Monthly Archives: June 2015

When it’s well documented, then I’ll believe it’s real

Rachel Dolezal has opened up a big old can of worms. Trans people are suddenly finding themselves caught in some rather transphobic crossfire, as people compare what she has done with what, say, Caitlyn Jenner has done.

I’m white, and therefore not well qualified to speak about race. My understanding of the word “transracial” is that it is a legitimate term, applicable to, for example, black children born or adopted into white families. So we can’t say “it isn’t a thing” but we can say it’s a questionable word to apply to Dolezal.

I don’t want to speculate as to what is going on for Dolezal, I don’t feel it’s my position to judge her but to follow the lead of the black community and accept their feelings about her. Her deceptions don’t sit well with me, but I cannot judge her situation because I am not connected to it. Were I involved in an organisation where something like this happened, I would be deeply concerned, and I would be consulting my black friends as to how to deal with her.

But I want to write about the comparisons being made to the trans community, because a lot has been said about it not being the same thing, but I think something has been missed as to why it isn’t the same thing.

Because the truth is, if Caitlyn Jenner was the first assigned-male person ever to show up claiming to be a woman, the world would rightly be suspicious. If there had not been a history, as long as the history of the human race, and across multiple cultures, of individuals who have similar experiences in relation to their gender, then cautious scepticism would be a fair response.

Maybe, scepticism would even be reasonable in the case of the first half dozen or so cases we encounter, maybe even the first hundred, but there comes a point where people have to adjust their world view and accept that something is a real thing. We are way past the point of this with trans people.

Transgender people exist – there are millions of us. We even have an inkling of how trans people exist, and an understanding that our hormones play a part in what turns out to be the very complex dance of gender. Our hormones influence our gender identity, and gender identity (for all the inadequacies of this term) is a real thing in and of itself, separate from both the socially constructed nature of gender and the biological facts of reproduction and chromosomes.

We have, as yet, no evidence that there is an equivalent phenomenon to this in terms of race. I am open minded, and if one is discovered, I will accept it as a real thing when the evidence is in. But there is no reason to assume that just because a particular phenomenon occurs in relation to gender, which is mediated by hormones as well as social construction, that it would therefore occur in relation to race, which arises from a very different set of historical and social conditions.

For instance, there is not a point, after conception, when an embryo has a chance to be born either black or white, depending on the hormonal journey it takes in the womb. There isn’t a hormone I can take that will switch on some biological coding to make me black, in the same way I can take testosterone and masculinise my body.

They are different things, and that’s all there is to it. And it doesn’t seem that Dolezal is claiming they are the same, but rather claiming a right to “choose” her race. This is where analogies with trans folk really get me steamed up – trans people do not “chose” their gender, the only choice, if choice it is, is how to negotiate their gender in a cissexist world.

The salient discussion is about how we experience gender as something over and above the historical and constructed, and more than just in connection with our reproductive systems. I’m not at all sure that race is experienced in the same way, or that there is evidence of a phenomenon related to race that fully matches what some call gender identity.

Meanwhile, this debate is distracting us all from the issues of racism that matter – the police profiling of trans women of colour, and their frighteningly high presence in statistics for victims of violence and murder; the extraordinary double standards applied in the reporting of crimes committed by and against black people and white people, horribly evidenced by the last week’s US and UK news; and the ongoing, casual white supremacy that every one of us white folks supports, often unconsciously, every day of our lives, just by being so easily distracted from what the real issues are regarding race.

Because making an issue that is entirely about race and racism all about trans issues also gets us off the hook from exploring our racism. It’s a neat distraction, but look how easily when racism comes up we skip off into something else entirely.

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Catch 22

Life is full of catch-22s when you’re trans.

Here’s one – act like the gender you most identify with and you’re “aping stereotypes”, act in the slightest way non-stereotypically and you fall under instant suspicion, as if you’re revealing all your “true colours” in one gesture.

But for me, the most insidious of all the catch-22s is the madness trap.

[image: a pebbled beach with some pebbles arranged to form a question mark]The original novel Catch-22 tells of a war pilot who couldn’t get himself grounded for being mad because not wanting to fly in war is the very definition of sanity. Trans people are faced with the very opposite conundrum – trying to prove we’re in sound mind when gender dysphoria is still considered a psychiatric diagnosis.

But the catch-22s keep on coming – because if we look happy about being trans, why then we’re frivolous and selfish, putting our own needs and desires before the common good. If we look unhappy, well that’s proof it’s all a big mistake.

If the stress of stigma and oppression make us mentally ill, this feeds into the notion that being trans is in itself a mental illness – society can bully us and then point at the results of its bullying and go “look how damaged you are, why should we listen to someone like you?”

Generally, I try to brazen it out – I don’t want to let the world in on my internal struggle, the difficult road that brought me to the decision that transitioning would be the best thing for me. If I show any pain and conflict, I know well enough it can be used to undermine me and make me doubt myself. So I only share my doubts, my fears and my turmoil in very safe places.

As a consequence, I’m sometimes shocked by the people around me who think that I am easy and confident about my transition – I’m clearly putting on a good front.

The question that plagues me most is, “Am I being selfish?” I ask myself that all the time – some days the feeling is so strong I wonder if the world would prefer not to have people like me in it, so it can go about its business as usual. The internalised, hateful narrative I go into is completely erasing of who I am.

It took me a long time to realise that I had been subject to a form of “conversion therapy”. Conversion therapy is a form of therapy that seeks to brainwash the recipient into having negative associations whenever they think of being gay or trans, until they reach a point where being gay or trans is so painful to think about it no longer is viable. Not long ago, I had a moment of clarity – conversion therapy was exactly what was happening to me, because I was being foolish enough to listen to the toxic words of people who don’t want folks like me to exist.

I have now stopped listening. I considered their point of view very carefully, and for many years. I utterly reject it. I don’t need to keep hearing it.

Yes, I am a threat to the status quo, and if that’s terrifying for me, no doubt it’s also threatening for all those people who want to be able to divide the human race into 2 neat, unchangeable, segregated and non-overlapping groups, for whatever their reasons.

So coming out as transgender, then, could be seen as a little crazy – so much to lose, so much respect, potential employment, social support, lost through the process of admitting you cannot endure the process of sex assignment inflicted on you at birth.

This is perhaps why, since coming out, I have encountered people like me who conceal their trans nature. Some take hormones or have surgery in secret, some live only part-time as who they really are. Others simply manage their gender incongruence as best they can, fearful that “coming out” would put extra psychological pressure on them, that the gains would not be worth the losses.

I was one of these people – feeling like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the male person in female spaces. The psychological pressure of that alone was pretty unendurable, but I cannot judge which is the hardest route to take.

In the end, I think we owe it to the world to find a place in our lives where we can resolve our psychological conflicts as best we can. I don’t think coming out, being open to the world is the only way of doing this. I don’t believe deciding to transition is inherently better or worse than deciding not to. But I do think the knowledge that diverse narratives and paths are legitimate is essential to everybody’s psychological wellbeing, so the more we strike out for our own truth, the more others are liberated by our example. Living as a masculine women is just as valid for some as living as a trans man is valid for others, as non-binary identities are valid for others still. I celebrate a world in which all are possible, and accepted.

I do know coming out is risky. Exposing a trans nature leaves us open to so much undermining and social judgement. So it does take a certain amount of psychological strength to come out. For some people, coming out is a matter of choice, but for others there is no choice at all, they could not survive in the position they were allocated, or they could not survive in their body as it is.

I am not sure whether I did have a choice. Could I have endured as I was, or were my efforts to hide my transness ultimately doomed? I am aware that society, with its either/ors, to some extent limits my choices. If I could be understood in ways as both a man and a woman, a trans man and a lesbian, then I would be entirely happy.

And that’s the ultimate catch-22, the trap of a society that disallows the possibility of multiple, overlapping and sometimes paradoxical stories about our lives and identities.