Stephen walks through the room, looks over our shoulders. “So they’re still teaching you kiddie Physics,”
he says indulgently. “They’ve still got the atom looking like a raspberry.”
“See?” says Cordelia.
I feel subverted. “This is the atom that’s going to be on the exam, so you’d better learn it,” I say to Cordelia. To Stephen I say, “So what does it really look like?”
“A lot of empty space,” Stephen says. “It’s hardly there at all. It’s just a few specks held in place by forces. At the subatomic level, you can’t even say that matter exists. You can only say that it has a tendency to exist.”
“You’re confusing Cordelia,” I say.
From Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye
There has never been a fictional character I have identified with more than I do with Elaine, the protagonist-narrator of Cat’s Eye. From point for point life events (as far as I had got when I first read it aged 15) to her personality generally. The book is a pretty fair guide to how I think.
I was chatting the other day with a young’un from the merry band of queer youth I work with (Hi, if you’re reading this) about how best to address trans ignorance in public sector workers. At one point in the discussion, I came out with “The problem is that the atom doesn’t look like a raspberry!”
Which, needless to say, was a mite confusing for the poor lad.
But it doesn’t. It looks like empty space.
In the above quote, let’s say that Stephen (Elaine’s genius older brother) is the queer/trans community. Physics is gender, Cordelia (Elaine’s somewhat troubled frenemy) is mainstream society and Elaine, the narrator, is anyone, of any gender, who wants to increase understanding of gender/sexuality issues.
Cordelia doesn’t see why she should even study for the exam, just as many straight people don’t see why they should educate themselves about basic LGBT issues.
Stephen, immersed in advanced physics, cannot help but see the dumbed-down version of atomic theory on the exam as childish and misleading, and feels compelled to correct it, validating Cordelia’s opinion that the whole exercise is pointless.
Similarly, anyone with a developed awareness of the myriad gender identities and sexual orientations out there cannot help but notice that “LGBT” and “gender is a continuum” are massive simplifications which render many identities invisible. It’s easy to become frustrated with the whole “trans 101” approach to teaching about gender variance, as this excellent piece from Tranarchism demonstrates. However, as soon as you SAY to a borderline bigot “actually the LGBT acronym is massively reductive and problematic” they won’t say “Really? Wow! Please give me the more complex and nuanced version to get to grips with!” They’ll say “See? Even THEY don’t agree with this shit!” or “Well, I said I’d try a d learn more, but its just ridiculously complex and academic!” And we’re back to square one.
It reminds me of my first week at university. The head of the School of English addressed us. He said “if you’re here, you got an A at A-Level for English Literature. Forget everything you learned. It was all rubbish.”
We were incensed! We’d JUST recovered from the hideous “results are the be all/end all” hothouse that was Year 13 and here was this high handed old elitist telling us we’d wasted our time. Of course, in hindsight I know what he meant: he wanted us to stop thinking at a basic level. But at the time? I was ready to switch courses!
Then we come to Elaine, whom I feel for so much in this extract. She wants to help Cordelia, despite finding her frustrating, and she also wants to learn more from Stephen, despite knowing that his answer will most likely derail what she’s trying to achieve. She knows the atom doesn’t really look like a raspberry, and she also knows what’s going to be in the exam.
However, the analogy falls down here, because Stephen has nothing to lose by Cordelia having a limited grasp of physics, but those members of the trans/queer community who don’t fit neatly and quietly into an L,G, B or T category DO stand to lose from this reductive model being taught.
So what should the Elaines of the world do?
Should we risk confusing and alienating straight/uninformed people by trying to give the most nuanced approach possible straight away, or should we use the “raspberry” of “LGBT Awareness” as a stepping stone to deeper understanding, but risk the learning process stalling at the first easy answer?
Answers on a postcard please!