It is said that our Northern Hemisphere ancestors were familiar only with white swans. When they sat round the fire talking about the swans they had seen, there was no need to specify the colour: The mere concept of a black swan was absurd.
However, sometimes these things are a matter of perspective. I happen to come from a land Down Under where Christmas is in summer, where mothers hop around with their young in a pouch, where spiny mammals lay eggs, and where the swans are most distinctly black. And so it was many years before I first saw a white swan.
Singapore’s Swan Lake
I spent the final three months of 2011 in India on mission work. However, on my way there I spent a day in Singapore and visited their Botanic Gardens. Inside was the aptly named Swan Lake, and there, among the turtles and the catfish, I saw my first white swan:
Just for the record, white swans don’t really belong in Singapore either. The original pair was imported from Amsterdam when Swan Lake was added in 1866. But I cared more about how beautiful they looked than whether they belonged there.
However, it wasn’t just the beauty. Black swans had terrorised us as children. They were mostly OK while they were in the water, but when they came onto land they could be both swift and aggressive, and we tried to stay away from them.
I don’t think I’ve ever been chased by a white swan.
Discovering English swans
Fast-forward a couple of years, and I was in London in June for work. The evenings were long, so of course I explored after work. And so the evening before my first June summer solstice found me in Hyde Park:
When I returned in 2016 I saw more white swans, most notably at Bletchley Park, home of the World War 2 code-breaking effort:
I continued to find them beautiful, and they continued to treat me more nicely than their Australian cousins did.
The travels of the black swan
Just as the white swan travelled round the world, so did the black swan. In England, I saw a black swan in a royal park right near the centre of London. At the time I thought it seemed more aggressive than the white swans I’ve seen, though I might just be prejudiced.
New Zealand actually had both black and white swans introduced in the 1860s, though the white swans are now much rarer. Near the Banks Peninsula I passed a lake reputed to have both black and white swans, though I only saw one black swan there.
What’s my personal experience worth?
I can’t blame the Europeans for being a bit suspicious receiving the first reports from Australia. As well as black swans, there were more exotic creatures, like the duck-billed platypus. Yes, there were specimens, but the swans could be dyed, while the platypus could have been glued together.
However, that was then, and this is now. I’ve seen both the platypus and the black swan from a fairly young age. And I’ve frequently been back to the park in Stawell that I have such strong childhood memories of (though it seems by 2008 I wasn’t so bothered by swans on land):
Others growing up in other parts of the world may well have had very different experiences. They might have been used to lengthy days in June and a white Christmas in December. They might be more used to seeing white swans. In fact, they might never even have encountered a black swan.
However, I think I’d be entitled to be upset if they ignored my experience and said I was faking the photos. Or if they said I needed to get my eyesight checked, because they’d only ever seen white swans and couldn’t be mistaken. Or if they produced their holy book, which talked only about white swans, and concluded in defiance of all evidence that this meant black swans didn’t exist.
Because this isn’t just about my personal experiences - it’s part of the public record that black swans live in Australia.
Denying personal experience and identity
It sounds ridiculous: I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who would deny that I’ve seen black swans. However, this kind of denial is routine in far more important areas, perhaps most obviously towards the LGBT community.
For example, there are stories of people who have known they were transgender from about as early as they can remember*. They knew that they were boys born into girls’ bodies, or girls born into boys’ bodies. That has been their experience of the world, and it’s an important part of their identity.
And yet many critics feel free just to dismiss these stories as impossible. Sometimes this dismissal is based on a “Biblical view of the world”, maybe quoting words like “God created them male and female”. Other times it might be based on a vague remembrance of high school biology and the existence of X and Y chromosomes.
If pressed to account for the trans person’s experience, the critic might say that the trans person has been indoctrinated by liberal education. Or that they’re doing it because they’re attention seeking and want to be trendy. Or just that they’re confused.
And so the trans person’s experience is ignored, and their identity is erased. Often it goes further: They are viewed as a threat. All because the critic can’t accept any experience which doesn’t fit within their narrow view of the world.
If the critics actually took the trouble to listen to these experiences, they might realise that it’s not an easy path. From what I can tell, coming out and transitioning is not something people do just to be trendy: They do it because it’s an important part of their identity, and denying that part of their identity is painful.
I’m pretty sure I’ve talked with people who simultaneously believed that trans people just transition because it’s trendy, and also that the many difficulties and discrimination they face along the way is proof that they’re not really trans people and should never have transitioned. Even though some of those difficulties are a direct result of the critics’ lack of acceptance (“We don’t accept you’re right and are willing to hurt you for it, so therefore you’re wrong” is a terrible argument).
Personally, I have read trans people talking about their experiences, but don’t really understand what it feels like. And maybe that is part of the critic’s problem: They just can’t imagine feeling that way. But that’s not the point.
In the same way, I don’t know what it feels like to be cis female, and I’m fairly certain that many cis males have a very different experience of being male from me. I shouldn’t need to understand exactly what someone else’s personal experience feels like to accept it and to accept them.
Of course, critics don’t stop at trans people. Others in the LGBT community are seen as broken individuals, sinners in need of a cure. They are accused of trying to advance an unnatural agenda. And a few verses are taken to trump their entire life experience.
Critics are using a simple model: Male and female, heterosexual, gender assigned at birth. This works for a large percentage of the population, but, like many simple models, it doesn’t completely represent reality.
We have learned a lot about sexuality and about gender since the Bible was written. The critics aren’t just dismissing the personal experience of many, they’re also dismissing everything we’ve learned. LGBT people are real, they matter, and they shouldn’t require permission from the Bible or from random bystanders to exist and live their life in their own way.
* Note that I am not suggesting that LGBT people have to discover their identity by a particular age, or to follow a particular path to coming out, or anything. Different people experience it differently and respond to it differently, and it’s not my job to police their experience.
We are all different
The world is not a simple place, and I would prefer to try to understand it as it is, rather than to try and make it simple and exclude others as a result. Every one of us has been shaped by our own unique set of experiences and choices, and it’s a good thing that we’re not exactly the same.
For me, some of the influences would be:
- Living the majority of my life in Melbourne, Australia.
- Being brought up as a Christadelphian, accepting it for many years, and then rejecting it.
- Discovering software development as a child, and then choosing it as a career.
- Learning English as my mother tongue and only language.
- Growing up traumatised* by black swans and fascinated by kangaroos and echidnas.
- Remaining single in a church culture that encouraged marriage.
- Choosing hiking as a primary hobby.
- Being male in a society, a church, and a profession that rewarded me for being male.
- Being white in a society that rewarded me for being white.
- The books I’ve read.
- The music I’ve listened to.
- The people I’ve known.
Some of these things would be fairly unusual, while others are much more mainstream, but all of them have contributed to making me who I am. I don’t take kindly to others questioning my experiences, and so I feel I should accept the experiences of others.
* OK, it probably wasn’t that bad.
Going back to my white swan experience: Back then, I was just passing through Singapore on my way to India. I had my Bible with me, and I was going to tell those I came in contact with exactly how they should live life. Next time, I’ll talk about some of the things I learned and experienced on that trip.