TOMORROW September 15th: Memorial for Wendy Babcock

If you’d like to share in remembering the life of Wendy, please be aware that tomorrow there will be a memorial service for her starting at 6 pm in the Allan Gardens at Carleton and Sherbourne.

For more information please visit this website that has been started in her memory.

In Memory of Wendy Babcock – child prostitute, Osgoode law student, mother, fearless activist (1978-2011)

Photo from Erin Hatfield at insidetoronto.com (Nov 2009)

Last Tuesday the Toronto activist scene tragically lost one of its heroes.  At the age of 32, and after living a lifetime of challenges, Wendy Babcock was found dead in her apartment.  The cause of death has not been released, though police do not suspect foul play.

Wendy overcame many more challenges than most of us are faced with.  She came from an abusive home and was out on the streets by the tender age of 11.  She was introduced to the sex work industry at the age of 15 when her first sexual encounter was exchanged for $75.  At the age of 16 she dropped out of school and became a mother shortly after.  Her son was taken from her by the Children’s Aid in 2003 and in the same year quit sex work when a colleague of hers was murdered on the job.

However, despite all of her trials and disadvantages Wendy pushed on.  She graduated from George Brown and went on to begin a law degree at Osgoode Hall Law School – one of few students accepted without a university education.

Wendy was a fearless defender of sex worker rights and hoped to use her law degree to humanize the child welfare system.  In 2008, she received the Toronto’s first Public Health Champion award.  Her story caught the eye of numerous news outlets in 2009 when she began law school and she was met with an outpouring of support and donations from strangers to sustain her studies.

Wendy’s perseverance and dedication to the protection of the vulnerable is an inspiration to us all.  She will be sadly missed by many.

Xtra! news has published an excellent story, here.  Click here to view a CBC interview with Wendy from 2009 when she first started law school.

It’s a bird… no, it’s a plane… no, wait, it’s a genderless baby?

Last month, a University of York employee, Valerie Bustros,  was challenged by a strange man about her sex when she entered a woman’s washroom on campus.  Valerie confirmed to the self-appointed washroom monitor that she was, in fact, a woman… and a lesbian too, since we’re being so open and all!  When Valerie left the washroom she found the same man waiting but this time with two friends who jumped her and kicked her on the ground.  With her buzz-cut hair, Valerie says that her gender has been questioned many times in the past but this was the first time she had ever experienced violence because of it.  Valerie admitted that “getting jumped for using the bathroom, yeah it sucks, and hopefully one day we won’t have to get jumped for that.”

Skip ahead one month and a different but related story is making headlines in Toronto news.  Over the last couple weeks a huge kerfuffle has been made over a Toronto couple’s decision to keep the sex of their 4-month old baby, Storm, a secret in order to allow the child greater space for exploring and deciding its own gender identity.  The couple claims that “they are releasing Storm from the constraints society imposes on males and females.”

Now, a lot of people have taken this decision very personally.  They have accused the couple of being bad parents, of causing future hardship for the child, of imposing their own politics on their child, and of using little Storm as an experiment.  While many people have showed support for the couple’s decision, the overwhelming response has been really quite vitriolic.

Contrary to the way it has been portrayed in the media, the couple is not actually raising a “genderless” baby.  Their goal is not to create a thing that neither identifies as feminine or masculine.  No no no!  Like any good parent they are trying to shield their child from the negative influences of society.  It just so happens that these parents find negative influences in our society’s common misunderstanding that gender is synonymous with sex.  By not sharing the sex of the child, they are trying to avoid the social influences that tell children that having a penis means you should like the colour blue, dump trucks, and obliterating frogs and mud, and that having a vagina means you should like lace, dolls, and cooking and cleaning.

This philosophy is visible in their two other children who, both (anatomically) boys, have also been given significant freedom to explore their own interests and to develop their own opinions without the dictating boundaries of our socially constructed genders.   For instance, their oldest son loves the colour pink, thinks dresses are cool, and wears his hair in three long braids.  He also believes that girls should do “boy things” and boys should do “girl things”.  Is that reeeeally so unhealthy!?

From travelling to different countries to hatching butterflies in their kitchen, the family does loads of fun and exploratory activities together.  And yet, despite their attempts to encourage the development of socially rounded children they were slammed these last weeks when their decision to keep baby Storm’s jewels a family secret went public.

Do I think that the family will be challenged by this decision down the road?  Of course!  But will it be more difficult than the challenges that transgender, homosexual, and queer people encounter in society today when discovering their full selves?  And why are we placing the blame for  their future challenges (presumably relating to prejudices) on the family and not on society?  In my opinion, this is similar to the victim blaming that we see so often.  Instead of trying to change our own discriminatory ways of thinking we blame others for straying outside of society’s tiny parametres of acceptability.  Instead of welcoming this family’s effort to raise a socially conscious and complete child ‘we’ (those who responded viciously to the story) teach our own children that there is not enough room in society for everyone and that some people should be hated ‘just because’.

One commenter on The Star article hit the nail on the head with a comment that while many of the responses appear to “fear for the well being of Storm. What they really are expressing is their fear of Storm. People are afraid of what is different, and failure to expose the child’s sex is quite different. What if it grows up to be different? God forbid.  Any hurt to Storm isn’t from what the parents are doing, but from the horrid collective negativity that people are expressing.”  Thank you!!

While many people who see their decision as a social experiment, I see it as a step in the right decision.   While some parents find what they’re doing as cruel, I think there are plenty of crueller things that parents do, like smoking, or not making time to play, or choosing to have only one child (OF COURSE I respect peoples’ decisions to only have as many kids as they like but having just one, come on!  That’s just not fair!).

Plus, baby Storm isn’t going to live “genderless” forever.  The child will eventually find its place on the gender spectrum just as everyone else does.  However, with the support and unconditional love that the baby gets from its family s/he may actually grow into a much more complete adult than many of us.  As Ms Magazine blogged this week, “Children in the U.S. enter a world where their existences are immediately understood through a gendered sphere that only becomes more relentlessly reinforced through the early childhood socialization process. What happens when a child demonstrates a transgression from the gender they’re assumed to embody through their biological sex, and what does that transgression mean?”  And how is it received in society?

Given the challenges, discrimination, and often violence that non-cisgendered people, like Valerie Bustros, experience in our society I think we should be congratulating and thanking Storm’s parent’s for breaking some of the barriers that make it so challenging for people to be themselves.

For the background story read:

http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/newsfeatures/article/998960—genderless-baby-s-mother-responds-to-media-frenzy

http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/newsfeatures/article/995846–star-readers-rage-about-couple-raising-genderless-infant

They’re buff, they’re beautiful, they’re bruised and broke! The American Lingerie Football League moves north

What the what??  That’s right, a new sports franchise is making its way to Toronto this fall and it’s a women’s league, to punt…. I mean, to boot!

Easy now, let’s not get too excited.  Although it would be phenomenal to have a professional women’s sports team in Toronto, I am not quite about to give this team my 100% support.  This new league, the American Lingerie Football League, is far from the ideal female success in the field of professional sports.  Instead, with its contradiction of sexy garters, girlie bows, girl-on-girl action, sexualised hikes, and its cutesy-seductive team names like Baltimore Charm, Cleveland Crush, Los Angeles Temptation, and Chicago Bliss, I struggle to see it as more than a  satisfaction of superficial  (mostly) male fantasies and a mockery and outright devaluation of women in sports.

Occupational hazard or occupational requirement?

It isn’t so much the lingerie-inspired outfits that I take issue with; I am all for women’s right to express their sexuality and autonomy through their dress.  Apart from these tired and contorted plays on femininity what bothers me more is the purpose of the game, the intended audience, and what these male-centred interests may mean to the athletes who participate.  Most of all, what concerns me is the serious lack of basic security awarded to these players, specifically the double-standard in safety and compensation.

If you’ve ever seen one of the many Youtube videos of the game, you’ll note that unlike the daintiness of the uniforms and team names, this game is really actually quite rough; the players are tackling to the  same extreme that they do in the NFL.  They’re even throwing punches.  However, because an excess of equipment would take away from the thrill of ogling female bodies, many components of the traditional footballer’s equipment have been foregone.  For instance, while regular male football leagues require protective padding and gear for collar bones, chests, thighs, shins, and ribs, the LFL provides for little more than some loose shoulder pads, knee pads, a helmet, and tape for joints.  

A simple Google search finds accounts from current players citing multiple injuries, especially of collar bones.  One potential player I interviewed after the Toronto try-outs speculated about the possibilities of extreme rug burn that the artificial turfs might cause when one crashes to the ground in her underwear.

But does that really matter to the coaches and managers when players only compete once a month?

This was the case for a former player for the Seattle Mist, Natasha Lindsey.  She tore her ACL early in the season last year.  Natasha’s surgery costs have exceeded the $10,000 cap the league put on insurance for players and she is left stressed out and seriously bruised.  The league’s founder, Mitchell Mortaza, isn’t at all apologetic.  He claims that the players all know what they are getting into when they sign their contracts.

Photo by former player for the Seattle Mist, Natasha Lindsey. Her injuries were not covered under the leagues minimal insurance policy.

That brings me to my second concern, compensation. Just as the LFL invokes traditional and conflicting stereotypes of feminine ideals, it also reproduces the historic patriarchal devaluation (low pay/no pay) of female labour – another reminder that the devaluation of women’s work is not a thing of the past (I say this acknowledging that when we look at labour through the lens of a highly racialised and highly exploitative global capitalist system there are an abundance of examples of unpaid and indentured female (and male) labour). 

Unlike professional male football players, who earn upwards of $320,000 a year, the female players in the LFL earn only a percentage of ticket sales – and this  rests on the game score.  Some American players  recently took the league to court when they found that their paid was less than California’s $8 per hour minimum wage.  In Canada, as the league gets established, players should only expect to get compensation for travel.

But, that’s “the best part”, right?  Mortaza certainly thinks so.    He claims that by paying only a percentage of the ticket sales and in basing  the amount it on whether a team wins or loses, players will be incited to play harder – a standard that would be completely unacceptable in professional male sports, not to mention the encouragement of female violence.

So let’s get this straight, the women are dressed by men, coached and managed by men, work their asses off for the entertainment of a mostly male audience, and don’t get paid for any of it!?

To me this screams of the use of women’s bodies to satisfy the sexual and violent appetite of a certain group of persons – largely, but not exclusively, masculine.   Audiences can sit back and laugh about women playing “girlie football”, drink beers, and fantasize, while the players – beautiful, fit, and talented women – play a sport the audience loves and in a ruthless way the audience loves.   There is also the added bonus of catching a wardrobe malfunction or two; it’s hard to avoid when you’re tackling and being dragged to the ground in bikinis. 

I’m not suggesting that these women don’t have agency, clearly these athletes are exercising their own will by joining the teams (in fact, many of the players I interviewed saw it as a stepping stone to better careers or they were motivated by the idea of participating in something novel).   However, we can’t fully understand this choice without situating it within the larger patriarchal society where women’s bodies are exploited as objects for the satisfaction sexual desires and where subjugation is often disguised as empowerment.  In the case of the LFL, the safety and fair compensation of the players is quite clearly forfeited in order to fulfill a  superficial macho agenda.

Despite how exciting it would be to see a professional female sports team based in Toronto, this game is sadly not what I hoped for.