Mon, 20 Mar 2017

On Identity, Politics and Identity Politics


I've been thinking a lot about identity all my life, and about identity politics more recently. I'm starting to fear a society carved up into smaller and smaller interest groups based on some aspect of identity. I feel this can only weaken societal cohesiveness and is detrimental to democracy.

As a transgender woman, I've thought a lot (even obsessed) about identity. For the last couple of years, my identity as a transgender person was always at the forefront. Lately, though, that has begun to recede as I've become more comfortable as a woman and the whole issue of gender identity has settled and faded into the background.

During my journey, I'd often find myself out of step with others in the trans community. My politics is hard to pin down; when it comes to economic policy, I'm basically a free-market capitalist, but also believe in the role of the state to provide basic human rights like health care and education, and to ensure that nobody lives in abject poverty.

On social issues, I'm feminist and liberal, though I do get nervous at state intervention in free speech in the name of creating safe environments. I believe free speech should be abridged only when there is a clear threat to safety; other than that, I don't think the government has any place in legislating against being an asshole and saying horrible things.

But most importantly, I'm not a single-issue voter. I don't just vote one way because I'm trans, or because I'm a woman, or (to take intersectionality to its logical conclusion) because I'm a Jewish Atheist South African Newfoundlander Engineer Transgender Woman. (A fine community of one.)

Every single one of the three main Canadian political parties has positions with which I agree, and every single one has other positions with which I disagree. I certainly wouldn't expect all transgender people to vote in lock-step because we're transgender and therefore we fit into a box of homogeneity and groupthink.

Which brings me to... why the heck am I writing this? Well, for the past year or so, I've been involved as an amateur in the Ottawa comedy scene, performing once or twice a month doing standup, improv and a tiny bit of sketch.

For Pride 2016, I was involved in a show with other LGBT people and we did a Pride-themed show. It was an amazing show... lots of fun and very well-received. And in the context of the Pride celebration, an LGBT show was absolutely appropriate.

After the pride show, the group more-or-less went dormant until recently, when it was resurrected as a group whose self-described mission is "Carving space for people who identify as LGBTQIA+ to express themselves through Improv and Comedy."

I didn't join the group. The people who are in the group are lovely people I love and respect, but I feel uncomfortable with the whole concept. The image of "Carving space" unintentionally plays into my feeling that identity politics is chopping up our society into tiny little self-interested pieces. And while I love stage time, I'd always wonder whether I was being given stage time because I am trans, or because I am funny.

I don't want stage time for any other reason other than being funny. If I'm not funny, don't give me stage time!

I'm also uncomfortable with the idea of comedy in a safe space. Comedy by its very nature is dangerous; the safer it is, the blander it becomes. Now I'm not offering this as an excuse for people to go out and be nasty, sexist, racist, homophobic, or whatever, but at the same time, if you go to a comedy show, don't be surprised if something offends you and don't try to build a world where nothing offensive can be said.

On International Women's Day 2017, I did a standup set at an amazing all-female show. It was a wonderful experience and again... the people were lovely, the show was well-received and it was a lot of fun. And echoing previous words, in the context of International Women's Day, an all-female show was completely appropriate.

There's also a monthly women-and non-binary only show I used to participate in. As a computer engineer, the "non-binary" part troubles me. (That was a joke, OK?) Lately, I've been troubled by the idea of the monthly women-and-non-binary-only show, especially as they deliberately include a "token" male. Do I get time on the show because I'm a woman? Or because I'm funny? And should we fight sexism by adopting a mirror-image pose, tokenism included?

I've decided that except for special occasions like Pride and International Women's Day which are annual celebrations of LGBT+ people and women respectively, or charity or other special-occasion shows, I will not perform in shows that restrict participation on the basis of identity. I want to be part of a community of comedians, not a community of LGBT+ comedians or a community of women comedians or whatever.

I don't want to carve a space for myself. I want to take up all the space. And if I'm not funny, I don't deserve any space at all.

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