Monthly Archives: August 2014

No-person’s land

TW: discussion of suicide

Please Note: The process of writing this blog post has shifted things for me dramatically. For the first time in months, I feel I know my way forward and am feeling quietly elated about this. It goes to show that sometimes, when we shine a light into the shadows it really pays off. Because of this, I decided to go ahead and publish the post, even if it does not reflect how I’m feeling right now. Thanks to all those who stuck by me while I went through this pain.

It’s probably not a secret that I have been struggling with suicidal thoughts. The news about Robin Williams, an icon from my childhood (long before the problematic Mrs Doubtfire, I hasten to add) hit me doubly hard because of this. I find myself asking questions that can’t be answered – Robin, what tipped you over from thinking about it to doing it? I feel sad that someone who meant so much to me growing up did not know his worth.

I see this meme flying around the internet and it resonates with me:

"I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone. Robin Williams.

Let’s be clear, I’m not going to kill myself; this is not a threat, but sometimes it feels just as realistic (or unrealistic) as all my other options. I find myself stuck in a non-life, just keeping going and hoping things will make sense again one day soon.

When I was 18, and first thinking about my queerness, I saw the film Dead Poet’s Society in the cinema. To me, the film was about the impossibility of being different; in fact I would go further and say the film was implicitly about being queer. And it was about a world that would not make room for the queer kid. Where the queer kid kills himself.

The film speaks to a pain that is probably in most of us – just how different am I able to be before the world starts to push back against my difference and refuse to accommodate it?

For me, a lifelong struggle with being transgender is my difference. At that age I was secretly cross-dressing in my father’s old clothes, but I had no notion of the word transgender – I knew in my head I was more boy than girl, but not what that meant. Later, I would make some sort of sense of it with the word “lesbian” – by then a (relatively) socially acceptable term, but not the correct one – my sense of belonging to the lesbian community was about finding other “women like me” – it had little to do with my sexuality, and everything to do with my gender.

But there was such institutional stigma towards transgender folks in the lesbian community that my forward motion completely stalled. Four years ago I found myself meditating on an image of myself hanging onto a branch over a river, refusing to allow myself to be carried any further. I was stuck; I knew I was stuck, but I was terrified of the rapids ahead.

Oh, the irony that it was my partner, out of nowhere, who would come out as transgender ahead of me and make me look like I was jumping on some sort of bandwaggon! My initial fury at his audacity quickly transformed into a very belated admission: “But I’m transgender too!”

There, I’ve admitted it. And yet, I’m still hanging onto that branch, because every time I meditate, every time I get in touch with myself in therapy, my heart whispers the word “transition” to me. I’m not clear what “transition” means to me yet, or how it could be accomplished. Lana Wachowski called it going from invisible to visible; I call it becoming myself, letting myself truly be seen. And such a thing feels utterly impossible to me.

And so I continue my activism, hoping that one day I’ll make the world safe enough to allow me to really be me. Those that get ticked off with my “political” nature need to know this; I’m fighting for my survival, nothing less, because some days all ways forward seem impossible.

I’m still genderqueer; I identify, for want of more adequate words, as “masculine of centre” and male-socialised, but I am not entirely comfortable with calling myself “a man”. I find it impossible to face up to the artificial reality that society constructs; you are either one thing or another. If I am a “man”, then the affinity I feel with many trans women and lesbians becomes meaningless, because “woman” and “man” are presented to us as two mutually exclusive and oppositional groups.

I would rather not be assigned a sex or a gender at all; I would rather not be labelled according to how I look or what’s between my legs, but I have had to accept that society is not going to change if even the most radical of feminists cannot see the problem with categorising people according to their genitals. I don’t feel it’s me that needs to change, but society; and that, my friends, is a somewhat Quixotic position to be taking.

In therapy, I talk about being in no-person’s land; a muddy world of barbed wire and shell-holes from the battle of the sexes. I’m sure there’s fertile earth under all this mud but there aren’t enough people standing their ground here to make this place viable – our very language erases the possibility of gender neutrality. Even if it’s where I belong, it often feels impossible to live in such a place – a land unrecognised, blasted into oblivion.

Transitioning (whatever that entails) means obliterating all that’s left of my cisgender privilege; living my life as a second class citizen, constantly having my legitimacy and sanity called into question. The subtle violence of that is, inevitably, going to take its toll on my mental health; it already is – will I cope, or will I crumble? The catch-22 is obvious: our mental well-being is intimately connected to our levels of social support – as trans people’s social support lessens, our mental health worsens, and it becomes increasingly easy to dismiss our situation as delusional or a mistake that is making us worse, which inevitably means people will become even less supportive of what we are doing, and our mental health will worsen further still . . .

Where I am now seems safer – the comfortable lie, I’m just a genderqueer “woman” and you may as well call me she (because let’s face it, I’ll be old before “they” catches on). You can imagine me as part of this overall group “women”, I can carry on enjoying social inclusion in the only world I know. It’s tempting, even though it’s a lie.

And then I think of Robin Williams again, and that quote above. What if I keep on trying to fit in with this cis-tem that mutilates me more than surgery ever could? What if I compromise myself over and over until it becomes unendurable? If I take the “safer” path, will everything seem okay until one day I snap spectacularly? Will I feel included, but ultimately alone?

I know what I need to do. I need to find the path of my transition, however peculiar that path might be, however lonely. I just don’t know if I have the courage to do it, or where it will take me.

Looking for radical feminism? Try the trans community

Sometimes we can get bogged down in fighting and forget the positive goals we had when we set out to do a piece of activism.

My desire in the work I do to build bridges between feminism and the trans community is not to silence anyone, but to empower feminists to understand that their instinctive sense of wanting to offer empathy and fairness to trans people does not undermine some fundamental feminist cornerstone. I want to make it clear that a radical feminism is happening just as much within the trans community as it is outside of it – not all trans people are feminists, but not all women are feminists so that’s to be expected.

Just because back in the 1970’s radical feminism got pulled down a particular line of thinking does not mean it is still at the cutting edge of feminist thought forty years later. And not all radical feminists followed the crowd – here’s what Andrea Dworkin said in 1974:

“work with transsexuals, and studies of formation of gender identity in children provide basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words “male” and “female,” “man” and “woman,” are used only because as yet there are no others. . .”

Dworkin goes on to speak for the rights of trans* folk:

“One, every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition. Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised.” Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating, 1974 (Source)

If they did follow the transphobic crowd, some feminists are now attempting to make amends:

“I believe that transgender people, including those who have transitioned, are living out real, authentic lives. Those lives should be celebrated, not questioned.” Gloria Steinhem, 2013 (source)

I am not trying to rehabilitate the hurt either Dworkin or Steinhem have caused to transgender folks, but to remind us that transphobia is not part of the deal of being either radical or feminist. Any feminist who reads widely will discover for themself all the questions the “transcriticism” debate has asked have been answered eloquently by the trans community, and that, better still, the trans community are asking themselves and each other newer and even more exciting questions. If you want to find vibrant, mind-expanding radical feminist and gender revolutionary ideas, look no further than the radical, feminist trans community.

Let’s not see a new generation of radicals who are unable to critique that past period and carefully filter out some of the faulty and “of its time” thinking within otherwise important and substantial contributions to the movement.