Monthly Archives: March 2015

An act of conscience

There’s nothing like a guilty conscience to motivate you into activism. My decision, years before I came out as transgender, to “do something” about the ignorance and prejudice from lesbians and feminists towards the trans community in general, and trans women in particular, was largely motivated by a realisation of my own ignorance and prejudice.

A few years back, I lost a trans woman friend, a very good friend. She’s the one, if you’ve been following my blog for a while, that I met at my very first lesbian event, the one who quickly discovered the event had a “women born women only” policy, something neither she nor I had ever heard of or could quite comprehend.

I was totally on her side – too timid back then to protest very loudly but certainly confident enough to say in discussions “I don’t agree with this”. But some “older and wiser” lesbians took me to one side and painstakingly explained all the politics and issues that I had been unaware of, trying to convince me that my attitudes were naïve and problematic and unfeminist. They inferred I was “junior” in this space and should defer to them. I slowly lapsed into a long silence, in which I listened a lot and said very little on the subject.

What I was failing to tell anyone was that my seeking out lesbian spaces had come about as a result not of my sexual orientation (I had been out as bi for many years) but my need for a community where it was acceptable to be gender variant, where I could live outside of the prescribed gender roles of heteronormative society. All that prejudiced stuff people said about trans women – about male gaze, male energy, male behaviours, male socialisation – was uncomfortable to hear when I had long known my trans women friends showed far more typically female socialisation patterns than I. It was me that had that male gaze, male energy, male attitudes, male socialisation, and it shamed me, forced me deeper into the closet about my gender identity.

My friend never protested the trans exclusionary policy; like many trans women she was too busy surviving constant street harassment, stones thrown at her windows and the inherent unsafety of being a visible trans woman to be confident enough to argue with unaccepting and prejudiced people. But their lack of acceptance, the discovery that she was barred from yet another potentially supportive space and community, hurt her deeply.

We remained friends for a long time, and I watched her crumble, watched her PTSD worsen, watched her emotional wellbeing deteriorate. I started to question whether she had done the right thing – surely, if transition was right for her, she should be happy? I blamed her mental health on her transition, and refused to see the truth, which was that her mental health was a direct result of the oppressive and abusive way she was treated by the people around her. The lesbian feminist community, me included, had a hand in that oppression, and a shared responsibility for her poor mental health.

As a therapist, I understand there is a very clear correlation between mental wellbeing and social support, which is why on average LGBT folks have poorer mental health than cis/het folks, and why over time the mental health of LGB folks (with the B lagging sadly behind) has improved significantly alongside changes in societal attitudes.

How much easier, though, to place the illness as a symptom of the person themselves rather than place some responsibility on their social situation. How much easier to infantilise and pathologise trans women instead of standing in awe of their courage to be themselves in a hostile world.

The crunch came when I could no longer bear to hear her sorrow that she was so unaccepted, so unloved for who she was. I remembered, some time before, a prejudiced lesbian I knew saying “trans women are socialised as men, and like all men they expect us to look after their emotional needs”. These words started to influence my thinking. It was the ultimate get-out; I didn’t have to care about this human being because her neediness was not, after all, because society was being shit to her but because of her male sense of entitlement, her expectation, nay, demand, that I listen to her problems as if it was my job. As a good feminist it was my responsibility to be less caring.

I can honestly say without a shadow of doubt that my problem in this instance was not “caring too much” but understanding too little, but it’s a neat excuse for people with little empathy to lower their already low standards.

I pulled away from her, and we eventually lost touch. Despite my buying into a “tragic trans” narrative for her, the next time I saw her she was supremely happy – she had found love and built herself a more reliable community. She deserved love – now I look back, I see that she had looked after my emotional needs far better than I had looked after hers – she had been a good friend, she had cooked for me, given me a spare room to escape to through bad times, cuddled me when I was low, listened to my fears and worries and never once called me on my prejudices and mistaken beliefs about transgender people. In fact, I was the male-typical “what about me?” person in that relationship. She deserved a whole lot better.

I’ve never spoken about how much I let her down. It’s only now that I can see some people responding in similar ways to me that I fully understand the impact of my prejudice. I now also understand that I couldn’t bear to hear her sorrow because it was a foreshadowing of my own.

It’s a simple equation – trans people’s wellbeing depends on the full acceptance of wider society – non-acceptance is in and of itself the source of transgender oppression.

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Taking a deep breath and stepping up once again

After a long time of feeling beaten, I’ve been inspired by the film Selma not to be daunted by the much more minor danger I have put myself in as someone who defends trans people’s civil rights.

First of all, the film has taught me I am unlikely to be shot or physically beaten, that things are not as bad for me as they are for many people of colour, and I remind myself every day of the enormous privilege I have in this world.

But I have been endangered in other ways. The gaslighting from people who seek to invalidate trans identities is a heavy burden. The foundation of all trans oppression is that because ours is an unusual, minority experience, therefore we are wrong, delusional, and politically undermining of the majority position and values others cling to. The burden trans people carry is delegitimisation and social exclusion, which is no small burden. Social support has time and time again been proven to protect people’s mental health and wellbeing, and to render them less exposed to societal violence and abuse. Trans people are expected to go without such support.

Some months ago I stopped blogging, closed my facebook page, removed myself from all feminist and trans activist spaces, and severely curtailed my social interactions in order to protect myself from the mental violence of these campaigns. I had been targeted individually, and unfairly, and became quickly aware that being out as a trans person put me outside the “circle of care” for some people, and gave them a sense of entitlement to speak about me in ways that to me and those close to me seemed extreme and outrageous. Online, I have fared even worse when I have been mistaken for a trans woman, so I hold an awareness that I still have relative privilege. This is what has kept me wanting to stand up and use that privilege to challenge the oppression of trans people, and trans women in particular.

To be clear, these campaigners exist all over the world, and I oppose all of them. That some of them live in my home town and are a little closer to home adds to my discomfort, but everyone who knows me knows I have stood up against trans exclusion and delegitimisation for years and long before I was aware of the particular individuals who are most involved locally with such campaigning.

I know I have acted with integrity, but I have been outspoken, and it is unsurprising that I’ve been targeted and attacked by people who want to silence me, and that the positive, bridge-building work I’ve been doing has been undermined. When I saw what happened at Selma – the violence people were prepared to use to maintain their dominance, I felt at once enormously privileged by comparison and at the same time a sense of resonance – I know I have been experiencing another kind of oppression, and those close to me know this too, and understand its profound impact on me and on my partner.

By choosing to stand up for my own and others rights, particularly those of trans women, I have put myself in the firing line, but I am not the one pulling the trigger. Activists always get a bad reputation in contrast to those members of minority groups who keep heads down and “know their place” – feminists are seen as oppressive, full of hatred and anger towards men, black activists are seen as violent and dangerous. Trans activists are treated no differently by those who wish to stop us having civil rights and who wish, let’s be honest, that the rights we have in the UK, such as the Gender Recognition Act, and our protections under the Equality Act, would be revoked and that we would not be recognised as a legitimate minority group with a legitimate experience of oppression.

Often my friends as much as my enemies urge me to “pipe down” because they don’t want to see me hurt, and they know in their bones that people who are vulnerable and stand up for themselves do, always, get hurt. And so I have, in fact it has nearly broken me at times.

But I will keep working towards change – I have done some good, and I will not be intimidated and silenced by the way I, other trans folk, and people who have offered me allyship have been targeted. I have always strived to work with integrity, and in a non-violent way that builds bridges and brings people together, but there are some positions I will not build a bridge to because that would require the reversal of rights I already have as a trans person, and give credence to the outrageous claim that giving me rights erodes somebody else’s.

If anyone believes any of the rather extreme things said about me or many other trans activists, I urge them to check the evidence and in my case I also urge them to challenge me directly and have a conversation with me about their concerns, because I am not in a position to do anyone any harm. There are bad apples in every movement. I am confident that despite my lack of charm I am not one of them.

There is currently said to be a trans “tipping point”; we are finally achieving a modicum of acceptance and recognition, but the gaining of rights is always accompanied by a backlash from those who either fear the pendulum will “swing too far” or believe that those asking for rights were never oppressed in the first place, and therefore their protection will afford them unacceptable privileges.

So we need ally support now more than ever. We need allies to be strong. We need them to not turn away from what is happening and fill in the blanks in their mind with a story that allows them to do nothing, a story where trans people are responsible for their own misfortune, where the concerns they express are “individual” and “personal” rather than a collective call for human rights and an end to oppression, and a plea to cis people to start noticing and scrutinising the actions and behaviours of those who actively campaign against our rights, acceptance and recognition.

Our rights, let’s be clear, to be recognised as who we say we are, to live in our identities unimpeded, and not to be segregated or subjected to “separate but equal” treatment.