TRANS PEOPLE JUST ARE. GET OVER IT.

This post is taken from a speech I made at a conference in Leeds last month, Recognising Diversity? Gender and Sexual Equalities In Principle and Practice.

• We live in a society where we needn’t sit here like open-mouthed chicks waiting for entertainment to be regurgitated down our throats, helpless, squawking recipients.

• Increasingly we have choice in what we consume and it’s just as well – because the media has traditionally offered very little on the menu for people like me.

• When I was little I recall my dad was always saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”.

• I was called a lot of names as a child, you see, so he had plenty of occasions to repeat it.

• It’s ironic, isn’t it, how people use words to try and make you feel better about other people’s words while simultaneously arguing that words don’t matter.

• I think they do. And I think images matter too.

Photo: Ryan Harding Photography

Photo: Ryan Harding Photography

• But I do know, through my activism and engaging with people online, that I’m not alone in feeling wholly misrepresented by mainstream media.

• I could list statistics that show how unhappy trans people are with the way they are portrayed in the media, but that doesn’t quite capture the depressing feeling of disappointment described, rather eloquently, by American writer and news editor Janet Mock.

• Last year she wrote:

“As a trans woman, there’s rarely a time when I’ve been able to applaud the portrayal or someone’s commentary on a woman like myself in mainstream media. As a fan of many shows, entertainers and writers who’ve belittled “my people,” I have a bittersweet relationship with what I consume. If I wrote off every famous person or show that offended me, I would have nothing to watch.”

• So what do we do with this mass depression, this feeling of powerlessness?

• Well, as I’ve found with my own depression over the years, we have to get up and do something.

• I’m not a fan of reactive activism, and I’m not sure that new regulations are the answer either – trans people are already supposedly protected under the existing PCC guidelines. These guidelines simply need enforcing.

• That’s why I’m extremely excited by a project called All About Trans, which connects media professionals with real trans people.

• We’re supported by the BBC and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the idea is to simply get influential people into the same room as trans people and create empathy.

• We hope that if we can put a human face on trans we can remove the caricature and make the people with power in the media think twice next time a script, or article or proposal lands on their desk that ridicules people like me simply for being trans.

• Last month we met with the editor of the Observer John Mulholland for a nice cup of tea; the week before that we took top brass from the BBC’s comedy department to the aquarium for the day.

• Everyone had a great time and those media professionals now have a memory of a fun afternoon out with people not so very different from themselves.

• It shouldn’t be necessary to remind media professionals that we are human beings worthy of respect – but sadly it is.

• It’s tempting to want to explain ourselves as trans people.

• Many trans women still feel they have to sell their transition narrative to get their voices heard in the media and that narrative has to conform to certain cisgenderist cliches of binary transformation from one essential to another i.e. ‘trapped in the wrong body’ or the ‘before and after’

• Even I’ve been tempted to do this before. And I’ve had plenty of opportunities.

• The problem with trans narratives, though, is that they are almost always in response to a cisgender, that is, non-trans-demand.

• My good friend and historian Jeff Evans, who does fantastic work getting LGBT History Month taught widely and well in schools, tells me that he is often asked if he can talk about the history of gay men.

• There is no such history.

• “Gay men” as an identity is a relatively recent social construct and it is not possible to write a history of gay men.

• Men who have sex with men, however, have always existed.

• What we can do is look at how society has treated those men.

• So it is for trans people. The idea of a “trans woman” which is how someone like me might describe herself, is an even newer concept.

• We can’t do a history of trans women or indeed trans men as none exists.

• Trans people, or people who do not fit neatly into one gender or the other, however, have always existed.

• The story isn’t about how trans people came about – and that’s not to say that recent medical opportunities have not made life easier for many trans people – but how societies have dealt with us.

• This isn’t about trans people and it never was.

• It’s about everybody else and how comfortable they feel about letting trans people exist and express themselves.

All About Trans... volunteers chat with Channel 4 News anchor Cathy Newman

All About Trans… volunteers chat with Channel 4 News anchor Cathy Newman

• So the problem, then, with trans narratives is that they invariably set out to explain and justify and mitigate the difference (or ‘otherness’) of those telling the story.

• Essentially this narrative boils down to “My life is horrible, please be nice to me!” – I’ve been guilty of slipping into this rhetoric myself at times.

• Ultimately this hands power to the person hearing the story. It’s a form of begging, begging not to be bullied.

• Do you think bullies listen to such pleas?

• This approach may work with some people who are borderline hostile towards trans people or may illicit sympathy from people who would have been supportive however they were awoken from their ignorance.

• The thing is though, this “poor me” pathetic transsexual narrative has been going on for over 60 years and it doesn’t appear to have made a huge difference to the way people like me are treated on the street.

• If you walk into a bookstore you will find whole sections devoted to LGBT writers.

• Some of these will be confessional biographies. Many will be by trans women.

• Many will be theoretical books.

• During my time as Acting Assistant Editor of Gay Times I was sent many academic books that tried to unravel what it means to be gay, to be queer, to be gender non-conforming.

• What is it all for?

• This is a conference to discuss complex ideas so perhaps this is an odd platform from which to present my message today.

• But trans people and anyone with an interest in gender diversity have to stop trying to dissect everything and anything about our experiences.

• It’s all just Trans 101 and trans 101 doesn’t work.

• We are othering ourselves.

• I’m only going to reference just two books today: the first is Edward Said’s Orientalism and the second is Julia Serrano’s Whipping Girl.

• Edward Said helped popularize the term ‘othering’ in his seminal text, Orientalism.

• He argued that, in the West, we have an idea of what it means to be Eastern; we have stories and myths about Eastern people about how they are and what they do – based on the severely limited and prejudicial but unchallenged understanding of a few early colonialists.

• Mysterious, exotic, licentious, workshy, deluded, devious essentially childish and incapable of making sensible decisions about what is best for them, immutable, incapable of changing for the better – where ‘better’ means behaving in the same manner as the ascendant culture

• These are some of the characteristics attributed to “oriental peoples”

• We’ve heard it applied to other ethnic groups, to other marginalised groups and, of course, to women.

A temple to Orientalism... Brighton Royal Pavilion

A temple to Orientalism… Brighton Royal Pavilion

• Such words summarise the assumptions of misogyny, the same misogyny that Julia Serano identifies as transmisogyny

• Serrano cuts through all this bullshit in her wonderful polemic, Whipping Girl, and at the end of it I was left feeling angry but also with a deep sense of “Wonderful, why did that even need writing?”

• Trans people just are. Get over it.

• Treat us with dignity. What more is there to say?

• If you’re still keen on your academic theory, I urge you to check out a researcher and thinker called Y. Gavriel Ansara. He has been key in developing an academic outline of cisgenderism and he points to the “invisible college” of academics researching trans people.

• They are usually white, male, educated and middle aged. They reference each other’s work… they write prolifically and build up each other’s status as experts on trans issues.

• They are consulted when the time comes to redraw health guidelines on trans people – guidelines that almost always problematize trans people.

• This, too, is built out of nothing.

• Trans people are people, and that’s all there is to it really.

• My activism used to be rather reactionary, we’d sit around waiting for something awful to happen and then get angry and say please don’t be horrible to us we have such awful lives as it is.

• Now, with All About Trans we answer questions honestly and explain issues to them but we are more focused on what they can do to help us make things better.

• We ask them what the problem is. Why the big fuss?

• It’s a positive dialogue and one in which trans people are not explaining themselves but politely asking to be treated with respect and enquiring as to why that is not currently happening.

• It’s very simple for me.

• I feel happiest expressing myself the way I do and being referred to and perceived by others a certain way. I don’t need to know why.

• I hope the younger generation of trans people can continue looking outwards and force the mainstream to take a long hard look at itself instead of obsessing over trans people.

• Positive, unapologetic engagement is how we make things better and do I hope you’ll check out the great work we’re doing by visiting AllAboutTrans.org.uk. Thanks for having me!


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10 thoughts on “TRANS PEOPLE JUST ARE. GET OVER IT.

  1. DJ Bo Misfit says:

    Great words! Thanks

  2. Tara Starr says:

    Valid, thoughtful and salient points Paris.
    You are far too fluid and imaginative a writer to use bullet points mind…
    These tend to interrupt the poetry and flow of your natural writing style.
    Bullet points are for accountants darling.
    You, on the other hand, are a writer…and artiste ;)

    Provocative and inspiring as always.

    Much Love,
    Tara Starr xxx

    • ParisLees says:

      What a welcome visitor we have! I didn’t know you could read! Mind you, if you’d read the intro darling you would have seen that this was merely taken from a speech I made last month, so that explains those pesky bullet points. I generally tend to save my polemic prose and creative writing for paid gigs now, but I will write some original prose for my blog soon enough I’m sure. See you soon you little minx and don’t forget to call again. And let’s get pissed again soon? xxx

  3. Rodney says:

    In the email i received from Lastofthecleanbohemians, Ansara’s name was missing at the end of the sentence which was intended to reference him. Just thought you should know.

    I applaud both your sentiments and the happy approach undertaken by All About Trans.

  4. “They are usually white, male, educated and middle aged. They reference each other’s work… they write prolifically and build up each other’s status as experts on trans issues.”

    This is a large part of the problem: the cargo cult science trying to “explain” transgender identities and pigeon hole us into one category or another based on nothing more than their own prejudice and preconceptions, and then cross-referencing each other’s work as though this somehow makes their work proper science and validates their theories; theories which often barely qualify as hypotheses.

  5. Lucie says:

    As a female person who was born female & hasn’t had a lot of occassion to think about what it is to be trans …. & who a few years ago still found the Laydees on Little Britain one of the funniest bits of the program …. I think you are dead right in your ideas about just getting influential people in a room & creating empathy. I’m not proud to admit it but I did not particularly have empathy for people that were trans. I was not against people being trans or openly hostile; but just found it odd/unfamiliar/funny/embarrasing etc Personal circumstances have made me more aware of trans people & now I feel a lot more empathy & find the idea of trans people a whole lot less funny/odd/unfamiliar/embarrasing. Pretty simple really ….. getting to know people helps you …. well … get to know them. I like the fact that you are pragmatic in your approach as I think “othering” groups of people different to ourselves is just part of the human condition. It’s rooted right back in basic survival of the tribe stuff …. stick with your own kind & you’ll be okay type of thing. So to just rail against it is 1. ineffective & 2. probably just makes you seem even less appealing. This sounds harsh but I believe it’s true. I applaud your brave, practical, realistic approach.

  6. emilyisreal says:

    Wonderful Post! I wish we had more activists of your caliber here in the states. You have an amazing ability to strike at the heart of the issue and an impressive understanding of how we should move on. Your point about reactionary activism is so true; I feel as though most of the time people are just waiting for the media to slip up.

  7. Andrew Brown says:

    Interesting article, but an extremely sad/ frustrating one – given we are in the 21st century. Let us hope that the internet really does eliminate pigeon holing. A person is either some one you see at face value in most life instances, unless you get to know them – then they become friends, enemies or colleagues – irrespective of skin colour, sex, sexual preference or race.

    Cultural leanings is slightly different and covers religion or regional norms which can create issues with other regions. Often classified as bigotry, it is mainly about education and understanding of medicine – for which your efforts will help dispel.

    Your cause makes me feel like a minority person :-( straight, white and male – but fully understanding and supportive of the what should be the norm as you explain it.

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