Jamison Green, 2005
As an opinion columnist, I have the sometimes uncomfortable responsibility of taking on unpleasant topics. I also have the distinct privilege of being able to do so in a way that takes on some significance, meaning (at least some) people will read what I write, and with this comes an additional level of responsibility to journalistic integrity. I know that Transgression.com has experienced some controversy recently. In fact, I received a few pieces of email enjoining me not to write for these pages and to remove my name from the list of contributors, but since I had not contributed anything before, and since I was unfamiliar with the points at issue, I thought I ought to check the situation out for myself rather than simply shrink from the controversy. I decided to contribute at least this one article in which I will put forth my thinking on the matter.
Far be it from me to tell the trans people of Ontario (or anywhere, for that matter) what to think or how to feel – that is not my purpose. I confess, I do not know Joëlle, or anyone she has written about, nor do I have access to anyone’s inner motives. I do know Nancy Nangeroni, another contributor to these pages who has recently disassociated herself from Transgression.com, and while I have great respect for her, she and I don’t always agree on everything (which is not to say we don’t agree on the matter at hand!). As I explore this topic, I can only write what I think based on what I have observed or experienced myself, tempered with the awareness that the purpose behind my writing is to encourage people to examine their own thoughts, their own processes, their own convictions. This piece is intended as a catalyst, and it is offered to readers as a touchstone, not as a declaration, tract, or instruction. It is intended to serve, not to impose or to judge.
There are several things that I stand firmly against in the world of journalistic expression. In alphabetical order, these are: censorship, deception, exploitation, manipulation, and lack of attribution of facts. These things, to me, are intolerable. And then there is just plain sloppy writing and editorial work, which is irritating but forgivable so long as there is an intention to learn and improve. I am not going to rehash what transpired since Joëlle’s original publication of “Acceptable Losses,” but I will say I don’t think the piece was acceptable journalism, and I disagree with her take on public funding for transsexual treatment. I will also say that I don’t think it is right to try to prohibit her from exploring and expressing her own thoughts.
In her piece, “Acceptable Losses,” I think Joëlle raises some serious issues that we as a community really ought to be looking at. I also think she was wrong to publish her taped interviews, in spite of the fact that audio and flash files certainly make for entertaining web material. I think Joëlle is torn between two consuming purposes in her work on Transgression.com: on the one hand, she wants to support the exchange of controversial ideas, and on the other hand, she wants to create a technologically engaging “place” on the net, and while she focuses on any one side of that equation, she shortchanges the other side. This is a natural consequence of being a one-woman shop; it’s bound to happen. It’s not the worst thing to ever occur in the annals of trans journalism. The Internet has created entirely new kind of publishing environment, one that we can watch develop as if we were staring at a building construction worksite through a knothole in a wooden fence. But it’s different, too, because we can’t place it in physical space. We don’t know how big it is or where it goes in cyberspace, so we often imagine things we see on the net to be much more influential or important than they really are.
Transgression.com is a work in progress, sort of like a high-end blog, and because it requires a subscription to view the content, I don’t think transgression.com or Joëlle’s writing is a major threat to the transsexual community. Its exposure is really quite limited in the great scheme of things. Joëlle does her subscribers a service, though, by offering them a chance to watch her creation in progress and to contribute to it in ways that we were never able to do from the other side of those wooden fences. Transgression.com is not the CBC, and it is not a magazine that anyone can browse through on the shelves at any local bookstore (or even through any browser). Nothing that is exchanged on these pages is going to have an impact on the public understanding or opinion of transsexualism or transgender expression, nor will it influence public policymakers.
“Acceptable Losses” audio tapes included information that could expose the identity of the subject, even when Joëlle uses a pseudonym for her in the written text. This kind of inconsistency and lack of editorial follow-through, along with way too many typographical errors throughout the site, indicate that transgression.com is not really a very professional effort. A great deal of the response to the piece (and what was presented as “editorial exchange”) that I was able to see on the site reflected even worse values. Name-calling and personal attacks, whether generated by readers or editors, are not representative of reasoned, responsible critical dialog or ethical journalism, and would not earn collegial respect in the wider world of publishing. But that doesn’t mean the site isn’t worth working on or that the ideas that might be explored here are not worthy of our community’s time and attention.
The ideas that some people suffer tremendous losses as a result of going through a transsexual process, and that some people do lie about their medical history in order to get treatment, are ones that certainly do need to be discussed. Personal stories can make for very effective journalism, and can bring home sharp points that more academic writing might make dull. But just exposing someone and asserting this as proof that the clinics don’t always do a good job is not enough. We know there are problems with CAMH. We know there are people who get treatment who are not helped by it, and we know there are people who are denied treatment who might be better off with it or without it. This entire topic of diagnosis is a minefield, littered with philosophical, emotional, and ideological debris. There is no point in denying it, and there is no point in trying to evade the issues. “Acceptable Losses” tries to approach these topics, and that is a brave thing. These topics DO need to be explored; just because “Acceptable Losses,” as presented, doesn’t do it in the most productive way doesn’t mean it’s all worthless.
The idea that paying for your surgery yourself makes a more successful transsexual is one that has come and gone numerous times over the last few decades. The argument, in various forms, has come from primarily “fiscally conservative” proponents who like to have people “prove” their worthiness and “hoist themselves up by their bootstraps” because that’s the way they did it, don’tcha know. I disagree with the philosophy in this case because it unreasonably disadvantages people who do not have economic privilege, and we all know that economic privilege does not determine who is a transsexual person, or who would be well served by transsexual treatment. If it is, indeed, a “fact” that patients of private clinics are more successful than patients of publicly-funded clinics, it could conceivably have a lot more to say about the ideological agenda or the practice methodologies of the of the public clinics than it does about the patients themselves. This is something that I would like to see discussed in a community forum that can discipline itself away from internal abuse and hatred as a discursive practice.
This may very well be the last piece Joëlle invites me to write for Transgression.com. If so, I will understand and offer my heartfelt good wishes for the future of Canada’s (and the entire world’s) transgender and transsexual community, a community in which creative expression and ethical journalism may yet find common ground, if given half a chance. Efforts to build community are not always smooth or easy, but giving up on them would be an unacceptable loss for all of us.