Monthly Archives: April 2015

Gender Segregation – “For your own good”?

TW for discussion of violence and abuse, including sexual abuse

A long time ago, I was vulnerably housed, living in a hostel in a city down South. Next door to me lived a couple, a really tall older man and a young adult man who had dwarfism. I’m going to call the smaller guy Paul, although his real name has disappeared from my head. I’ll never forget his story, though.

People have always told me their life stories – I guess I have that kind of face. Paul’s was pretty tragic – a childhood of terrible neglect and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. It was hard to hear – the worst thing I’d ever heard at the time, which given  the things I’d heard and experienced is saying a lot.

Paul’s companion was his “saviour” – someone who showed him love he had never known, but it soon became clear that this older man had a temper and was violent – sometimes I was called into the aftermath of blood, bruises, tears and apologies. They clearly loved each other, but I could see that what Paul had now was only good compared to the horror of his past – he was still being abused, and he was terribly vulnerable.

A journey towards separatism

Forward fast a few years and I’d pretty much become a lesbian separatist – I’d come out the other side of therapy for my own abuse from cis men, and I’d figured out the safest kind of world is a world without men in it, at least for me (okay, I admit that later I learned women weren’t as safe to be with as I’d hoped, but that’s another story for another time). Back then I worked for women-only domestic violence services, and I firmly believed they need to stay women-only (note: for me, that always included trans women).

But then the UK funding climate changed and the service I worked for started to work with men, amid resistance from myself and other workers.

[Image: a crying woman cowers in front of a man's clenched fist]

But that work with male survivors changed me. It turns out there are other Pauls in the world, that male/female is not the only axis of oppression that exists. I discovered that sometimes women really do abuse vulnerable men, that as well as being a man, someone can be queer or elderly or young or disabled or little or a person of colour or economically vulnerable. And most importantly, I discovered that despite the power imbalance, women and men are not fundamentally different and our experiences of abuse and trauma are not fundamentally different. I discovered gender as a continuum, and human experience as a continuum, and began to free myself from the simplistic, convenient, and binary models I had clung to.

Back then, we would say “yeah, but men should set up their own services, women shouldn’t have to look after men, it isn’t their job”, and that works so well as an argument when I think of this group of people “men” with the attached picture I have of someone able and white and well-muscled. But it sounds callous, if I’m honest, when I think of someone like Paul. Really? Not the job of an able, middle class professional being paid by taxpayers money to care about a vulnerable, homeless abuse survivor with dwarfism? That sounds a little different, doesn’t it?

I’m not suggesting that Paul didn’t have male privilege, far from it. I am simply suggesting male privilege is not the only privilege there is, and that he lacked many others.

At the same time, I felt uneasy – a service with “women” in the title helping men was a bit like Cadbury’s making gravy. The whole thing needed a bit of a rethink. Because “domestic violence” had become synonymous with women, and heterosexual women at that, it had coalesced around one particular form of oppression – sexism. Ageism, ableism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, classism and poverty (etc) were not getting a look-in or being treated as equally serious oppressions.

Perhaps this is because women’s organising does benefit from potentially having the weight of half the world’s population behind it. Women are not a minority, and maybe that’s an advantage they have over other oppressed groups. It’s helped them be the only oppressed group that’s consistently able to create publicly funded separate spaces.

Some time later still, I went to work for a mixed gender sexual abuse survivors service, and some of my feminist friends were angry with me – they did not believe there was such thing as a genuine male abuse survivor, they honestly thought that men could only be perpetrators. I was shocked, but I also understood – in a world where separatism had created a bubble in which we never heard about male survivors, it was easy to disbelieve their existence. What we saw more often was male perpetrators manipulating and abusing by playing the victim, a common story.

But by now my eyes had been painfully opened – male survivors do exist, male survivors of abuse by women exist. Even though the power structure between men and women is very unequal, on an individual level there are variations, and other power structures at play. For example, boys under 7 sexually assaulted by female relatives and then labelled as “seducers” based on their maleness have their child/adult power inequality erased.

My own history and the work I did was raising complex questions about gender, trauma and abuse that I needed to explore. I went and did an MA with a particular focus on gender and trauma. That journey led to me coming out as a non-binary transgender person, but it also opened my eyes to the many layers in the stories we tell ourselves about violence against women.

“For your own good”

Gender segregation – in domestic violence services, prisons, toilets, and other women only spaces is supposedly for women’s own good. We have to keep women and men separate because it’s thought impossible to expect the same standard of non-violence from men as from women. This constant threat of violence and micro-aggressions is part of what keeps women oppressed, even to the point where feminists argue for single-sex education so girls can “do better” despite the fact our country is ruled by an ex-boys’ school elite. Gender segregation keeps women out of power and yet it’s still seen to be in their interests.

When I wrote my dissertation, I came across evidence that feminist domestic violence services, in the US at least, were being controlled by an external, ultra-conservative agenda – the message to services, in summary, appeared to be “if you want funding for your shelters, then you must present and perpetuate the ‘women as powerless victims’ narrative” – any hint that women’s position in society is negotiable, changeable, evolving and conditional is erased to create a fixed condition of women as a static underclass. The reality, that some women are strong, violent, unassailable, powerful, has ironically become as unpalatable to the people defending these vital services as it has to the conservatives, and so we feminists working for an end to domestic violence found ourselves shoring up the very thing we wanted to dismantle. In order to support women in the world the way it is, we have given the way the world is an increasing solidity and sense of permanence.

All those years I spent in women’s spaces, I fought for their preservation. Even whilst knowing in my heart that gender isn’t a binary. Whilst knowing that I carried the male gaze and male socialisation into those spaces. That I identified as woman in some ways and man in others. That I myself was capable of both victimhood and violence (I was prone to physically lashing out as a youngster, something that’s hard for me to own up to).

It’s hard not to end up with more questions than answers when trying to think of ways forward. I will continue to stick up for women’s spaces, whilst hoping we evolve away from them. I hope that segregated spaces were a necessary part of the journey, but not where we’re going to end up. I want a world not of assimilation, of “not seeing gender” but of inclusion and anti-oppression, where there is an awareness of inequality and people’s vulnerability, and an empathy for difference in all spaces. This becomes increasingly necessary as we realise that many of the smaller minority groups will never have the resources or traction to create their own safe spaces. And as Audre Lorde famously said, we do not live single-issue lives, so our separation into neat, easy to delineate categories is more problematic than at first appears.

[image: photo of Audre Lorde speaking, with qotation overlaid "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not lead single-issue lives"]

More than anything, though, I would love to see an end to the way we construct and reinforce toxic masculinity. I fear that in this neoliberal world, it may be in some people’s interests to maintain male violence and its function of domination, control and security. It is not mindless – it serves a purpose in keeping our country economically strong and our race in a superior position. Subverting that role in whatever way we can, and that includes breaking down the myths that separate us, is tough, complicated but important work.

Together in our differences

When I came out at work about my plans to undergo a medical transition, at first I didn’t even bother to go into “non-binary” and what that means, because it felt too hard for people to understand. I told colleagues a simplified version of my truth, which implied I was transitioning to live “as a man”. It felt right at the time, but I quickly realised this identity was just as suffocating for me as the assigned female identity I’d been lumbered with at birth. I rectified the situation, took time to explain non-binary to people. They were nice about it, but clearly they did not understand. I felt more authentic, but way out on a very bendy limb. I was a unicorn*, tempted to saw off my horn to appear like a less authentic but more believable pony.

Of course, if all us unicorns wore our horns out and proud, we wouldn’t seem so imaginary. But the reality is, most of us, cis or trans, spend time negotiating the varying sized gap between “fitting in” and “being ourselves”.

Was I lying to my colleagues when I implied I was a man? No – in a world where currently there are only two legal and social options, I’m enough of a man – maleness being a significant part of my gender story – to deserve to be included in male spaces, male toilets, male services, if that’s what I need to exist in this imperfect, either/or world.

If we start to erase my right to belong to the group “men” by citing my femaleness, my femininity, then we’re falling into dodgy territory where people need to perform a perfect version of masculinity in order to be acceptable. Hell no, that’s not the way to go – though of course trans people are under constant pressure to perform this perfect stereotype because our identities are continually scrutinised and questioned – any hint of femininity, female socialisation, female-typical or stereotypical behaviour, and I am invalidated, as people encourage me to widen my leg position, shorten my hair, lower my voice etc. to “pass” as myself.

I am not always given the space I need to be “the same, but different”.

not afraid

(I wish)

The tension between “sameness” and difference

I guess it’s normal to hide a difference if it comes with the threat of exclusion, but at the same time parts of ourselves can be suffocated, crying out to express “I am not the same as you!”

Trans people have our own unique experiences and culture, we have our own history of oppression and a profound difference in how we relate to our bodies, and how we culturally respond to assigned sex and gender. At the same time, when we are “othered” it marginalises us to the point where it becomes difficult for us to access things like services, toilets, social spaces and employment, so many of us spend a lot of time fighting for inclusion, and stressing our “sameness”.

Our dilemma is how to let the world know we are both different and the same; the dance many minority groups find themselves in, between isolating self-segregation and crushing assimilation.

Everyone has their own, entirely unique relationship with gender, sex and their own body. There are common themes, but none of them are absolutes. People need space to be different without risking rejection from the warmth, safety and security of the pack. Humans are suited to collective endeavour, but we are not a hive mind.

Organising across difference

Whether we focus on similarities or differences matters a lot when it comes to any kind of social organising. If we can only join together with other “people like us” to organise against oppression, or to create safety, there are problematic consequences. Organising around sameness and commonality risks erasing or excluding all difference. It also creates an inherently oppressive atmosphere in which assumptions are made about what “we” collectively think, feel and experience. It negates the need for us to work on our empathy and our ability to build bridges across divides.

Organising across difference lets the air in – people are free to not “fit in”, but to work together for something collectively beneficial. In a place where difference is celebrated and accepted, we are not always seeking to expel or exclude people, we are not focussed on doubting their legitimacy or vulnerability.

For non binary folk like me, there is an importance for both/and thinking that fights against the tyranny of the either/or: I have some experiences, feelings, history and biology that situate me as a woman. On the other hand, my predominant instincts from my earliest memories have drawn me towards male social rules, expression and behaviour, and in that I find I have a lot, if not more, in common with men. How I negotiate my relationship with the world given these complicated facts – how I identify, and where and how I wish to be included, should be up to me, as these experiences are inherently marginalising and render me highly vulnerable.

In an ideal world both parts of myself, and all the other parts of me that do not neatly fit this dichotomy, would be generally welcomed rather than excluded – there are some conversations that I do not feel a part of, but there are many, held under the banner of “women’s issues”, that certainly affect me.

The same but different

In reality, I am forced to conform to narrow ideas about who I am in order to negotiate my relationship with the rest of the human race; in my need to belong, I might sometimes grow tired of wearing my unicorn’s horn for all to see.

I am just the same as you, and I am nothing like you. Because mine is the minority experience, cis people have the power to choose whether to include me, accept me, believe me, or whether to use my differences to shut me out of spaces, conversations, civil rights, services, employment, toilets, and the safety of social inclusion; my being part of the human pack is entirely at the discretion of people who do not share, and may not understand, my experience and my difference.

*This blog was written just before I discovered the new, and infinitely improved, gender unicorn graphic

gender unicorn

Feminist organising across difference

I previously wrote about the need to be together in our differences from a personal perspective, but what I hinted at in that blog piece, I want to make more explicit here, in a call to feminism to stop centreing sameness and commonality in our organising.

I cannot possibly write more eloquently on this subject than Mia McKenzie did in this Black Girl Dangerous article, or punch up more effectively than the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag.

But the purpose of this blog is to build relationship and understanding between cis and trans feminists, and with regard to our particular differences I may have things that need saying.

Organising around “sameness”

In feminist organising, the need to emphasise “sameness” can be destructive, for all the notion of half the world united is deeply appealing. This idea of commonality prevents white women reaching out to their sisters of colour on issues such as FGM on a basis of anything other than shared biology. Differences can be erased in a rather appropriative way – FGM becomes a “shared female experience”. But FGM is not a biological inevitability and it is not something most white women are at risk from.

At worst, white feminists can appropriate the FGM experiences of women of colour to drive forward their own personal transantagonistic agendas, citing biology as some fundamental and unifying standpoint for women in a way that is erasing of their own relative advantages and freedom from such practices.

When commonality and sameness are a focus, instead of being united in our differences as feminists, trans women are witch-hunted into proving their similarities and shared experiences in order to be included. Or worse, their differences are used as reasons to exclude them.

It’s okay to be different

Let’s get it out there – of course trans women are different from cis women.

And trans women are different from each other. And you know what? cis women are all different from other cis women too. And yet at the same time there are many experiences of oppression that are shared, and they fall under the categories misogyny and sexism; the things feminism is specifically fighting.

Organising across difference rather than sameness changes the way we look at inclusion – people can fit some ways and not others, and that’s okay. We can unite to work together for something collectively beneficial, and still have spaces and conversations we don’t need to be a part of.

In a place where difference is celebrated and accepted, trans women are free to say “I have no need to be in a discussion about menstruation or abortion, but some of my trans AFAB siblings might want in on this” and it would not be a device to exclude them from women’s organising altogether, but simply a conversation they could step out of without feeling that it in any way compromised their position as women.

In a world where it’s okay to have differences, cis women would not use reproductive biology to exclude trans women from such things as discussion and services around sexual and domestic violence, which disproportionately affect trans women.

They would not, for instance, pull that old trick of citing pregnancy risk as the thing that sets apart a cis woman’s experience of rape – a notion that is not only demeaning to trans women’s experiences of rape, but also erasing of the experiences of infertile, post-menopausal or pre-pubescent cis female victims.

Is our movement mature enough for nuance?

There are aspects of sexism and misogyny that affect trans women, some that affect non-binary folks and sometimes trans men too. Because binaries and either/ors are generally an illusion, it is possible to build a stronger movement when we do away with arbitrary and simplistic sorting processes in feminist organising. We are fully able to have intelligent, here and now discussions – just who is affected by this issue in front of us right now? Who needs in on the conversation? How can we make sure they’re considered and included? How can we ensure our non-erasure of their differences?

Feminism has an important choice, and it is at the heart of the movement towards pro-intersectional feminism – do we homogenise, and then attempt to draw clear and arbitrary lines as to where that homogenity ends, or do we do the hard work of recognising that every different conversation we have in feminism will hold a different balance of power – who is most vulnerable in this regard, who needs to be held and centred, who can be overlooked, who holds the aces – this is a constantly shifting and nuanced story.

10 steps towards a new, radical transfeminism

Not all trans people are feminists, just as not all women are feminists. Trans people, much like everyone else, have a wide variety of beliefs about gender, ranging from radically feminist to deeply conservative. The theories we use should rightly be discussed, questioned and put through a rigorous feminist critique.

But what is not in error is the underlying fact of our experience and existence: we are real. This means that equally, feminists are ethically obliged to take the genuine nature of, and oppression of, trans people into account in their theories.

The win-win result of this act of mutual respect – of trans people wholeheartedly supporting feminism, and feminists wholeheartedly supporting trans people, is better, more developed, more nuanced thinking about gender and sex, and smarter activism.

And it really is not that difficult to do. Here are a few suggested ways forward for those of us who are more radically inclined.

[image: a person with a beard, wearing a dress, carrying a sign that says "fuck gender roles"]

1. Let go of simplistic, clumsy either/or theories about nature/nurture

Hopefully, we are all now way beyond a child’s colouring-in picture of the gender argument; the idea that “if gender is not 100% socially constructed, then it must be 100% biological” (or vice versa) lags behind the important trend within the scientific community to favour neuroconstructivism – the idea that nature and nurture interact with each other in complex and at times unpredictable ways; “nature v nurture” arguments are fundamentally out of date.

2. Understand that assigning sex is an aspect of gender oppression

It is absurd to believe that picking a baby up, looking at its genitalia, and then assigning it a legal and social status, and a set of pronouns to be used for life, is a biological process. When we say “sex” is socially constructed this is what we mean; the process of sex assignment is a human-made process not a biological one – we made up the words man and woman and sex, we invented birth certificates, we manufactured the need for signs on toilet doors – none of these things is biological.

Many believe this artificial, dividing, classification system was designed to manufacture a subservient class (women) and that it oppresses trans and intersex people in the process. In other words, sex assignment is an aspect of gender oppression.

3. Acknowledge we are not “opposites”

Men and women are not fundamentally different from one another – they do not have essentially different abilities and traits. Gender differences, including traits such as male violence and female passivity, are largely if not entirely socially constructed. Most importantly, social conditioning around gender is not uniform – we cannot predict the behavioural/sociological outcomes for any individual human, despite society’s efforts to condition us.

There are no behavioural traits that belong exclusively to men and are not found in women, or vice versa, whether socially indoctrinated or biologically innate. Human beings simply cannot be sifted neatly into two clear, non-overlapping categories based on any gender-related difference.

4. Affirm we are not our reproductive systems

Owning a particular reproductive system has a material affect on our lives, this needs to be acknowledged. But of course even here there is variation – intersex people explode the idea of a binary, but also fertility, potency, hormone levels and other attributes connected to reproduction will vary from person to person and also change through our lives.

Even if there was a binary, (and there isn’t), our reproductive differences are not substantial enough to warrant segregation. Assigning a legal/social status to someone based on their (assumed) reproductive capabilities is as arbitrary as assigning a status based on skin, hair or eye colour. And it is oppressive.

Our physical bodies may influence us, but they do not, or at least should not, define our identity.

5. Understand gender segregation is a tool of the patriarchy

Segregation is a manipulation founded in a patriarchal agenda – separating women from men “for their own good” serves to reinforce male dominance by making women afraid of men and less able or inclined to participate in mixed spaces. Male violence towards women is the engine that drives this segregation.

Separate spaces are an important temporary refuge in the world as it is, but their existence does nothing to help change things, and they may even reinforce the status quo. Such is the dilemma of people trying to find respite from oppression, but also wanting to end the oppression. Sometimes there are trade-offs between our current safety and our future ideals. There are no easy solutions.

6. Accept the radical challenge of risking our comfort zones to bring about change

The ultimate challenge for us as feminists is to end the vast inequality and false segregation between women and men and come to a place where we are understood as similar and equal and human. At the same time by necessity we have to speak up about our current differences in circumstance.

This is a somewhat paradoxical position that leads to a lot of conflict in terms of where we place the emphasis in our individual activism. It takes courage to build the bridges that will in the end unite us and erase the false divisions, but the fear-focussed, safety-focussed activism many of us retreat into is an understandable response to the levels of cis male violence and hierarchical oppression.

7. Challenge the bias towards masculinity

Equality needs to be won by acknowledging the boundary between the sexes is permeable in both directions. This means we have to learn to value those things we have relegated to the class “feminine” and not see maleness as neutral, or default, or privilege behaviours traditionally seen as masculine like strength, drive and invulnerability.

8. Break the foundations of gender oppression, not just the facade

The gender class system was based on reproductive biology but many other human traits and dichotomies have been projected onto a manufactured gender divide – e.g. dominance/submission, reason/emotion, strength/weakness, power/vulnerability, hard/soft, predator/prey. This is a natural consequence of falsely polarising human experiences, and similar processes happen when we polarise in other ways. It would be impossible to abolish “gender” as a social construct without abolishing the process of sex assignment that acts as a foundation to gender, with its false polarisation.

9. Recognise the colonialist roots of our gender discussions

A problem with the notion of gender abolition is that it would be colonialist to further abolish or erase non-western cultural experiences of gender such as Two-spirit and Hijras, which have already experienced erasure from colonialism. Abolishing sex assignment, however, would mean ending something that is imposed on vulnerable individuals (children) without their consent. Abolishing sex assignment at birth would not prevent people from freely choosing a sexed or gendered identity for themselves, but it would materially undermine those polarising assumptions of difference.

10. Allow all people bodily autonomy and the freedom to not be legally segregated against their wishes

Trans identities are valid with or without medical treatment, our identities should not be medicalised but we should be entitled to medical treatment if we require it. Such treatment should neither legitimise nor deligitimise us.

How we legally classify human beings is a human-fabricated choice and one that can be altered as we learn more about ourselves. If someone insists that we must choose to continue ignoring trans and intersex people when we classify people in this constructed language of sex difference, they are acting oppressively towards a minority for whom the created system simply does not work.

 

At the heart of these steps is the abolition of assigning people to a segregated sex class without their consent. Could the abolition of sex assignment and sex segregation lead to the equality and liberation of all women, trans people and intersex people? Almost certainly. However, it would be naive to think we can achieve this easily. In the mean time, any attempts to subvert or alter that classifying system and demonstrate its weakness and permeability are of course acts of feminism as well as acts of individual survival.

Understanding gender socialisation a little better

Gender is socially constructed – I guess anyone wanting to read a blog with “feminist” in the title is probably going to agree to some extent with that statement. But what exactly does that mean?

I’m going to put my child development head on, and draw from my learning as a children’s counsellor, to help bust through some of the false assumptions that arise about “social construction”.

The most important thing to know about children’s social learning can be exemplified by how to teach a child to say “thank you”. It turns out that one of the best ways to teach them is to say thank you to them, and in front of them, as much as possible. Telling children to say it without modelling it to them, turns out to be a really poor way of teaching them. In other words, children learn best by watching what others do, not by being informed what they should do.

How is this relevant to gender? Because likewise, children learn how to “do” gender via their social interactions, not by being told. So, as many trans people will attest, telling a female-identifying child who was assigned male at birth how to perform her gender, will have less effect on her than you might think – she may be told to “man up” by the people around her, but meanwhile, she is watching the women and girls around her, and as someone who identifies with that gender, she will be influenced by them as much if not more than she will by direct messages about how she should behave.

Trans girls often want to wear pink and purple, for example, because society is modelling to them an image of pink and purple girlhood.

what if I told you

This is why it is important not to make an essentialism out of gender construction. When we argue there is something fundamental and essential in itself about having been raised a boy or girl, we are suggesting that gender socialisation is universal and uniform. This would lead to an absurd conclusion: in a society that treats women as inferior, if childhood socialisation is absolute, strictly follows our (assumed) chromosomes, and is irreversible, then women can never overcome their social programming.

This is nonsense, of course. Our socialisation is varied and changeable, not fundamental. If this were not true, all people would be walking stereotypes of their assigned gender.

As feminists we might be drawn to a compromise position where female socialisation is partial and can be overcome, but male socialisation is insurmountable. But that would simply be bad science.

Trans children also have a very different socialisation experience from cis children because they are often gender non-conforming. Their vulnerability and social exclusion as a result of this is evidenced by the fact a higher proportion of trans children are sexually abused than the already alarming percentage of cis girls. Socially marginalised kids are vulnerable to being targeted by bullies and predators; a trans girl’s childhood is therefore unlikely to be one of typical cis male privilege.

The inequality and misogyny in our society also ensures that assigned male children who are are attuned to women’s social cues rather than men’s will be punished far more severely than “tomboys”. Trans girls and feminine non-binary people often face transmisogynistic violence because of this.

Most trans women I know accept that at times they have benefited from male privilege pre-transition for passing as male, but equally a person with black African heritage and pale skin can pass as white and benefit from white privilege, but this does not make them white. The psychological experience of that person and the impact of the racism that they see in the world will be entirely different than for a white person. We can’t equate one civil rights issue with another, but there is a comparison to be made here with trans women, who experience themselves as women and are bombarded with misogynistic messages they internalise, just like other women.

Why do trans people perceive ourselves the way we do? We don’t know for sure. We suspect it is a hormonal effect, but we have no conclusive proof yet of how or why we exist. But we do exist. That there have been people wanting to live as a gender different from their assigned sex throughout history and across many cultures is a fact we cannot deny. How we understand ourselves is ever-evolving.

Let us settle this – trans people do not experience a socialisation process that is normative for their assigned sex, and very often trans people have a considerable amount of socialisation patterns in common with the opposite sex to the one they were assigned. Because these socialisation patterns bed in very early in our lives, while our brains are still forming, they are very much a part of who we are as people.

Where we get stuck, of course, is that nobody is a walking stereotype, and trans people, just like everyone else, will have a blend of gendered characteristics. Sometimes, it is easy to say that the behaviours that match their assigned sex are more “essential” and those of their identified sex more “performed” but this erases the fact that all people are performing gender, and we are all constantly renegotiating our relationship with the rules of gender handed to us by society. We cannot hold trans people to a higher account than we hold the rest of humanity.

We all need to be constantly questioning and examining our relationship with gender, and the assumptions we make. Trans people are as capable as anyone else of both confounding and perpetuating gender stereotypes. Changing the way we “do” gender is about how we challenge the ideas we advertise and model to all children – we do not need to put trans kids under any special scrutiny as they will simply reflect norms in gender socialisation that all other kids of their identified sex will be experiencing.

Me and my hormones

In my 20s, nobody minded messing around with my hormones. Like most uterus owners who sleep with testicle owners, I was shoved on the pill at an early age. For me personally, one dysphoria* trumped another – my absolute terror of pregnancy meant I would do anything to ensure sex was safe.

The pill seriously screwed me up, physically and emotionally. In my early 30s, a doctor figured out that I was naturally low on oestrogen, and the modern oestrogen-low pills were just making things worse. She prescribed me one of the old-fashioned pills, higher in oestrogen.

I read through the side effects and dire health warnings nonchalantly. For a very short while I felt a little better, but my body had other ideas.

Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) happened, and that was the end of me taking any kind of hormonal contraception, or any other oestrogen-based drug.

DVT meant not being able to walk, months of medical messing around and eventual surgery. More frightening than that, the clot could have travelled and caused a fatal embolism.

Needless to say, I don’t take any medication lightly now.

A decade or so later, and I am contemplating taking another hormone – testosterone. Of the physical dysphoria I experience as a transgender person, hormonal dysphoria is quite the most persistent. Ever since puberty, I have felt as if my hormones were slowly poisoning me.

The desired effect of testosterone is that I will feel better, and I admit this is an experiment – it may not be true, but I believe the anecdotal and scientific evidence stacks up enough to give it a try.

I may take it and not like it, and that’s okay. I can always stop taking it.

Like the previous hormone, I may be one of the few that suffers undesired side effects, even though the therapy has been proven to be very safe. That’s a risk I am willing to take. It frightens me – I suppose it should frighten me, but I am well informed and this is my body, my risk to take.

The side effects I am ambivalent about are the visibly masculinising effects of testosterone. I want them up to a point – as a non-binary person, I would love to be able to press “pause” at the point where it is impossible to tell whether I am “male or female”, and nobody will gender me ever again. In reality, I know from my transitioning friends that there is no such point – people will always seek to gender you, and I have friends who have been ma’am’d and sir’d on the same day.

I don’t believe that testosterone will “turn me into a man”. I don’t “want to be a man” – I am who I am, and always have been; no amount of testosterone will change who I am. There’s a chance that it will make my outside appear more congruent with who I am, because if gender was on something as simple as a line (it isn’t), then I fall on the more male end of that line.

So, a possibly beneficial side-effect of testosterone is it may ease my social dysphoria, as well as my physical dysphoria. Quite honestly I would prefer to ease my social dysphoria by challenging and changing this cissexist, sexist, heteronormative and binarist society. Sadly, changing myself turns out to be a tiny bit easier than changing the entire world – who knew?

If I get read as a man it is also quite possible I’ll feel I’ve exchanged one lie about myself for another. Only time will tell, and many people in my situation have to moderate and stop/start their testosterone dose in order to get where they need to be.

Other folks may not be entirely comfortable with the fact I don’t know exactly how (and if) things will work out for me, but I am over being certain for other people’s benefit – all of life is one experiment after another, and this is no different – it’s a thought-through, talked-through and well researched experiment, but it’s still an experiment.

I want to take testosterone and I suspect the internal map of who I am will match up to that hormone with a click, as it has for the many other trans folk who have felt the need to take it.

If it doesn’t click, well I just stop – no harm, no foul. It’s my body, my choice.

But the hormones that could have killed me, they were handed over to me with no fuss or preamble – no year of waiting, no searching questions, no psych diagnosis, no “are you really really sure?” – given to me like candy, there was a carte blanche to mess with my hormones as much as they liked as long as it was “women’s hormones” I was given.

Even that’s a lie – we all have the same hormones – men have oestrogen, women have testosterone. In no way are we as divisible, separate and binary as we love to think of ourselves.

So, next time someone speaks in hushed tones about whether a trans person understands the enormity of what they are doing, here’s the challenge – is the “enormity” really about health and psychological consequences, which have been proven time and time again to be highly favourable for trans people who seek medical treatment, or is it simply because we are screwing with a simplistic, binary picture of nature and sex?

Because I think what I am doing is no more screwing with nature than the contraceptive pill is screwing with nature. No more unnatural than anaesthetic, or abortion, or any other surgery or medical intervention that is known to prolong, preserve, or improve quality of life as medical treatment for trans people has been categorically proven to do.

I don’t want my identity to be medicalised – my identity is what it is no matter what treatment I seek, but I want the option to access healthcare that can help me.

There’s a good chance hormones will make me healthier and happier – all the evidence points that way. I hope one day my right to bodily autonomy will be fully recognised, and that folks will accept that healthier happier people do not make the world a lesser place.

 

*I’m on the fence about the word dysphoria – given its true meaning, the opposite of euphoria, it feels apt in my case, but I dislike the medicalisation of it and it’s relationship with diagnosis and mental health – my apologies to those who might prefer I used a different word.

Things are not always what they seem to a prejudiced eye

Trans women “dominate the conversation due to their learned male privilege”, so the story goes. I have heard many variations of this story; a trans woman showed up in a women’s group and took too much attention, spoke too loudly or generally took up “too much space”.

Maybe it’s time to put this trope under the scrutiny it deserves.

Contrary to this stereotype, most of my trans women friends are pretty shy, and many are quite reticent and fearful, understandably, about speaking up against prejudice. They would be unlikely to go to a women-only space, or a lesbian or feminist gathering, for fear of exclusion or discrimination. Many of them rarely even leave their homes, because of the levels of harassment they experience when they do. I’m left wondering, therefore, if what is visible to many is an atypical and “feisty” subset of trans women.

Because let’s face it, given the levels of transantagonism to be found in many women’s spaces, it takes a gutsy trans woman to walk into one.

But even so, I am going to unpick whether the the words “entitled, dominant, male” are appropriate for even these “feisty” women.

Some time ago, I was at a feminist workshop, and found myself doing a lot of the talking.

This got me thinking, because accidentally dominating a conversation is not a new experience for me. I needed to self-reflect whether this was a sign of my own masculine privilege. I imagine, if I were a trans woman, my behaviour would certainly be taken as evidence of my masculinity. Perhaps, as a transmasculine person, it still is.

What was going on for me that day? Well, to be honest I was feeling pretty terrified, because I was scheduled later to deliver a talk on trans issues – I was hypervigilant, wondering how I would be received. I remember the woman I was debating with seemed pretty hostile to my way of looking at things, and I was on the defensive, hoping to talk her round and make myself understood.

Something I have learned is that the less comfortable I am, the more I talk. I am also less able to do basic things like modulating tone and loudness, and making judgements about turn-taking. Some people might diagnose my autistic spectrum traits from that description. I am, of course, totally responsible for my own behaviour; I just want to reflect on the cause.

I suppose it is pretty self-explanatory that in this situation I was caught in a fight or flight response and choosing “fight”. That in itself is, perhaps, a choice that could be ascribed to my male socialisation and sense of self, although I think that would be simplistic. It’s a choice I am responsible for, but it helps me understand there is more than straightforward privilege at work in my own behaviour.

But then I think about other folks who dominate conversations, and I recall a twittery and extremely feminine cis colleague I used to work with who would talk non stop on team days despite being terribly under-confident and quite a lost and lonely character. If she had been trans, would her behaviour have also been seen as “masculine”? Certainly she took up way more than her fair share of the space, but I suspect nerves and lack of social experience rather than confidence were the cause.

The legendary trans woman we so frequently hear about, usually third hand, who disrupted the otherwise “perfectly calm and harmonious” women’s meeting could have been behaving that way for any number of reasons. She could have been nervous, feeling on the spot, desperate to be accepted/included or to prove herself. Maybe she was lonely, or lacking in social interaction due to her marginalisation. Or perhaps on the autistic spectrum, as autism is common within the trans community, and can lead to difficulties with voice loudness, turn taking and reading other social cues. She might have been uncomfortable or on the defensive, because other women were hostile. She could have been experiencing fight/flight symptoms.

She may, based on her difference, have been making not unreasonable demands that nevertheless the group was resistant to accommodating, just like any other “uppity” minority person who doesn’t “know her place”.

And of course it is even more likely that it was the onlookers’ perceptions, rather than the woman’s behaviour, that were problematic; there are plenty of examples of perceptions changing according to whether a woman is perceived as cis or trans, and there are also numerous critiques of the catch-22 in which trans women are accused of aping stereotypes if submissive and of being unwomanly if not.

I think any reasonable human will acknowledge that we will be unconsciously looking for evidence of maleness in an out trans woman, and that our perceptions are often dictated by our beliefs – if you do not believe in the subjectivity of human perception, check out this now famous experiment on expert wine tasters perceiving a tinted white wine as red.

I personally have many times been mistaken for a trans woman online and have been subsequently branded with a list of attributes supposedly unique to those assigned male at birth.

We tend towards self-serving perceptions of situations. If we can pin our discomfort about someone’s behaviour and difference on their “privilege”, then we are entitled to reject and not accommodate them. It is far less easy to exclude a difficult person if their behaviour is a result of vulnerability, marginalisation, or mental health, so we tend not to consider those possibilities.

In reality, any well set up group should have ground rules about acceptable behaviour that apply to everyone equally, and there really is no excuse for singling out trans women. Making sweeping statements about a diverse group of people based on individual experiences is damaging, and this is a trope that needs to die. Particularly when we reflect that our experience of trans women is likely to be in spaces where they are outnumbered and probably being heavily scrutinised. Who would be comfortable and at their best in such a situation?