A Little Parable

About 25 years ago I was lucky enough to attend the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva, Switzerland. I was there with a small delegation from the Aboriginal Law Centre of the University of Saskatchewan, College of Law (Canada) where I was visiting as the Ariel F. Sallows Professor of Human Rights. While in Saskatchewan I became very much involved in international and local Indigenous issues. In Geneva I was with a few colleagues and students from Saskatchewan, as well as many other Indigenous people from Canada and allies from all over the world. It was a very large gathering of over 1000 people, almost all Indigenous. During the session (which was mainly devoted to drafting a document that would eventually become the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) a group of white South Afrikaners stood up and demanded to be included as “Indigenous people” from South Africa. There is no definition of “Indigenous” in the Declaration, and never has been. As one Indigenous colleague had once told me “we know who we are”. The Afrikaners reckoned they could be included. “Diversity and inclusion” right?

Everyone in the room got up and walked out – quietly, no fuss, no yelling – just walked out. It was a very warm sunny day, and we all congregated in the plaza outside waiting for the Afrikaners to finish their statement, at which point they were very politely told “no”, and left. Then we all went back in and continued our discussions. White South Africans might be Indigenous to somewhere – Afrikaners or Boers are mostly Dutch, British are from the UK – and there are also many people whose families were brought as slaves from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), and Madagascar, as well as from India, brought into South Africa by the British during the 19th century. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Africa#British_colonisation_and_the_Great_Trek) Mahatma Gandhi was originally an Indian South African. But he was not Indigenous to South Africa, nor are others descended from colonists, migrants and slaves from Europe, Asia or even possibly other parts of Africa. The idea of who is “indigenous” to Africa more generally is very complex. It’s true that at least parts of the Natal and Transvaal colonies in the northeast of South Africa appeared to be empty of African peoples when the Boers moved into them in the early 19th century. They were quickly challenged by Zulu and Xhosa coming from the north and east. The original inhabitants of South Africa are  the Khoikhoi and San peoples, who appear to be descendants of people who have lived in southern Africa for as long as 170,000 years. First arrived (so you claim, or even as it might appear) does not necessarily make you Indigenous to the land you appropriate.

Neither does a claim of genetic inheritance, or blood line. So-called “Métis” who live in Quebec or Atlantic Canada, and who claim an Indigenous ancestor from hundreds of years ago, are not recognized as genuinely Métis or Indigenous by other established nations in the region. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%A9tis) Same with Native American wannabes with a little bit of Cherokee somewhere in their bloodline. Indigenous is much, much more than bloodlines, however close or distant, although having recent and ongoing family relationships is obviously important as an aspect of being Indigenous. It’s not about occupation of land, although attachment to land is a big part of it. It’s not a “feeling” or an “idea” in your head – “I feel like being Indigenous” or “I think I really am Indigenous” doesn’t cut it. Nor is it about well-intentioned efforts to “learn” about being Indigenous by reading books and going “wow, that shamanism stuff looks incredible” and then making claims that this, or other aspects of Indigenous culture, are somehow universally human and therefore free to steal at will because we’re all kind of “indigenous” right? I don’t really know what being Indigenous is in any real sense, because I’m not one. (The closest I get is Pictish from northeastern Scotland).

What I do know is that being Indigenous is not an “identity”. It’s not a matter of individual choice. Neither is being Black, or Asian, or having brown skin. Neither is having a disability, or aging, or being a child, or (mostly) being gay, or (sometimes) being transsexual. You might gain abilities or find solutions to solve a disability issue. You might grow out of being young (hopefully). Eventually, everyone (if you’re lucky) gets old, and everyone definitely dies. If you have a severe case of “gender dysphoria” (a feeling of discomfort with your gender as it aligns with your physical body as determined by biological sex) altering your outward appearance and physical body to mirror the opposite sex might be the only way you can live a comfortable life. This might be characterized as a choice, but for a few people the discomfort is so severe that “choice” becomes less relevant. For the vast majority of people, including most “transgender” people, gender might be an “identity”. For most people claiming to be transgender, it really does seem to be a matter of personal choice. Most transgender people do not suffer from gender dysphoria, and the majority of those transitioning from male to “transwomen” (but not necessarily female to “transmen”) do not make many, or any, physical changes to conform to their “gender identity” or “gender expression”.

Gender, for most people, operates as a social constraint attached to biological sex that is extremely difficult to change or challenge. It is the social mechanism which differentiates between how biological males are treated differently, or what is expected of them, in any given culture from biological females. From a feminist perspective, gender is a social structure which is based on dominance (male) and subservience (female), although how all this works is very complex and can differ radically between cultures and over time. Gender non-conformity can be a choice, and can be a very good thing. Feminists have been challenging gender conformity for hundreds of years. Challenging gender stereotypes and restrictions is a necessary part of the struggle to overcome discrimination based on sex.

But, no one is “born in the wrong body”, just like no one is born with the wrong skin colour, or the wrong cultural ancestry. As for being male or female, your body develops in one of two directions from soon after conception by biological sex, not gender. So at birth, you are who you are – female or male. A tiny minority of people are born with, or develop as they mature, sexual characteristics that are slightly different from the usual. The percentage of “intersex” people is very small – about 0.015% of the human population. Even in these cases, individuals are still either male or female. The chromosomal irregularities can create infertility and other physical problems. It is perfectly normal for a dimorphic system, such as biological sex, to have a small percentage of differences among individuals. This does not mean biological sex is a “spectrum”, no more than the small percentage of people with more or less than 10 fingers and 10 toes means there is a digital “spectrum”.

Biological sex, and the gendered expectations attached to sex, can determine whether you are lucky enough to be born at all, which many female babies never get to be because of female sex selective abortion. Sex is not “assigned” at birth, like a “sorting hat” assigns which house you belong to in “Harry Potter”. It is not an arbitrary administrative choice made by the attending obstetrician or some bureaucratic functionary. Sex develops naturally from a few weeks after conception with the presence of testerone (male), or later, estrogen and progesterone (female). Gender kicks in the moment sex is detected, not before. Gender identity solidifies, and might (with difficulty) be changed after birth – usually long after. Mostly, not at all.

But sex is another one of those things that is not a choice. Absolutely and forever not a choice. It’s not an identity. It’s not the same as gender. We’re either male or female from soon after conception. A baby’s sex can be identified while still in the womb. You can wrap your little darling in a pink or a blue (or a yellow or a pastel lavender) blanket, and he will stay a he, and she will stay a she, for the rest of their lives regardless of gender, or sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, or pretty much anything else, including medical intervention. Indeed, sex can be detected from DNA samples from humans and many other species thousands of years after the individual has died. Sex is not a class, or a preference, or an orientation, or a group. Its not on any spectrum. Sex defines which of two halves of the human race you will be a part of – the half that is female or the half that is male. Not all females can give birth to another human, but no male can give birth at all, ever. All humans born today, or born tens of thousands of years ago, entered this world out of a woman’s body, because nine or so months earlier, that woman had sex with a man, and one of his sperm successfully fertilized her egg. That’s it. Very simple.

To be a woman is to be an adult human female. It is also to grow up as female with all the gender stereotypes and restrictions and strengths and positive aspects, whatever those might be, that girls grow up with in every culture on Earth. All these aspects of gender, positive and negative, change over time and from place to place. Sex does not. To be a man is to be an adult human male who has grown up with all the gender stereotypes, positive and negative, that cultures over time allow him. We currently live in an intensely patriarchal society in which men reap many benefits not available to women. Feminists are trying to change that. Many men also see that their own situation is not so great, and some of those are also trying to change things for the better. Some men and women think changing their sexed appearance, or their “gender”, somehow solves these problems, for them at least. But it solves nothing for women and men more generally. Transgender ideology simply reinforces gender stereotypes and claims those stereotypes are a replacement for biological sex, which is impossible.

So, being Black, or brown, or Indigenous, like being a man or a woman, are not choices anyone gets to make. They’re not feelings or ideas. They’re collections of thousands of years of both biological and cultural development, specific to time and space. Of course people migrate, as Africans have done for hundreds of thousands of years or, more recently, were forced to do as slaves. But African migrants are not Indigenous to Canada, or the US, or the UK, or the Caribbean, nor do they claim to be. White Afrikaners are not Indigenous to South Africa. Their claim to be Indigenous is like transgender “women” claiming to be actual women, somehow on a par with or even superior to “cis” or “born” women. None of these claims are choices people get to make.

Men – you can wear whatever feminine gender costume or performance you want – you are still a man. You can alter your hormones and genitals to masquerade or pass as female – you are still a man. You are not “Indigenous” to the female sex. You do not get to speak for women. You do not get to identify as women. The same is true for women transitioning to male, although there the political, social and personal dynamics are very different. “Cis” is a made-up word to create a false equivalence between women and men who are biologically female or male, from those who call themselves “trans” – the tiny minority of people pretending to be, however sincerely or insincerely, to be something they are not.

Most “trans” know they are not who they claim to be. Some (and I salute you!) are honest about it. Many are not. Many “trans” allies and transgender activists appear to be disingenuous opportunists, riding the current fad, including far too many “feminists”. Just like white people do not get to speak for Black people whether male, female or even transsexual. Just like straight people do not get to speak for lesbians, gay men and bi-sexuals. Transwomen and men, claiming to be something they’re not (and most know they’re not) are in fact colonizers of the new frontier located in human bodies and minds; propagandists for billionaires in the medical, pharmaceutical, technology, and cosmetic surgery industries with a very capitalist agenda; cancel culture warriors and academics who think this is the cutting edge of critical thinking. Like those Afrikaners in Geneva putting on a show no one believed – not even them.

13Linda Beacham, Willow Aster and 11 others4 CommentsLikeCommentShare

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