Friday, June 05, 2015

Categorising Ourselves And its Price

The recent controversy surrounding Caitlyn Jenner's coming out as a transsexual has brought up some extremely important issues in human interactions in general for me. A good friend posted an article by Nuridden Knight looking at a comparison of the issues body image and self love for black people and for transsexuals. I personally would not have made those comparisons, but then I am about as WASP as they come in terms of my externals and have always enjoyed the benefits of belonging, at least as far as surface characteristics apply, to the privileged class in this world. I think that she has made some excellent points in this article and the viewpoint interests me because I have never been able to view the world as black/white even with shades in between because I was raised to believe that the colour of a person's skin was one of the least important attributes of that person. It was an issue that was never brought up in our family, although we had very few friends who were persons of any sort of colour other than vaguely pink partly due to my father's job as a Navy scientist (this was in the 50's and 60's) and partly due to where we lived. But considerations of colour or ethnicity were also not applied to Hispanic families in our area either and to even parrot a word of discrimination was to bring the wrath of the parental units on us.

My first boyfriend when I was growing up was of mixed race and ethnicity and it was a massive shock to me to encounter people's animosity to us as a couple in the early 60's. I moved to Canada in my early 20's where "black" people were from the Caribbean for the most part and very different in culture from the "black" people that I'd known in the US, which to me validated my parents' teaching. After all, how could the attributes of "black" people be so different if they were determined by skin colour? My late husband was Egyptian/Sudanese and the reactions of people in Louisiana to him when we visited New Orleans in the 70's was at once hilarious and horrifying. He was sporting a fairly impressive afro and was pretty dark from a lot of time in the sun, but as the nephew of the first president of Sudan he had no preset option for being of a lesser status due to the colour of his skin or the curl of his hair, and people we encountered, who on seeing him initially as "black", generally were very taken aback at his complete ignoring of that category in his interactions with them. Happily, he was a charming individual and things never got difficult, although it was extremely unsettling to a lot of people there in Louisiana. So the binary of "black" versus "white", while as a couple we probably exemplified it, was simply not workable.

I've always felt that while we see sex as being a are either a man OR a isn't really. That word "or" is a dangerous one. While working in Vancouver as a cocktail waitress to put myself through university, I was lucky enough to meet a number of transsexual individuals who while they might look like a man or a woman externally definitely gave off the "opposing" vibes, but how opposing were they in reality? As I grew older I realised that just as one's personal mannerisms were not a binary, neither were one's sexual preferences. For women sliding across sexual preferences can be easier than for men. After all, as mothers we are as loving to our sons as to our daughters, or at least we should be. It is quite natural to us to hug other women to comfort them as it is to hug men, and the division between simple interpersonal caring and loving sexual behaviour isn't a fence but a pasture or sometimes a forest.

Perhaps because men have not been so much a part of the parenting/nurturing culture in western society, it is easier to see their sexuality as binary, but it is also a continuum...or there wouldn't be so many strong male bonds. Despite being married and having children, I know that I have characteristics that might be labeled as male, and here in the villages of Egypt, I have indeed been called a "man" as a compliment (which I find rather odd and sometimes uncomfortable) because I am happy to be living on my own, running my farm, and taking responsibility for my people...and because I don't scare easily or back away from a confrontation when I feel I'm right. But is that really the behaviour of a "man" or is it the behaviour of someone who is simply certain in my own role, responsibility and power within my community and family? As well, I've been blessed with many nurturing, gentle male are they womanly or even, gasp! gay? Not at all. They are, however, more complex and interesting individuals than those who block away that aspect of the personality.

Life is so much simpler and less taxing to us when we categorise our world into little boxes, but in reality we dribble outside those boxes all the time. Living without our category boxes is infinitely more work. We actually have to pay attention to the individuals with whom we are interacting and see them in their glorious complexity. This takes time that modern society and human laziness often would like to avoid, so we categorise them. But what happens when we don't avoid the reality? Our world is so much larger and full of possibility and promise. With my work with our veterinary/farming charity that operates out of my farm, I have gotten to know the villagers, both men and women, as well as their children, as individuals rather than as inhabitants of that large box of "fellahin". There are those with whom I really enjoy spending time, others that I could cheerfully toss into the nearest canal because they refuse to open their eyes and ears to new ways of caring for their animals and families...but this is to be expected. Not all humans, dogs, birds, horses, or cats are enjoyable companions for every individual, and there is usually someone who likes the individuals that I do not like.

Looking at the question of how we accept the variety of individuals in our world whether it be through the lens of colour, sexuality, sex, gender, or social class clarifies the same issues at stake here in Egypt with the tendency of many to divide Egypt into social classes. We have the wealthy, theoretically educated (since they have financial and social access to "good" schools) and we have the poor and uneducated who have been told that they cannot be judges because their father was a farmer or trash collector. "City" people ascribe attributes to "country" people that don't necessarily fit in the actuality of individuals in these categories. And the opposite is also true. "Secular" people ascribe attributes to "religious" people that are equally without a good fit. Recently I've had groups of women who wear niqab bring their children out to the farm because my staff (who are mostly men other than myself and my housekeeper) are considerate and will stay away from the garden so that the women can enjoy the air without the black veil that they choose to wear in public...and they are well-read, well-travelled, interesting, questioning women, fascinating to talk to and very enjoyable as companions. Once you lose the category of Darth Vader clones, they are marvelous people. I do not necessarily agree with all that they believe but I do find them to be people with whom I am happy to spend some of my time, and I feel that I have been enriched by this interaction. The important point here is to appreciate the differences and enjoy them rather than to block because of them.

In her article, Nurredin Knight talks about learning to love herself as a black woman and accepting her entire being as what she is and what she should be. She questions whether sexual reassignment surgery is such a good idea. Wouldn't it be better just to accept on a societal level that just as there are people of different heights, weights, colours, athletic abilities and so on, there are also people of different aspects of sexuality and gender? When my children were young, one of their favourite books was called Leo The Lop and it was about a rabbit who had floppy ears who felt that somehow he wasn't normal because his ears didn't stand up like other rabbits. This is, of course, an oversimplification of a massive issue that touches every aspect of human endeavour. What is "normal" anyway? Much of the sectarian strife in the Middle East is rooted in the idea that there is only one "normal", just as sectarian issues in North America, while not necessarily expressed in religious terms, are also. One group can not decide that it is "normal" but no one else is. In this world, we need to lose the categories, all of them, and look at people as individuals who are individually kind, productive, inclusive, and honest...or they are not. And individually as people they should be part of our lives...or not.

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

June 5, 2015