Monthly Archives: June 2014

Recognising the wisdom and autonomy of transitioning people

I try not to talk too much about Robin, my transitioning partner, because it is not for me to discuss or speculate about his experience. But this week he started taking testosterone, and this is a really big deal for both of us, bringing a tidal wave of feelings – curiosity, fear of change, excitement, trepidation.

Some people around us have been worried – how will I feel about you when your voice drops? Well, how did you feel about your son/brother/cousin/friend when his voice dropped in puberty? The same? Uh-huh, I thought so.

Or they’re worried Robin will change – again, recall that son/brother/cousin/friend – still the same person, right? And normally puberty is accompanied by massive changes in the brain structure, and huge personality development – trans men are only going through hormonal changes, it’s actually not that big a deal.

It’s HRT, that’s all. We only see the change as so “huge” and “fundamental” because we live in a world that reinforces and emphasises the idea that men and women are fundamentally different when in fact they’re not. It’s a minor adjustment to someone’s physiology to help align them better with their internal compass.

I want to say it’s no big deal but of course it is – society makes it a big deal. There’s irrefutable evidence that social support makes for good psychological outcomes for trans people. The only correlation between trans people and poor mental health is as a result of high levels of stigma, abuse and oppression. But society still seeks to control trans people’s lives via stigmatisation and marginalisation.

Which is why as well as having to deal with the changes that are happening, Robin and I have the extra psychological burden of worrying if the new neighbours moving in next door will be transphobic and whether we’ll be the target of hate speech and hate crime as the changes become visible. We also have to deal with transphobic “feminism”‘s ongoing assault on the bodily autonomy of transgender people. And of course there are those peripheral acquaintances loudly voicing their disapproval of Robin’s “choice” because they “care” about him, and obviously know better than him.

So let’s get this out in the open. Going through transition is hard, and it incurs an enormous loss of privilege, as you become a member of a hugely put down, disparaged and marginalised minority. Although things are generally much easier for trans men than trans women, loss of status and loss of community are unlikely to be balanced out by the gaining of male privilege, particularly as Robin plans to remain out as a trans man. Even though HRT is pretty safe and routine, no medical treatment is without its risks. I know this and Robin knows this. 

What are the chances Robin would not have thought very deeply about such an important decision? Who knows about it more – the neighbours, those acquaintances gossiping over their beer, some TERFs whose dogma depends on not seeing trans people’s perspective, or Robin, who has read book after book, paper after paper, spoken to countless trans men all over the world, consulted with people who have detransitioned and people who are uncertain, quizzed the doctors over every aspect of treatment and talked through, challenged and questioned his own thinking endlessly?

Watching Robin come to this decision has been like seeing someone coming into focus for the very first time – there’s a light in Robin’s face I’ve never seen before. Resistance, bigotry and prejudice make things hard, and this is no picnic he is living, but like any coming out process the pain of rejection is mitigated by the discovery of the kinds of good souls who say “I may not understand, but I honour you and trust you, and will be your friend and ally in this”.

It’s hard to stomach the kinds of folks who patronise trans people who are in such a vulnerable position, flying in the face of social conventions in order to live a more authentic life. I guess I know that folks like that are insecure in their own lives and need that buzz of feeling superior; that “power over” trip. But those are the people who make something ultimately joyful unnecessarily painful.

Given how much misinformation is out there, it is exceptionally hard to know much about trans people, and it is exceptionally easy to stumble into a false narrative of misguided, inferior people seeking to do something artificial and even dangerous. Meanwhile, people who transition live their lives in the vast majority of cases healthier and happier than they were pre-transition. And in being healthier and happier they have more to offer the world, so this is no selfish decision but an absolute win-win.

I have had my own journey of acceptance to make around Robin’t transition, my own battle with prejudice and fear. But I recognise that Robin’s wellbeing and success is very much bound up with how I choose to respond to him. I could never have changed his mind, but I could have made him sad and fearful and alone in his journey. I have not been perfect – there were moments when fear won, but I hold onto the fact that love is a more powerful agent of positive change than fear will ever be.

What people who transition require in order to thrive and contribute to society is not judgement, prejudice, fear, gossip, unsolicited advice or opinions – they require trust, acceptance, support and love, just like everyone else.

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Ending Sex Segregation is the Next Radical Step

 

Something I’ve been pondering lately: Why are even the most radical among us so timid about making inroads into ending sex segregation?

When I chose to start using neutral pronouns, it was because of my own gender dysphoria. I cannot claim that this personal choice was cool or radical or feminist, because that would be simply to take advantage of my entirely coincidental and pretty much life-long position outside of the binary. But my relatively unusual perspective made me think in different ways. It made me notice stuff.

Like the enforced legal categorisation and segregation of the entire human race.

I started to wonder why on earth we are not kicking up more of a ruckus about this. Babies are born, and, according to nothing more than the appearance of their genitalia, they are immediately assigned a legal status, and a set of linguistic markers that will affect them for the rest of their lives. It’s insane.

It all starts with pronouns

So even though for me, neutral pronouns are a personal choice, I’m making a case for those of us that want to disrupt this system to use sex and gender neutral language more widely. Neutral pronouns do not declare “we are the same” but that we should not be segregated based on our differences. The moment we are forced to categorise people in even the most casual interaction, gender takes on an extra importance and weight. Once we accept the linguistic segregation of “he” and “she” all other segregation follows.

Other than tradition and fear, I can’t find any rationale for this segregation. If gender is completely innate, then gender will happen anyway, pronouns or no. If gender is completely learned, then only those who insist the current order is artificial but necessary could make a case for keeping things as they are.

Homophobia or biphobia may be part of what maintains our need to categorise people with a degree of certainty that also eradicates many trans and intersex identities. But if you believe attraction is natural, then you don’t need to fear what somebody hides beneath their clothes – you will be attracted to whomever you are attracted to. If you are prejudiced, then sure enough you may need people to come with accurate labelling so you can make a choice that suits your prejudices.

Perhaps we don’t need a world that is structured according to the needs of fearful, controlling and phobic people. Perhaps we’re enlightened enough to evolve beyond that.

Separate but Equal

Men continue to convince women that segregation is “for their own good”. The culture of rape within armed services demonstrates that violence is used in part to maintain segregation, and we feminists are often caught in a double bind, preserving this segregation to ensure women’s safety, but in doing so reinforcing the false gender dichotomy that we long to overcome. And so we end up with oxymoronic positions within feminism, like those who would abolish gender but are also strict sex segregationists.

Women are being manipulated into forming a “separate but equal” society, while men continue to create the structures and networks that dominate the world. Recently, David Cameron spoke vociferously against gender segregation in Islamic education. That’s the David Cameron who went to all-boy’s school Eton, just like a rather alarming number of his cabinet colleagues and many other UK leaders and influencers.

Once we who were assigned female at birth dismantle the concept of ourselves as a separate class of beings without any power and therefore without any responsibility for how things are, we have no choice but to see ourselves and be seen as people; people who share responsibility in this world, who have power that waxes and wanes but is rarely zero. We have a capacity for strength, for violence, for change, for peace, for agency. Our vulnerability and precarious position is not disputed, but neither is it absolute or unchangeable.

It’s not about making us all the same

I’m not an assimilationist; I don’t want to wash the whole world together until we all become chewing gum grey; I get bugged by some other androgynous folks that believe what comes naturally to them is therefore some sort of ideal  for everyone; my blood chills at the idea of a “utopia” where we all wear trousers and sensible shoes, or where anybody’s freedom of expression or bodily autonomy are curtailed.

Nor am I a liberal feminist; I don’t want women to simply move on up and claim a bigger place in the patriarchy. I dream of something much more radical – to dismantle the structures that rigidify our concepts of sex and gender and impose any kind of control, hierarchy or false dichotomy on them. I don’t want us to abolish sex and gender but rather to liberate them – to let them run free on the grass and do what they will.

Could changing our language be a step towards achieving this? And if so, why is it so difficult a move for even the most radical of feminists to attempt? My suggestion to all reading this is to attempt to stop assigning gender-based or sex-based language, descriptions, pronouns and terms. Try it for a day – see how it feels, see how difficult it is. Us feminists are sometimes the worst offenders, so focussed on gender that we often perpetuate the very social constructs we are trying to dismantle. I’m guilty of it all the time, but I’m trying, and in trying I am learning what a complex web we are entangled in.

I would love to rest in the binary archetype of passive victim, lacking in agency and responsibility for the ills of the world, but I rather think that as well as being trapped in this web, I, like everybody else, play my part in weaving it, and my use of language is one of the ways I participate in either changing things or keeping them as they are.

So when someone tells you sex is biological, please remind them – “sex” is a word, a category, an idea, an emphasis, a legal classification, an assignment – none of these things is in itself biology, and all these things are inherently changeable.

(Update:  I would like to make it clear that I absolutely uphold the right for all trans people to use their chosen pronouns and this blog is about evolving, not enforcing changes in language)

How am I different from you?

How am I different from you?

This is a question Robin, my transitioning partner, is asked over and over by lesbian friends who identify as women, but have some experiences that echo his own. It is also a question we ask of each other, as our lesbian and transgender experiences have sometimes merged, and sometimes diverged. The points of similarity make a mockery of any binary, either/or notions. He may be happier as a “he” whilst I balance precariously as a genderqueer “they”, but our experiences align way more than they diverge.

A lot of lesbians have some elements of gender dysphoria – “I thought I was a boy when I was a child”, “I feel sick at the idea of wearing a dress”, “I hate my breasts and if I had to have them removed I would be glad” . . . but often the conclusion to any of these statements is, “but I still consider myself to be a woman”.

Recently, we were faced with the challenge of exploring why Robin is “more of a man” than a butch identifying lesbian friend. The conclusion we came to is that Robin, who has never been particularly “butch” himself is not “more of a man”, or at least he is not more masculine than this particular friend; if you were to imagine an over-simplified, linear scale from masculine to feminine, Robin would be somewhere near the middle, a little to the masculine of centre, and this friend would happily admit to being all the way over on the male side. In fact, it was clear that the extent of this friend’s masculinity is such that she does not need to alter herself whatsoever to be read as male in the ways that count for her, no matter what pronouns she uses. Her lived reality is congruent and makes sense, and she does not experience that painful dissonance between how she feels and how she is experienced.

This friend has experienced what many would call gender dysphoria, and has found a way to manage it that works for her. Fortunately, this friend is still open-minded enough to admit that how she experiences herself is related to her gender and not her sexuality. She also says that had her body, face and voice been less androgynous, she might well have needed to transition.

The implication of this is not that Robin’s claim on the terms “man” or male” is tenuous, but that there are many, many people with an equally valid claim that will not need to transition. For some, the risks, stigma and isolation associated with transition might outweigh the benefits. For some, living as a lesbian is as much a matter of gender as it is of sexuality, and identifying as a lesbian is more comfortable and (sadly) more socially acceptable than identifying as transgender. Equally depressingly, some lesbians would even say that it is more morally acceptable to be a lesbian than to be transgender.

But what if it is ok to be either a lesbian or a trans man, or even to identify as lesbian and trans, and that the two things are connected, inter-related – not in a clunky “lesbians are confused trans men/ trans men are confused lesbians” way, but in a complex way, in that many lesbians are gender variant and gender dysphoric and for some this is so strong transitioning may be the most helpful thing to them in leading a fulfilled and happy life. Maybe some gender dysphoric lesbians have even found other ways of transitioning, keeping hold of their pronouns and their community, their medical needs perhaps not being quite as profound. And of course, there are also lesbians who take hormones and have surgery in secret, afraid of their community’s or society’s rejection.

What a different world it would be if we saw being transgender as a continuum rather than an either/or. Have we created another binary within a binary, where cis/trans has become as much of a dichotomy as man/woman? The reality is so much greyer than this, the borders we have created between man and woman, cis and trans, gay and straight are artificial, socially constructed barriers that many of us straddle in complicated ways. I sincerely believe the transgender community is a lot bigger than we realise, or at least that its boundaries are impossible to locate.

If transgender is what you are, rather than a process you go through, there are possibly many, many more transgender people in the world than will ever transition or identify as such. Medical transition may be a necessary and appropriate response to gender variance and dysphoria for some but not for others – but do we really need to argue about who is more valid, or could we not accept that people ultimately do what is right for them, and in doing what is right for them, their happiness will inflict less wounds on the people around them. In which case the act of transitioning or choosing not to transition does not mark us apart in any fundamental way, and we are all, perhaps, still members of the same community, with more in common than we have separating us.