Tag Archives: erasure

Matters of Erasure

I do not believe that giving vulnerable people more rights and better protection in any way erases anyone else.

Erasure is most commonly a consequence of being ignored. People who aren’t represented, and are treated as though they do not exist are erased all the time, and for anyone not affected it can be an entirely invisible process. If certain kinds of people don’t show up in the media we consume, and have put in front of us, we may have no awareness of them.

Our sense of what is normal has everything to do with what we see and hear on a daily basis. If what we encounter is mostly white, straight, cis, able bodied… we may well end up internalising this as normal and being pretty oblivious to the very existence of people who are not those things. At the same time, not having representation, not seeing yourself reflected in your own culture is lonely, alienating and disempowering, amongst other things.

When representation exists but doesn’t come from the people being represented, that can also lead to erasure. Most films are written and directed by men. The women in those films do and say the things men think, or wish women would do. We see women on the screen, and it seems as though women are present, but what we’re really seeing a lot of the time are male fantasies. That’s erasure. Yes, I do think anyone can write about anyone else well and effectively, but if you ‘learn’ from other fantasists, as so many do, then you don’t get realistic representation. I give you female bodies in conventional comics as a case in point.

Similar things happen around stories about disabled people heroically overcoming their struggles, when that’s been created and presented by able bodied people. It’s what happens when cis people write about trans characters all too often as well. Further, when marginalized people do get the chance to speak for themselves, they’re often sorely limited in what they are allowed to do – black authors only being allowed to write about race, queer voices only wanted for stories of coming out and dealing with prejudice and so forth. 

Erasure happens when people are not allowed to speak for themselves. It happens when cliches and stereotypes are repeated by people whose only experience is of seeing those things. Erasure happens when people don’t do their research. It happens when areas of experience are ignored and voices aren’t included.

And as an aside, a person worried about female erasure might choose to put a female character centre stage. A person worried about lesbian erasure might undertake to put some visibly lesbian characters into their massivly sucessful book series. Naming no names, because that’s also an opportunity to illustrate how failing to mention someone functions as erasure.

Erased by two sexes

One of the standard ways of undermining any consideration of trans rights, is to focus on the idea that two fixed sexes are a biological reality. Anyone taking this stance because they are averse to trans people is not likely to be persuaded by any arguments relating to that. However, trans people are not the only people hurt and harmed by a focus on the idea of two sexes.

Intersex people exist. If the idea of ‘choosing’ your gender offends someone, then there is none of that argument to make here. Intersex people do not choose. When we focus on the idea of two sexes, we totally erase them. It is a hard enough situation to be in without also being told that you don’t exist.

The idea of two sexes is firmly rooted in white, western culture, and is not a world-wide ‘truth’. When we insist that there are only two sexes, we erase the cultures and experiences of many other people around the world. This is particularly an issue with indigenous peoples who have had to deal with colonialism trying to strip away their approaches to gender – along with the rest of their cultures – for some time. White erasure of non-white experience is something we really need to stop doing.

Many people don’t sit neatly in the boxes offered by the notion of two genders only. My experience suggests that people who do not respect trans folk also tend to have no qualms about harming non-binary people as well – again I think because there’s the sense that we choose. So, let’s focus on the people who cannot choose – the people whose bodies do not conform to gender norms. Women with male pattern baldness and women with beards are perhaps the most obvious examples. The more we tell people there are only two sexes, the more we exclude and disempower people whose bodies don’t fit with that. We erase their complexity and we deny their existence.

Traditionally, feminism has been all about championing equality. I don’t know what to do with the kind of ‘feminism’ that will happily erase people in this way simply to try and create a context that invalidates trans people. However, I think pointing out the erasure of intersex people and indigenous people is really important. Attacking trans people makes it easier to attack other people as well, and if your basis for not liking trans is that you think trans people are choosing, you should be able to spare a thought for people who clearly cannot choose and are being hurt by this ideology.