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.