Though it’s become a fetish of the right, the great “Canadian waxing scandal” is too good to pass up.
For those who’ve missed it, British Columbia-based trans woman Jessica Yaniv has successively taken a group of beauty waxers to the province’s human rights commission after they refused to give her a Brazilian wax. Sixteen (cis) female beauticians have been taken to the BC HRC so far, and after featuring in Canadian meeja the case has raced around the world, being taken up as a stunning assault on our freedoms, slip the dogs of war, etc etc.
It isn’t of course. It’s an annoying, grandstanding case, more like the plot of a John Waters film than… (Rundle, remember to find second part of analogy before sending copy to editors). But it has not been without impact, with allegations that the HRC complaint has driven several of the immigrant beauticians out of business, and also suggestions that Yaniv has an online history of racist remarks.
But it’s often the most ridiculous cases that raise the standard, so to speak, and the Yaniv case, though scarce likely to be a precedent-setter, may be the harbinger of a series of confrontations around these issues won’t be able to be avoided for long. As the identity concept of gender becomes part of mainstream values, at least of certain social classes, the legal and cultural contradictions are going to mount up until a more complex rendering of sex and gender becomes inevitable.
Many in the progressive classes are desperate to avoid these questions, or the acknowledgement of contradictions, for fear of what sort of wider questions they open. For many progressives, the ’60s notion — that all claims to liberation from an inherited conservative order are valid — remains primary. As the 50th anniversary of Woodstock approaches, the Woodstock settings remain in place. That demand for continuity has started to produce absurdities in many areas — free speech, for example, where the right of one activist to call on us to “burn Australia down” is upheld, and that of another to preach old-skool fire and brimstone Christianity is to be banned.
But nothing is more likely to rule off the ’60s era more decisively than the sex/gender question, whose competing demands can now not be squared off (nor can the puns really be switched off).
The global sixties revolution was bodily, material and historical; joining “third world” (as then was) liberation to black power, women’s lib, gay lib struggles in the west. Such struggles have to be at least about the given body that is prior to consciousness. The materiality of freedom is what separates the left from the right. The classical liberal right believes that starving to death under the protection of the first amendment constitutes freedom and all that a society can strive for. The left believes that certain enabling conditions are necessary, and they are related to the needs that arise from embodiment.
Thus, in the US at the moment, low-income type 1 diabetics are dying — actually dying — from lack of insulin because the price of this easily manufactured chemical has been jacked up to a thousand dollars a month by its private providers. If you’re on the left, you believe, or should do, that this constitutes a crime against humanity. A classical liberal would see human embodiment as irrelevant to the question of freedom or right — for such, the citizen is essentially a subject, purely by speech and writing (including law or property).
It’s in that context that the legitimate demand of trans people to have the reality of their identity recognised has become the means by which the body has been “dematerialised” on the left. This has come about as a conjunction of historical factors: the shift from industrial to information/knowledge economies, and thus disembodiment of large numbers of people in everyday life; the class split between workers and the knowledge class, sundering the old left alliance; and the search for new heroic and transgressive narratives for the left, after substantial equalities — at least in principle — had been achieved.
Thus the shift from the argument that trans selfhood is real, to the wider argument that birth-given, embodied sex plays no factor in the social determination of “man” and “woman”.
This has already started to tie progressives up in knots. The huge battles in the UK between radical trans activists and radical feminists, drawing on materialist conceptions of sex, has seen veteran feminists physically assaulted by activists defined as trans women, but with the force/aggression capacity of a male body. Campaigns around violence against women have been stymied by an inability to talk plainly about the overwhelming ratio of violence that is male, and grounded in the particularity of the birth-given male body.
The access and “space-sovereignty” of women’s refuges, women’s health clinics, women’s prisons and many more institutions are all in question from a refusal to acknowledge a contradiction in progressive politics. The Victorian government — of course — is leading the way here, proposing one of the most blithely oversimplified laws on gender self-definition yet on offer.
Like all such laws, it will eventually put progressive governments on the wrong side: sooner or later, responsible workers at women’s spaces will have to refuse access to male-embodied persons, out of responsibility to its female-embodied clients, and as a judgement based on the particular character of bodies. The rather absurd Jessica Yaniv case will have its more real and urgent counterpart.
Nevertheless, such incidents will remain relatively uncommon. The real concern for the left remains the dematerialisation of politics. For if the body has no particularity in politics, the implicit drift of that politics will be to the liberal right in economic matters, and to denialism in terms of the biosphere crisis.
Without an insistence that we are specifically embodied, in numerous aspects, given by our being, and prior to self-consciousness and mental autonomy, there is no politics of what was once called radical human liberation, and is now simply human survival. The contradictions must be confronted. Or, to put it in exemplary gender-neutral terms, we simply have to have the balls to face it.