Penelope Norman discusses a range of overlapping themes based in gender and conflict from the effects of the Irish housing crisis on trans life, to the ongoing settler occupation of Palestine, to the gender-driven discourses of comparative biblical interpretation across Jewish and Christian texts.
I was walking down Nassau Street one night in early December and I couldn’t stop thinking about Sunnyvale, a trans-majority community centre in north Stoneybatter, which had just been evicted. After the fight, everyone who called the industrial lot home got together to help build it back – climbing over makeshift barricades and crawling through murky halls littered with broken possessions. We picked up nail-sized shards of glass smashed on the concrete ground and took apart walls ripped out of abandoned buildings and caravans after hours of assault by heavies’ invading sledgehammers. We don’t like to talk about it much, though the day and every moment since tends to weigh on us and emerge one way or another. Every humiliation and injury by the gardaí, every community space slated to become a hotel, every time we look at one another and get blocked behind some wall that keeps us from talking about what happened, it’s like we’re living through the eviction all over again, digging ourselves deeper away from the surface.
I reflected on all of this while turning onto Fitzwilliam Street Lower to a house someone I knew had rented for the weekend on Airbnb. It was supposed to be a Haunukkah party with a few friends I’d met in our college’s Jewish society. The host and her family, who had flown all the way from Texas, were Ashkenazi Jews who had all been through all of their life cycle events and education at an average synagogue. Most of us in the college society had a much different experience. Either we had just completed our conversion, or our families had been Jewish for ages and either ignored the fact or hid it from us. My family in particular had gone completely underground (one might say stealth.) After struggling for years to pull anything from my mother and grandmother’s sealed mouths, I learned we were Sephardim and had concealed our Jewish roots for over a century. In other words, everybody in the group was Jewish, just in different, equally complicated ways. The society was and remains an important space for us to meet others and untangle our identities together. The only other relevant fact for what follows is that I had just gotten a new tattoo which was visible under the sleeve of my dress. It said, in Yiddish, ‘באפריי פאלעסטינע [Free Palestine].’
In 2007, the Israeli state decided to launch a marketing campaign to change how the rest of the world viewed its government. The campaign was called Brand Israel and it aimed to promote Israel as a bastion of rights for gay and lesbian people, encouraging LGB tourism to cities like Tel Aviv. At that same time, violence and hatred against Queer minorities was still present in the city, with a mass shooting in 2009 injuring seventeen members of the community. This was specifically part of an effort of what Palestinian activists have identified as ‘pinkwashing’, ‘how the Israeli state and its supporters use the language of gay and trans rights to direct international attention away from the oppression of Palestinians.’ One of the major rhetorical effects of pinkwashing Israeli apartheid has been a new resurgence of Orientalist language which defines Palestine and other regions in the Middle East as inherently repressive in their attitudes towards gender and sexuality (Said, 205). It also defines the Occident, Israel, as welcoming and open minded towards Queerness in comparison (the most important writer on the topic of Orientalism, Edward Said, was Palestinian.)
This ties into a common myth identified by philosopher Gayatri Spivak as ‘white men are saving brown women from brown men’, which sticks itself in our minds by structuring how we talk about international gender issues, limiting the ways resistance or acknowledgement of colonial structures can be discussed (Spivak, 92). To put it more simply, by leaning into gendered, colonial rhetoric which argues the ‘West’ saves the gendered minority of the ‘East’ from its own ‘inherent’ patriarchy, Israel has painted itself as a kind of widely recognisable saviour, giving it power in the eyes of people familiar with that rhetoric regardless of what they actually do. The most obvious problem with this is that it talks about Israel’s settler colonialism as a kind of protection or salvation, making it seem like the mass exodus comprising the experience of the Nakba (meaning ‘The Catastrophe’, a term referring to the ongoing expulsion of Palestinians from Palestine since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War) was a kind of gift.
One of the most famous retellings of the creation of humankind, as detailed by what Christians call the Book of Genesis, is the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton. Milton was a Calvinist and an ally of Oliver Cromwell who wrote during the English Civil War. His poem tells the story of Man’s fall due to the schemes and manipulations of Satan, who had just been cast into Hell after turning against his Creator. In the epic, Adam and Eve are depicted as the ultimate example of binary genders in a heterosexual union. When they are first referred to by name in the poem, they are described as, ‘Adam first of men […] first of women Eve.’ In a conversation with Adam in the first half of the text, Eve says,
“O thou for whom
And from whom I was form’d flesh of thy flesh,
And without whom am to no end, my Guide
And Head, what thou hast said is just and right,”
She is written to play a passive role by submitting to her husband, testifying to his rationality and morality. When it comes time for them to Fall, Eve is seduced by Satan’s speech as a snake,
“his words replete with guile
Into her heart too easie entrance won:
Fixt on the Fruit she gaz’d, which to behold
Might tempt alone, and in her ears the sound
Yet rung of his perswasive words, impregn’d
With Reason, to her seeming, and with Truth.”
Adam on the other hand gets to ruminate on his decision to join her in turning against their Creator, completing the epic’s ongoing conversation about the nature of the Divine and Free Will. He was given the time to make a choice. In other words, Paradise Lost tells the story of the first Man’s foolish, gullible wife and her original sin which resulted from her inability to use critical thinking to avoid trusting a sketchy talking snake.
In Bereshit 1:27-28, from what the Christians call Genesis, the first human was created. To quote in translation,
“And יהוה created humankind in the divine image,
creating it in the image of יהוה —
creating them male and female.
יהוה blessed them and יהוה said to them”
In other words, the first human (Adam in Hebrew has connections to both ‘human’ and ‘soil’, referring to how this first Human was created from the material of the earth) was neither male nor female, but contained both aspects within them in a unique combination. When their partner was created,
“יהוה took one of [his/their] sides, and closed up the flesh at that site. And יהוה fashioned the side that had been taken from the Human into a woman, bringing her to [him/them].”
This gets trickier when we remember that the Sex/gender system which tries to divide bodies and social roles into two polarised categories didn’t really become a thing until much later in the historical record. In other words, in Hebrew translation and Jewish tradition, the creation of Adam and Chava wasn’t the formation of the original cishet nuclear family, but the formation of self and other, the making of difference among all people. This interpretation has been told and retold for generations, treasured by Queer Jews and passed onto their chosen descendants. Notably, conversations about this section of Torah and its implications for Jewish life and practice began to gain newfound attention by rabbis in the sixteenth century after the perils of the Reconquista and Inquisition forced Jews out of Portugal and Spain, a population who would become known as Sephardim and eventually lead, albeit after centuries, to me. The most relevant themes which come up from this story specifically focus on the creations of further differences, between a home made for us and a wilderness we are expelled into or living as part of a shared community and dying in the fossils and shackles of violence from the past.
A recent UN publication not only stated that the situation in Palestine was apartheid, and it also described the occupied territories as an, ‘open-air prison.’ To cross between regions, people must undergo invasive searches and checkpoint procedures, conditions of which vary based on assigned nationality. To navigate these checkpoints, people are required to have a series of corresponding identity cards, permits, and other documents; these borders have been recognised as an explicitly gendered space, a ‘social geography of horror,’ where permissions for crossing are granted on a sexist basis (they’re usually only granted to women for exceptional medical or religious purposes) and the facilitation of crossing is founded on strict compliance with embodied gender norms as enforced by Israeli soldiers’ rifles and gazes. The creation of strict gender norms in the carceral structure of the prison or occupied colony is not unique to Israel; Angela Davis in her book Are Prisons Obsolete? details how, ‘the deeply gendered character of punishment both reflects and further entrenches the gendered structure of the larger society.’ (Davis, 61) Along similar lines, Dean Spade argues how,
“For trans people, administrative gender classification and the problems it creates for those who are difficult to classify or are misclassified is a major vector of violence and diminished life chances and life spans […] The aim of creating increased security for the nation hangs on the assumption of a national subject that deserves and requires that protection: a subject for whom these identity classification and verification categories are uncontroversial. (Spade, 77-85)”
In other words, the creation of a security state or prison system relies on the enforcement of an ideal person, a person who is defined by the social systems constituting race and gender in that state. For Palestine, the carceral subject under Israeli occupation is the Palestinian who will soon be eliminated by the settler colonial state. Cruelty is the goal; they are not meant to survive. For trans subjects in particular, the systems of policing, surveillance, and apartheid are made even more dangerous by an increased risk from the normal dangers of not fitting into a stable, identity-based system. Israel and its allies don’t care if they discriminate against trans Palestinians because, in their eyes, they are just particularly targetable Palestinians who shouldn’t be in Israel in the first place. Pinkwashing is not only a dishonest marketing strategy, but also a hypocritical alibi for genocide.
At the party, I decided to help my hosts make latkes, fried potato cakes traditionally served during the holiday. A number of friends I expected would be there had sent their apologies, so for a while the only people around to chat with were all standing with me in a circle binding shavings together and browning them in oil. We made jokes back and forth about which toppings are more Jewish, applesauce or sour cream. I learned all of the men in the family had joined the military in America and were quite proud of this fact. In my head, I could see my dad with his eyes locked on me gripping the honorary sword he received for his work on the border in Korea, keeping it safe like the tokens his dad had taken from Okinawa in the forties. My uncle had flown south to Peru at seventeen and died in a plane crash, and at the same age a version of me went east and quickly transitioned; to him, we both went in the wrong directions. Their father wore a t-shirt with the names and numbers of the people he had served with. I was cutting myself with a grater, spilling blood in the onions, while the rest of them moved and chatted together like a frictionless machine.
I was aware of the fact that I was different from the people around me, what I couldn’t admit was how much I wanted what they had. I needed to feel like I could be in a space without fear of hurting everybody else or being hurt myself. The sister suddenly saw my tattoo and asked with excitement what it meant. I knew I couldn’t tell the truth; I couldn’t lose another home. I tried to shrug it off saying, ‘it’s from an old protest chant.’ They pressed on, wanting to know word for word what I had decided to mark on my body. I lied. ‘It means, “There is no Planet B.”’ It seemed to work; I can’t be sure whether or not they bought it, but they were satisfied either way. I felt caged in and alone, after all that had happened there was no one around the room I could turn to for recognition. They went on to joke about the minor differences between Texas and Dublin. I stepped out into the hallway and tried to feel my feet on the ground.
Featured Image: ‘Sunnyvale Lost’ by Penelope Norman
This article was supported by: Engagement Coordinator Aislin
More From STAND News
Sarah Kennelly looks at how the UK’s new refugee policy affects LGBTQIA+ migrants by putting them at risk of discrimination after deportation to Rwanda.
Suas intern Maximiliana Eligi Mtenga shares insights from her research on the tension between ensuring protected rights for the Maasai Women and environmental protection of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER
Stories straight to your inbox that challenge how you think about the world.