comment was just a poor attempt at humour for, if you were untouched by reading this honest article, I can only conclude that the generalisation “Adam” made is true in your case…
      “The hard right are always going to be spiteful and hateful. They can’t help themselves, they fell on their heads as children, and can’t accept their(sic…they’re) human like the rest of us.”

    • Amy says:

      I’m sorry Dale. Are we not being ‘good women’ and keeping our mouths shut as expected? Are you so deeply offended that some of us express an honest opinion?

    • Dale – not much thought went into your comment, did it?

    • Lara says:

      Yeah, because a piece of tarseal will eliminate all the threats of violence, actual violence, and discrimination a transgender person faces.

      Oh wait…

  14. raegun says:

    Come on all you down-thumbers. Write some of the same stuff you did on Slater’s article, come on I dare you too.
    Oh, not so brave now, eh?

    • unsol says:

      Or anything they said in all Slater’s many marriage equality posts…the kind of comments that will guarantee their admittance through the pearly gates….not.

      It is demoralising & sickening how vile some people are – I can understand & have empathy for those who have suffered terrible abuse growing up & saying & doing awful things, but when these abominable comments come from a spoiled, arrogant, uneducated cretin born with a silver spoon in his mouth – who reckons he has the right to pass judgment just because he feels his world view his superior, I get angry.

      There is just no excuse. He has no excuse. He should know better.

  15. Margo S Allen says:

    I have no idea how this blog came to be on my android phone, but I
    like the themes involved, even though I live in the USA and have no idea who the characters are or the conflict between them. But bravo to the statements and observation about sexism. Margo Allen

  16. Jenny says:

    I live with Chelle, she showed me this. I have never read anything that tells this story better. Thank you and kia kaha, you are not alone. Jenny

  17. […] Kelly Ellis guest posts at the Daily Blog, “GUEST BLOG: Kelly Ellis – Privilege Lost“: […]


 
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