Another story about what can happen when assumptions about gender collide–you have probably heard about this already, that a transgendered woman was denied emergency medical care in Muncie, Indiana precisely because she is transgendered. That is to say, the hospital staff actually told her that they could not treat her “condition.” However, by “condition” they were not referring to the medical emergency she was presenting with; she had to ask, though, for clarification, and, no, they would not give her medical care because she was transgendered. What she came in for had nothing to do with gender–or at least not in any direct way that I can imagine off the top of my head, and I doubt they had anything in mind either–but they refused to treat her because of who she was, not because they were incapable of helping her with her presenting symptoms.
Go. Read about it. Do whatever you think you can do to bring some rationality to the situation. Then come back here and find out why going directly there and “kicking ass,” while a perfectly understandable wish if you were brought up on the American cowboy myth, would not help anything. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Well, no I won’t. I’ll write this and then some time after that maybe you’ll read it. All three of you.
When you get here, though, tell me something truthfully: did you think that if you had been in her situation there would have been hell to pay? It seems like a sympathetic enough reaction, does it not, to think that you are so enraged by what happened to her that you would, if you could, search heaven, hell and earth for these hospital personnel and teach them a thing or three? But, of course, you cannot do that, for a number of practical reasons and nevermind the criminal charges you would face if you actually did open a can of whoop-ass on the Emergency Room staff at Ball Memorial Hospital.
So what will you do?
To think about this at all occurred to me because in another webspace that I will not name because it could be anywhere there are being registered some heated responses from transgendered women to just such proclamations of heroic will as uttered by some outraged parties who, so far, have not revealed whether they themselves have any experience living as a person who confounds gendered expectations at various levels in various venues. Nor is it clear whether these would-be warriors have any experience incurring the confusion and anger of anyone whose comfort levels are taxed when confronted by people who are not heteronormative in gender expression or sexual orientation, or who are not race-normative in the racialized ways in which we usually weigh such questions, or who are not completely conforming to some other perceived standard of normality in North American culture.
Why does it matter? Why would anyone not be pleased to have as many people fighting on their side as possible? What could possibly be wrong with wanting to avenge wrongs that you see as outrageous, that might happen to someone you know, and that you vehemently abhor, even though they probably never would happen to you?
It almost seems ungrateful of those for whom you would fight, does it not?
I got to thinking about this, about why statements like “Dammit if I had been there I woulda read them the riot act and demanded that they treat these people with the dignity that they deserve!” might rankle or irritate anyone on whose behalf, by extension, they might have been made. Because I have certainly thought this to myself at times: “Nobody would have gotten away with that with me!” even though they have and I have been in situations where keeping my head low was actually probably the single most advisable act in the interests of self-preservation. But so here is what I have come up with:
Well, for one, there are situations in which keeping your head low might save your life. That is, if you are not completely “normal” in appearance or, on further inspection, in some detail of your identity that is open to scrutiny by anyone with a modicum of power, what you probably know on a gut level and in a way that a “normally”-presenting person might not have experienced, is that there is safety in numbers. And by that I don’t mean that we who have been disenfranchised at some point or another need to travel with small armies–although the picture is amusing, sort of. What I mean to underscore is that, in order even to think to yourself that you would have kicked some ass in that situation means that you probably are assuming that in that situation your only foe would have been, say, the clerk behind the desk, or the nurse, or the doctor. But give this some thought: if you move through the world as “average” and your appearance does not have the power to upset entire institutions, then it is probably relatively easy to envision a world in which, because moral certainty is on your side, so will be the forces of power around you, and so in any given situation it should be relatively safe and easy to dispatch the offending parties and get on with business.
Do you get my drift? Imagine that you are in a hospital emergency room with what could be a life-threatening condition, and you are suddenly aware that you may be the only person like yourself within, oh, fifty miles–it’s unlikely, actually, but it might the perception of those with whom you are about to tangle: that you are essentially alone. And you are also aware that you present in some way that often throws “average” people, some more than others, into various states of uncomfortableness–sometimes to the point, even, of murderous rage. I mean, you’ve possibly had a friend assaulted or killed as a consequence of such discomfort, or at the least verbally harassed, and maybe you have been in situations where you could see that, as much as other people nearby might not care that much about who you are, they damned sure aren’t going to risk their necks to intervene if you get into trouble because you are not like them. Whether that trouble is slow and sneering paperwork or screams of “dyke!” or “faggot!” or the denial of life-saving medicine or the administering of a beating or shooting, nobody nearby is going to have your back.
Or maybe you have one or two friends or family with you. But that’s it. Every single other person within probable summoning distance either does not like you already or just does not give a flip and no way would they go out of their way for you, someone who had the temerity to show up here as one kind of freak or another.
How much ass are you kicking now?
Now, in the webquarrel mentioned above, I do not know the precise motivations of everyone in the conversation. But I wanted to consider what they might be using my own experiences–like the many times I have been intimidated by long lines of seemingly mild, middle-aged women because I needed to use the same restroom that they were in line for but they could not easily gauge whether I was in the “right” bathroom or not. You wouldn’t think that a horde of middle-aged women could seem intimidating, but when you are one and they are many, they are. Really, there we all are just needing to pee, perhaps all of us at our most vulnerable, but somehow just by looking at me all these strangers are making it clear that they will fight, together, to keep me from making them feel any more vulnerable than they already do. Of course, I am no real threat, but in moments like these there really was little I could have done to comfort those around me other than flash them my tits. Honestly, though, I think that would have made things worse.
See I think that it is probably relatively easy to think that one would have stood up for the rights of the downtrodden in a given situation if one is relatively used to being one of the majority in some way or another, if, say, one could imagine that most of the people around them would come to their aid in the case of some breach of ethics being committed against one, or one’s friends. But feeling like that–like you are so obviously in the right that you could single-handedly raise enough power to fight whole hospital administrations on a moment’s notice–may well a by-product of being unable to conceive of a situation in which virtually everyone around you was either already your enemy or couldn’t be bothered to help you against those who were.
It is probably nice to feel that most people would back you up, would fight on your behalf, would not stand for injustices done to you. But if ever you had faced a time when it was clear that you were the only force for what you saw as “good” and there were plenty of powerful people arrayed around you who were not on your side in any meaningful way, you might understand the laughability of the phrase “I woulda kicked ass and taken names!” The world does not work like that. Institutions of power do not work like that. You can call your armies all day and night long, but, ultimately, the power does not rest with you unless you are, to all appearances, “normal” or “average”–and you may be asked to prove your normality with the right documentation if something seems amiss.
Thing is, I suspect that there are many who move through this life without ever perceiving that they are not in the majority, that they could be in a situation of discrimination where, effectively, nobody was an ally. So I think it might look presumptive to announce one’s intentions to clean up the place, “if you had been there”: presumptive of a share in the majority ideal of what is right and presumptive that the power of one’s personal ethics lies in their being also the ethics of those who wield actual power in most conceivable situations.
The question might arise as to, well, what should you do then? Given my current feeling of utter pessimism about the workings of power in the US and global economies, I am tempted to throw up my hands and say fuck if I know. I will float a suggestion, though: work with those for whom you would have fought if you had been there. Nobody knows what they need as well as they do, and nobody else is going to translate this knowledge into the action that would meet those needs. You are on the internet, unless some very strange beast printed this out and handed it to you. Look up this story, and see who has lined up against the reprehensible behavior of the hospital. Think about throwing your lot in with them in terms of time or money or, if it is all you can manage, a signature on a petition or ten. I have no idea if any of this will ever get us anywhere, but I am fairly certain that individual heroism, the worship of which has been partially responsible for getting us into the various messes we are in, is not going to help. And you are looking to help, right?
2 thoughts on “Just kick some ass and everything will be fine.”
I came to this from a different place than some of the responders, remember. I had a brother who was a hemophiliac and who died of AIDS. In the early days (and I’m sure you know what I mean) I went with him to a hospital and watched as people went from helpful to barely speaking and certainly not wanting to touch him. This kind of brought back all those memories. Your message here is actually very useful. Threatening to go in and – as you say, open a can of whup-ass – or even doing so, is not very helpful. I would like to see all of those who took part in what happened at the ER fired, quickly. And I would like for the new hires to be people who have some kind of sensitivity training. However, I do not hold out any great hope.
I remember those times all to well, yes–the helpless rage we all felt as we watched established medical institutions basically ignoring the fact that people were dying left and right. And I sure do remember wanting to kick ass then, but being so unable to that it was hard to know what to do.
Rage is useful, I think, and powerful, but I think especially in our culture there may be a general lack of understanding that rage cannot act alone or it will be crushed as surely as if it were meek obedience. But it may be possible to harbor the illusion that one’s individual rage is effective when in fact it is simply not offensive to established power. I think probably you know, having lived through the early days of the AIDS epidemic, that it took a tremendous sacrifice by a tremendous number of people to break the silence. That experience–and others–taught me quite a bit about where power lies and where it does not.