Banging my head against a wall

By , April 29, 2010 12:37 am

Pretend you can see my dad!

My father marched at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He went to Washington to see Dr. King speak. His work as a defense attorney has helped demonstrate the unjustness of the death penalty and his was one of the cases referenced by Gov. Ryan when he issued a moratorium against capital punishment. In my mind, I still sometimes imagine my dad like I did when I was ten: the Good Lawyer protecting the innocent from Evil Cops, fighting for Civil Rights and Other Important Issues Warranting Capitalization.

Life rarely that simple. Family certainly isn’t.

There was a slowly dawning sense of discomfort during my teenage years, as I started to notice the times my dad would talk about clients he knew were guilty but would receive reduced sentences based on police misconduct. Now, to be perfectly clear, I think police misconduct is almost always a greater societal problem than the guilty person getting a break. Better ten guilty men go free, and all that. I still believe my dad is one of the Good Guys, and that even the guiltiest among us deserves fair and competent counsel. But my dad is also a more nuanced and complicated individual than I as able to acknowledge as a child.

Still, I sometimes expect him to see all civil rights and justice issues the way I do. Which made speaking with him tonight something like banging my head against a wall. The discussion began, as so many do, with talk of breasts.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my post on being topless while trans. The more I consider the idea of intentionally getting a ticket to call attention to the stupidity and inconsistency of attempting to legislate gender, the more I like the idea. At the same time, I really don’t want to go to jail: trans women have a tendency to not be treated well by the criminal justice system. Even though I’m usually perceived as a woman, I don’t – to put it bluntly – want to risk being raped and killed for what is admittedly a minor civil rights issue.

So I called my dad, like I do whenever I have a legal question. I explained my train of thought, and how I didn’t want to get raped or killed. I asked him how likely I would be to get arrested. He thought the answer was “pretty likely,” but immediately got me on the defensive by talking about how cops don’t react well when they “see trans people.”

“Well, how would they know I was trans?” I was more than a little upset by his comment, particularly in light of my relative confidence recently of presenting myself as and being perceive as a woman.

This is not me, but I try to be this fierce and proud

He admitted that they wouldn’t, necessarily, but that cops are assholes and getting arrested – just because they felt like arresting me – was entirely too possible. That it’s nice to imagine we’re protected when we know the law, and that the cops will read it and interpret it exactly the way we do, but that so often is not the case. That he didn’t want to see me raped or killed. I could agree to all of that, and probably would have left it there had he not then said, “And it’s not like this is an important issue.”

In one sense, he’s right. In the barrel of civil rights issues, women being able to go topless is somewhere near the bottom. It’s nestled with all the boring civil rights issues, below Discriminating Based On Handed-ness and above Discriminating Based On Hair Color. You need to lean waaaaaaay over the barrel to see them down there on the bottom, and you’ll probably need to root past Racism and Homophobia to get there. But I do really believe it’s in the same ballpark as any other type of gender discrimination, even if it’s much less pressing than equal pay or property rights.

After a pause, I replied, “OK, but isn’t it sort of silly that three years ago it was legal for me to go topless, and somehow I’ve magically transformed over that time into it being illegal?”

“Right,” my dad countered. “You can’t have it both ways: You want to be treated like any other woman, and they can’t go topless, either.”

I though I had him. “I do want to be treated like any other woman, but I’m not treated that way. The State of Illinois says I’m a man unless I get surgery. I want to point out the hypocrisy of that, to call attention to how ridiculous it is to legislate gender.”

“But we live in a society where it’s been decided certain body parts need to be covered up.”

Be very wary of any sentence that begins with those words: But we live in a society where…

Still not me, but closer to how I was feeling after this conversation

Finally, he had hit the root of the issue, that there is this magic box around “certain body parts” that makes it acceptable for men and women to be treated differently because of them. My dad readily conceded that men and women shouldn’t be paid differently, that black and white patrons of a restaurant shouldn’t be served or seated differently, he even went so far as to wager that breast feeding was a civil rights issue. Maybe.

But regardless of my analogies to other civil rights issues, my highlighting of the different treatment men and women receive, my pushing of the inconsistencies and stupidity of legally saying “this is a man, this is a woman,” my dad wouldn’t budge.

“But dad,” I tried, “We live in a society that kept slaves, that didn’t allow women to vote, that is still OK with keeping gays out of the military. Simply because It Is So doesn’t make it right.” I assured him I was no longer arguing about whether or not I should try to get ticketed – now it was about the theoretical question of whether or not I should be allowed to go topless, not whether I ever would be allowed to do so.

No luck. Again, he started, “But we live in a society where…” And we went in circles.

Ultimately, we agreed to disagree, and said we’d try to find a time to get dinner together next week. I still think he’s a good person, and I resisted – barely – the urge to say, “You don’t understand because you’re a man. A MAAAAN!” Because I really think it’s a generational gap at least as much as a genderational gap. But it disappoints me when we have such a failure to see eye to eye, and a little bit more of “My Dad, The Hero” fades away. And I still think I have a right to go topless.

Or should.

6 Responses to “Banging my head against a wall”

  1. annajcook says:

    Awesome post. I’m looking forward to sharing it on my Sunday links list :).

    Mostly I just clicked through to say the illustrations made me smile over my coffee this morning. Thanks for that!

  2. timberwraith says:

    Yup, when discussing women’s issues with some guys, one hits a brick wall of them not getting it or simply not caring enough to get it. I’m not trying to say that your dad doesn’t care about you. Rather, I’m saying that since your dad is a man, he doesn’t experience the world in a way that leads him to prioritize these issues as worth challenging. What you see as an unreasonable constraint on your life, he sees as a trivial requirement of living in this society. The thing that he doesn’t understand is that sexist oppression is formed by thousands upon thousands of “trivial social requirements” that constrain women’s lives.

    All of these things could be said about any other form of oppression. When social constraints don’t effect you, their collective impact is invisible to you.

  3. […] about breast augmentation and feminine beauty standards while Rebecca @ The Thang Blog shares a conversation she had with her dad (a civil rights lawyer) about the possibility of getting herself arrested while going topless in […]

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