Friday, January 3, 2014

Chelsea and Me

It's humbling to discover that you're not as righteous as you thought you were.  Not that this is the first time for me to discover that.  But the past 24 hours have certainly been one of those occasions in life, and I thought I'd share a little bit about that, in case that might be useful for anyone.

When my hero became my heroine and proclaimed that her name was now Chelsea and that she now wanted people to use the female pronoun, she gained a new support base.  Of course she had some trans supporters before she made this public announcement -- people don't fit into neat little boxes, and there's lots of crossover in so many aspects of life, including political activism.  But Chelsea gained many wonderful, vocal new supporters in the trans community around the world, and sometimes when they encounter some of Chelsea's non-trans supporters, perhaps particularly in generally alienating (I find) online social environments like Facebook, they often seem to encounter some spoken or unspoken version of the question, "well where were you before?"

I'm so sorry it took me so long to clearly answer that question for myself.  Where were they before?  Well, of course some of them were campaigning on behalf of Chelsea Manning, before she announced she was Chelsea.  And all of them -- whether campaigning for Chelsea then, now, or never -- were busy being members of one of the most marginalized, misunderstood, ostracized, attacked, murdered group of people on planet Earth.

And then, as people who already have to deal with life in a decidedly heterosexist world, when members of this community or people speaking in their support do something like ask me why I haven't re-recorded the song I wrote about Chelsea, I have responded in various ways.  Sometimes I say I haven't gotten around to it yet, or I can't afford the studio time to do it right.  Sometimes, if someone presses the issue at all, I have reacted with defensiveness, with an attitude that said, "this isn't important."  I have reacted in ways that could perhaps be characterized as derisive.  And when other people have spoken up in my defense there on social media, I have sat by and not bothered condemning comments that were even more dismissive or derisive than mine.

Leaving aside the practicalities of booking recording studios, hiring web designers, etc., the important point is that if people from a given community say something is hurtful or offensive to them, it probably is because you are doing something that is hurtful or offensive, and this is equally true whether or not you understand why it is thus.  And if the hurt, offended party reacts in a way that is less than polite about it, this is perfectly understandable.  And the rest of us need to cut them slack, and try to understand why they might feel that way, and examine our own behavior and see if we can do something about it.

In my own little life, there are a few things I plan on doing.  One is thinking a bit more about what it's like to be trans in this intolerant world.  Another is calling other people out on the dismissive language (and worse) that is rife on Facebook and elsewhere when it comes to discussions on this subject.  And another is re-recording the vocal track to the studio version of the song I wrote about her, which I'll be doing on Tuesday at Big Red Studio.  (Go to and click the "donate" button, or become a subscriber if you want to help me cover the cost of doing that.)

Re-recording the iPhone version was quick and easy (see the top of this post) and I should have done that the day Chelsea Manning announced she was Chelsea Manning.  Better late than never, I hope.


John Fabiani said...

Excellent points.

If you care to read about Wendy Carlos's non-musical experience:



Seemed related kinda.

Douglas Carnall said...

The sentiments you express in your post are very just and caring toward an oppressed minority, and thus admirable.

But it's a bit disconcerting--and not in accord with my own memory of events--to name the person who originally released the Iraq war logs as a woman called Chelsea.

Gigging, as you do, at "radical venues" I understand the pressures that might lead you to perform this version. But
it's one thing to recognise someone's current choice of identity, and another to say it was ever thus. That would have, ironically a strong Orwellian overtone of rewriting history. Bradley has always been a woman called Chelsea! And two plus two equals five!

By all means take up the artistic cudgel for the horrid oppression that trans people constantly face, but I personally don't think making the historical truth a casualty necessarily helps that cause.

David Rovics said...

the thing is, douglas, that in the trans community, from what i have learned recently, people generally think of themselves as having always been their "new" gender. so, assuming chelsea feels the same way as most trans people apparently do, she has always been chelsea. it was the media and oppressive social programming, etc., that thought, mistakenly, otherwise. so it's not so much rewriting history, as righting it.

Douglas Carnall said...

trans people generally think of themselves as having always been their "new" gender

Yes, I'm familiar with that kind of thinking, was aware that my comment would be controversial, and nevertheless wrote it!