A month or so ago an acquaintance thought an art show was dangerous because someone would see Jo Spence’s work and decide not to accept NHS breast cancer treatment. A list of their beliefs (full of hypotheticals, much like a terf’s changing room paranoia):
the universal truth of the scientific method and its morality.
the apolitical goodness of the NHS, despite being in possession of a BUPA subscription
that one working-class woman’s choice to claim agency over her body would become a contagious and deadly threat
Their fear and defensiveness gripped them so much they didn’t notice that Jo did not die from her breast cancer but from untreatable leukaemia some 10 years later. We decided to go see the show.
As we lay sprawled on a big teddy bear watching Oreet Ashery’s work, covered chin to feet by a blanket, someone approached us and said something along the lines of:
‘thought you were part of the work! Talk about misbehaving bodies! What’s going on under that blanket?’
We have no idea lol.
Jo’s work made me think of my (Maz’s) grandma, my mum’s mum, who’d turned down thalidomide because she had a bad feeling about it. The doctors tutted and harrumphed at her like she was a little girl. Earlier, she’d given birth to a stillborn baby. The doctors told her to quickly crack on with the next one.
My dad’s mum went to the doctor once, ‘for someone to talk to, really’, because her husband was consistently beating her and her children. The doctor gave her heavy antidepressants. Suspicious of the dosage, she took half a barbiturate and went to bed. Soon she was trapped in her body, floating above the bed and looking down on herself. It was not the liberation she’d later find for herself, without the support of any doctor or lawyer or cop or priest, when she fled her husband and managed to reunite her children in a council house, a house that today she would not be offered.
These are common and unexceptional examples of working class white Irish women being mistreated by the medical establishment in England that I can pull from the top of my head. There are many more well-documented examples of marginalised peoples’ mistreatment at the hands of medical experts. It would be wrong of us to list these things, each of them an abyss into the methodical stripping away of lives and the right to be a human.
It’s funny that someone would want to talk to two trans ppl about medicine and science and how nice it is, especially since one of them is both Jewish and Latina. Race science justified the most recent genocide of European Jewry and continues to justify the oppression and genocide of South and Central Latin Americans by the white North and was made to justify the capitalist bloodthirst of primative accumulation and I (Hava) really don’t appreciate a white person talking to me about how noble the pursuit of science is but whateverrrrr.
I had a big bruise from my last blood test because the doctors are worried that my liver might fail cus of the hormones I need to take for the rest of my life and in the exhibition my arm hurt looking at pictures of Jo and so did my nipples and I felt like I got her when she was talking about being treated like a non-person. And I got her when she talked about how her class and her gender mixed in to that. And I’m sure she would have added race and sexuality into that list if it was her experience. And I felt the faultlines of these intersections, blending and mixing into one another, the space where the real feelings rest.
To use a different Audre Lorde quote to the one on the walls of the exhibition's exit - the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house - AND ALSO - seize the means of production! we cobble together bits of stolen knowledge and buried knowledge, because the means of production are kept from us, which is not the same as the master’s tools because it is not the same logic and application and it looks different too. This is what we do because we have to: we do not do this out of choice, we aren’t anti-vaxxers or Gwyneth Paltrow.
Jo’s experience was not the exception - not by half. Next month we were in a caff and got chatting to a beautiful older woman with a filthy mouth who told us how she’d got inoperable cancer, not from smoking but from a new trial medicine her doctor prescribed her. Jo’s rigourous self assessment was a refusal of assimilation, and self education as revolt. How generous to give her life as an archive, and to do it clearly with humour and anger. How strange that Jo had to reverse-engineer treatments that could have easily been available if she had money. How right it was that she was not grateful. Oreet and Jo understood that when we get sick we become more of the things we already are - more poor, more female, more trans, more queer, more disabled.
Being trans is weird. Getting on hormones is weird. For the first week I (Hava) felt nauseous and sick. Now I’ve cut the estrogen dosage and feel ok, but the rhythm has changed. I don’t go out much anymore, I don’t have the energy and I don’t want to, and my body is morphing and strange and she’s making me listen to her. I’m (Maz) technically on sick leave because I'm trans and my workplace don’t really know what to do with me. There’s something, isn’t there, in these spaces of difference, of sickness. A solidarity, maybe, between different forms of unwellness.
In May, the World Health Organisation voted to move ‘gender incongruence’ from its section on mental health disorders to its sexual health section. This was thought to be A Good Thing, a correct take made too late, disconnecting transness from mental health and from sickness at all. Why would we want to be seen as mentally ill, when we see how badly the mentally ill are treated? Validation from the system is a ticket outta here, a way to be normal or at least correct, as if this system and its standards of sanity hasn’t killed billions already and potentially literally everything.
Fuck having a trans brain. What’s with these queers who want to assimilate so bad they crave a brain scan to prove they are valid and normal or a gay gene to show it’s not their fault, who are simultaneously so keen to distance themselves from narratives of disability or sickness because that otherness is just a defect. Do they not see how easily the narrative of a discovered gay or trans gene would lead to the attempted removal of these variances? What’s going on when we suddenly believe the people that have denied us basic care, who would kill us if they could? What if, instead of a reclassification, being trans was seen as a mental health issue - the treatment of which was social and bodily autonomy, the choice to access hormones and treatment? What of those of us, and we are many, who are trans and mentally ill and find these two experiences at times hard to untangle? It seems many of us didn’t read the small print: the effects of the vote won’t come in until January 1st 2022. Until then, we are still ill.