SOME PEOPLE ARE TRANS. 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.

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

• I 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 some BBC comedy excs 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.

• 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.


Transgender children: 3 British case studies

I was recently asked to speak at the NSPCC about the issues trans children face. As part of my talk I read out three case studies, published below. All names have been changed.

(IMAGE: Young trans campaigner Livvy james)

Livvy James


Naomi

Despite presenting as a girl and being known as a girl by most of the children in her class, 6-year-old Naomi, who attended a small church school in a village in East Anglia, was constantly referred to as a boy by her class teacher and her headteacher. The class teacher said she had to be called her boy’s name because that was on her official documentation.

Even when her parents got her name changed by deed poll the teacher continued to do this. The head consistently failed to attend meetings with her parents and failed to return correspondence. All the children in her class were OK with her expressing real gender but a few boys aged 10 and 11 in another class started to bully her in the playground. When her parents complained, the school did nothing about it. After seeing her daughter become more and more depressed her mother reluctantly took her out of school, she has not been to school for 3 years.

Aysha

Aysha, aged 5 was completely open about wanting to be a girl. She would plait the hair of the girl in front of her while she sat on the carpet like all the other girls, she would always head for the dressing up box first thing during the day and emerge a princess or a fairy. This despite being sent to school in the most masculine clothes her parents could find. An only child, her parents did not want her to be a girl and applied a large amount of pressure to make her masculine.

A couple of times she was sent to her uncle in south Asia who would let her wear a sari and then beat her very hard with a stick. She would then be kept there until the bruises had gone before coming back to the UK. Social services did not want to know about this. Another parent complained to the head that she didn’t want her daughter to be touched by Aysha, with regard to the hair plaiting. The head told the class teacher to ‘stop him’ from doing this. The class teacher made all the children stop doing this, and a few of the other girls then got told off for doing so. Some parents complained about this happening and the head told the teacher only to enforce this on Aysha. She refused to do this and shortly after the end of that school year resigned in protest at being effectively told by school management to bully Aysha.

Zara

Zara was 10 when she decided she could no longer be a boy. Attending a primary school in South-West London she already had long hair, wore androgynous clothes and most of her friends were girls. Her parents took a lot of time to find out about being trans and supported her fully, discussing things in depth with the head and class teacher. Her transition was organized for a weekend and she left school early one Friday afternoon and the class teacher and head told the class that on Monday morning she was going to come back as the girl she had always known she was. They only told her class and the parents of children in the class. She came back on Monday and the only thing about her that changed was her name. She had very few problems; whenever a child, or parent of another child, tried to bully her, her classmates or staff would support her 100%. She stayed in school, did well in her SATs and continued to do very well at secondary school.


GOOD LIFE

I’ve never been happier. I think I know why.

Happy... through pain ripens joy

Happy… through pain ripens joy

Sitting on the train to Nottingham last Saturday, barefaced and relaxed, I couldn’t help remembering how stressful I once found that same journey. I’d never done it without makeup before. If you are visibly transgender, being in public is a constant source of danger, paranoia and conflict. Humiliation, verbal and sexual abuse are common and physical violence is a real threat. Trans people are also more likely to be murdered. “Passing” in one’s preferred gender is about more than respect: it’s a safety concern. You can see why so many of us are obsessed with it.

My cisgender (i.e. non-trans) friends sometimes act surprised when I tell them this. If I’m trying to explain the situation to a man, I’ll ask him if he fancies walking down the road with my handbag on his arm. Wearing lipstick. Most realise that this will probably illicit sniggering, staring and, of course, increased threat of violence. Trust me. Other people really seem to care what colours we put on our faces, and the bits of cloth we cover our bodies with. If your choices don’t meet other people’s expectations, they soon let you know.

Over the years I have spent thousands of pounds, hours and tears in the quest to look female. Hair and nail appointments. Fake tan and makeup. Cosmetics. Epilation. Clothing. Everyone likes to look good though – right? True, but I spent that money – and continue to spend it – mainly to rid myself of the constant, nagging feeling of unease in public. To stop people staring. To stop them grinning. To stop them abusing me on buses, in shops… on the streets. I spent all that money, in fact, to feel how cisgender people feel.

Last Friday I popped to my doctors for a routine health check. I didn’t bother wearing makeup. After I’d seen the nurse, I decided to visit my nearest high street to check out the new hair salon. I couldn’t get a same-day appointment, so I popped to my usual salon in Stratford instead. Stratford is incredibly busy at the moment due to the Olympics. I went anyway, got my hair done, and stopped off to buy groceries on the way home. There was a time when I wouldn’t take the bin bags out without makeup on, but I felt completely comfortable all day. The sun has chased the clouds away, in the good life.

This is what £8,000, and pain, and slicing, can buy you. A feeling of invincibility. It’s given me a confidence boost, yes, but it has also, without doubt, made me look better – “better” meaning “more feminine” in this instance. Peace. I can get on the train and smile at the woman opposite me when her child starts singing. It’s a wonderful feeling, but I’m disappointed that I had to work so hard to experience it. It’s called passing privilege – or cisgender privilege, for those who take it for granted. The thing about passing privilege though, the thing that separates it from cisgender privilege, is that it is conditional. If for whatever reason I stop conforming to a particular look, any benefits I may have secured for myself will instantly disappear. Perhaps I’d care less, a second time round. Who knows? Still, it’s a scary thought.

I’m also subject to the male gaze more often, these days, which makes me paranoid. Unless of course it’s someone hot – then it just makes me blush.

We can’t change society overnight. Nor can we change ourselves so soon and, frankly, why should we? I’ve opted for a mix of both. We must remove the stigma of being trans. We must end the pressure to conform to other people’s ideas about how we should look. It’s hard to do this while also trying to fit in and live peacefully. But, so long as people still make life miserable for those who are visibly trans, pressure to conform poisons our capacity for creativity, expression and love. It is all-consuming. There are things we could, and should, be thinking about other than the way we look. I am able to think this, now.

I’ve never been happier. I’m sad to think why.

 

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

Earlier today I blogged about my friend Katie and her recent struggles. The gender clinic recommended her for hormone replacement therapy over a year ago, but her doctor(s) refuse to prescribe it. In desperation, she decided to ask the internet for help (my answer to everything).

And help it did! Her target was £500 so she could seek private medical care. Earlier today, she had £100 towards that sum. Following my blog, which was widely shared on Twitter, she has now exceeded the goal she set and donations stand at £820! One particularly generous benefactor left £500. Wow!

Katie was let down by people who have a duty of care towards her. Today, she saw a kinder side of humanity, the kindness of strangers. She also had help from friends and, combined, this really felt like a community coming together. Good. By helping our weakest we raise each other up too.

Congratulations to everyone who spread the word and to those who donated, no matter what the sum. I know she will use it wisely.

She has also received messages from people who are going to help her challenge her local health authority and take on the system which failed her. This is important, as she shouldn’t have had to resort to fundraising.

Katie just called me and I asked her if she had any messages to pass on. Here’s what she had to say:

“It is absolutely amazing, I’d like to thank everyone who donated, from the £5 to the amazing person who donated £500. I can’t believe people out there… there are some decent human beings that are willing to help a stranger.”

I also asked her how she felt:

“Well, I’m still kind of in shock at the moment, but I feel like it is going to change my life completely. I feel like I have the means and the power to move forward and grasp life with both hands, and I’m going to do that”.

It’s yet another victory for the online trans community, and a lovely end to the day. Thank you.


KATIE

Life is hard. Sometimes it pushes us down with such force that we haven’t the strength to resist. Trans people are particularly likely to find themselves feeling isolated, powerless and depressed. So it was for me and so it was for many others. So it is for Katie.

Katie, looking rather glam after her makeover at my house

Katie, looking rather glam after her makeover at my house

I’ve been friends with Katie for over a year now: we met online and augmented our friendship in the real world. She’s intelligent, kind and pretty savvy about the way the world works. She’s made some really useful suggestions to me in the past, like when she advised me to buy ParisLees.com.

Last August, I blogged about the difficulties Katie was facing with her doctor. She asked for anonymity then, but has since given me permission to reveal her identity. You see, she’s had enough. She’s had enough of being messed about by the NHS. She’s sick of changing doctors only to be told again and again that they won’t prescribe the hormones which her gender clinic has advised she take. So now she is doing what she can with what she’s got, and I’m incredibly proud of her.

I’ve said it before, but when you’re at your lowest ebb, just going to the local shop for milk can seem like an insurmountable task. I don’t think Katie will mind me saying that I’ve been worried about her mental health this past year. I have been specifically concerned that she might take her own life. I tried to cheer her up last year by giving her a makeover, something which she’d told me she would enjoy. She did, but it was only a short-term boost.

Katie wants to see a private gender specialist who can prescribe the hormone replacement therapy she’s so desperately waited for. She is, like many trans people, talented but unemployed. She has gender dysphoria and, like many trans people, spends much of her time at home. She’s currently trying to sort herself a passport so she has some identification which reflects her femaleness. She wants to work.

I’m not a huge fan of asking people for money and I find guilt-appeals rather intrusive. I hope, though, that some of the people who read this blog will identify with Katie and perhaps take some pleasure in helping a sister. Don’t underestimate the strength it took her to set up this fund. She needs help and she’s finally asked for it.

She needs £500 to cover two appointments. So far she’s received £100. If you could help her, even with an amount like £5, you’d be doing a wonderful thing for a wonderful person.


CHANGE IS POSSIBLE

In the great cities of the world groups of dissidents form their gaunt nexi of discontent and send the roots of change through the black soil of our existence.

Fay Weldon, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil

In a dusty Delhi side street, deep inside a mother’s womb, life grows. A flush of hormones flood the tiny being and mesodermal tissues react and morph. The future is formed in flesh as testosterone stimulates the Wolffian duct and male sexual organs take shape; the Müllerian duct, so full of fallopian potential, degrades. Cells multiply. Screens flicker. A neural tube is created, a brain, a tiny seed of consciousness waiting to be watered. Eyes to see emerge, and ears to listen too. There will be much to see and much to hear. This is the youngest trans person in the world.

Outside. In the Incan heat of Peru, a mother smothers her own child. Appalled, she also kills herself. She writes their names in the book of dead, a woman who created life only to end it, a baby which was neither boy nor girl. The winds blow.

In Africa, a newborn takes its first breath. Around the world, tectonic plates shift, human bones replace themselves and snakes slither from their skins. Winds tear the leaves from the trees and dreams sink to the ocean bed as a billion ejaculations inject the globe with the scripts of a million species. The weak march together, in Turkey, Toronto and Tashkent, and demonstrate their strength. Icy villages house those who thank the cold and cover their bodies in shame. In Australia, a weathered face is held up to the mirror one last time. It blinks.

I converse with the air. Like the sun, which contacts my skin, our dialogue never changes. It recognises nothing new in me. It cannot detect my rage, the meaning behind livid tears, which evaporate from my cheeks, rising up to become part of it. I fly through the vapour, and gaze upon black clouds.

Loud voices shout about my people, filling me with fear. Perhaps they are reading the lies about my life, printed on papers which litter our vessel? I look at time, dangling from my hands, and long to land in a nexus of discontent.

At first they ignored us, pretended we didn’t exist. We have always existed. In the bible we are Eunuchs, castrated and seedless, or angels, genderless and beautiful. In the tribes of North America, long before European intrusion, we took our place in public life, respected and integrated. In sticky Eastern climes, Buddhas have watched us for centuries, and rags have hidden the space between our legs, and bound our breasts, since the times of Homer. Our gods are ancient.

But still they laugh at us. They humiliate us on the streets, spit on us, give us names which reduce and ridicule. They joke about us on their stages, and refuse to present us as equals. We appear, but it is as body parts, display items, oddities. We are questioned. Afterwards, we are harassed, genitals grabbed and groped in order to satisfy a hostile world’s claim on us. We call out, but it’s hard to make our voices heard. When we ask for basic respect, we are accused of seeking special treatment.

Now. They fight us. They tell lies about us: malicious mendax, masquerading as concern. They don’t care about us. They discuss us purely to entertain, and reject our truth. They say our experience is not valid. Sometimes, others defend our right to simply be, but we’re held back from defending ourselves. That which could not be more personal becomes a story told by others; nasty, false, and cruel. Its authors claim we are unfit people, that we endanger growing minds, because their own are so closed. They ignore the damage they’ve inflicted on ours for centuries.

Now. It’s time. We must not be bullied. We must be angry. We must mobilise. Our friends must join us, but it starts with you. Today. We can no longer kill ourselves. Instead, we must give birth to a better world, one which celebrates our natural diversity. We can live in that world. You have seen, in recent years, that determined minds can achieve great things. Yes, change is possible; we of all people know this. But only you can make it happen.

Now.

Queer Utopia

Up until last month, I hadn’t been abroad for years. Two trips to Crete, aged 13 and 14, and then I found myself in a desert. A travel one.

As a student in Brighton, I saw little point in holidaying. My money went on rent, laser hair removal and my appearance, yet social phobia kept me indoors for fortnights at a time.

I’m not scared of life anymore. I fear death. But earlier this year, the constant battle of my activism started taking its toll, and I needed a break.

I renewed my passport two years ago, as clubs had started to question anyone who looked under 25, let alone 18. I didn’t need a government document to be me, yet getting it was like a stamp of legitimacy on my identity: tangible proof that the state agrees I am female. I wanted to travel.

Imagine, then, how pleased I was to be offered an all-expenses covered trip to Germany. Yes, thank you Grungtvig. I had no expectations other than a series of workshops with European activists: but for someone who used to struggle to reach the corner shop, flying to another country, to catch two trains, was a big deal.

Sod it, I thought. I got on the plane.

The Waldschlösschen – literally “forest-castle” – lies 13km southeast of the university town Göttingen amid beautiful, hilly woodlands. It was an attractive destination both in my mind and in reality. Es war wunderschön. Nothing was foreign: the trees seemed to grow as though from my very childhood, the forest of fairy tails; Brothers Grimm-like, deep, dark and green. I wanted to run away and become lost there… frightened.

Our wonderful hosts, Ulli, Volker and Stephan, told us how the grand building, just a few miles away from the former Iron Curtain, had been taken over by queers in the 80s. Now it has evolved into a life-long learning centre and we were there. Even the Pope was in town.

It soon became apparent that, in addition to my fine surroundings, I was in exquisite company. Never before have I seen such a diverse collection of human experience, intelligence and kindness.

Ulrich is quite possibly one of the nicest human beings I’ve met, along with his delightful “friend” Anna, who came with us to one of Göttingen’s charming and apparently conservative coffee houses. Anna enoyed provoking reactions from people with her appearance – reactions which left me unamused.

But I was moved to tears by Deborah’s amazing history, shared with us by the log fire. Ania’s account of being beaten by the police in Eastern Europe made me angry, while Dagmar and Heino humbled me with news of their fantastic work organising Baltic Pride amid fierce hostility. Why had I never heard of these people before?

In Germany, a drag queen is given her title by a more established artiste. I think Frau Doktor – “Mrs Doctor” – got lucky with this tradition, and she proved to be as fabulously funny as her name.

Claudia… what an amazing person: full of laughter, charisma and light. And how lucky I feel to have met such inspirations as Frank and Kathryn. Lesbian, trans, bi, gay – these were my people. I’ve never had any doubt that gender and sexual minorities are fighting the same battle, and everyone present seemed to agree.

Outsiders won’t appreciate the magic. By turns, it was a holiday, cultural exchange, conference, health spa, networking opportunity, therapy session… all these things and more. As the lovely Tony says: “It was life changing”.

I lived by the shore for three years, yet swam in the sea no more than five times. I was ashamed of my body. But I felt completely comfortable stepping into the huge sauna with my new friends at the Waldschlösschen, a veritable sauna-virgin. Well, I had to be a virgin of something.

What a great mix of expertise, ages, nationalities, genders, and sexualities. How often do you find yourself in the same room as one of the driving forces behind LGBT History Month, a leading Polish gay rights activist, and Norway’s answer to Christine Jorgenson? I’m looking at you, Jeff, Adam and Jeannette.

Geert was a giggler, and I warmed to him immediately. And Vreer, thank you for showing me your alter ego, Astral-Sausage. I’ve never seen anyone pull off a silver PVC cat suit quite like that! Nadine was the “gurrrl” who straightened my hair in the early hours of the morning, after I’d been flirting and posing in the sauna with Kieran and Saulo.

On the last night we ate delicious food, as we did every night, but afterwards we played games and danced to Bowie, CeCe Peniston and the Pet Shop Boys.

Lying in bed just hours before our flight home, the wooden beams on the ceiling reminded me of pictures from German textbooks back in school. I’d always wanted to have a foreign pen pal to visit, but never felt confident I’d be safe in someone else’s home – I didn’t feel that welcome in my own. I also felt excluded at school, and wouldn’t have dreamt of going on any of the various German trips our teachers organised.

As clichéd as this sounds, I realised that the Waldschlösschen was the school trip I’d never had. It was the sweet-end of bittersweet. Thank you.

Perhaps the saddest part of leaving was not saying goodbye, but knowing that we were returning to heteronormativity. As a group, we shared a keen sense of injustice. We see the gap between how things are, and how we would like them to be, and we work hard to remove it. At the Waldschlösschen, there was no gap.

It was beautiful.

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