Monthly Archives: January 2016

“I’m not trans”

Everyone of course has the right to define themself how they like. All labels are invented, equivocal, imperfect, subjective.

But I’d like to encourage those out there who identify as non-binary and “not trans” to reflect on what this might mean.

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Jack Monroe vs Julia Long, C4 News

It’s a tricky territory to negotiate. There is currently a backlash against non-binary, both inside and outside the trans community. In a month that saw the two most prominent  UK non-binary and trans people, CN Lester and Jack Monroe, being pitted against the worst of trans-antagonistic feminism on the national news, I have been experiencing an equivalent attack from within the community, from a minority of trans men and women.

While “radical” feminists on Twitter told Jack and CN that they looked like girls and that their scarves precluded them from being taken seriously . . .

jack

. . . some trans men and women on Facebook were fighting hard for language that continued to medicalise trans existence, or to base our validity firmly in the realm of appearance and presentation. Fighting for terms like “gender confirmation surgery” with its suggestion that we need to alter ourselves to fully affirm our identity. Fighting for the right to have their gender assumed by strangers after transition, ignoring how much that erases those who don’t or won’t or can’t have medical treatment or ever “pass”.

If I hear one more passing trans guy tell me he needs strangers to assume he’s a man because he’s “worked so hard to get there” I’m going to get really cranky. I understand the pain of being constantly misgendered and can imagine the relief when that ends, but it only ends for a lucky few, and that’s a privilege. To insist on that privilege being reinforced, to the detriment of those who can’t experience it, throws an awful lot of people under the bus – boyish looking lesbians, non-binary people, trans people who can’t access healthcare, trans people who simply don’t pass, and people whose presentation does not match their identity.

Because we are not just what we look like, or what’s in our pants, and the sooner we stop making assumptions about other people’s genders, the better the world will be.

And this is where “not trans” non-binary people feed into this narrative, because often “not trans” is put forward to mean “not having any medical interventions” and in creating those definitions, it medicalises trans identities. It’s fine for people to self-identify however they want, but care is needed not to redefine someone else’s identity inaccurately in the process. There is also, among a small minority of “not trans” non-binary people, an air of being superior in the way they are dealing with their gender incongruence – as if all our experiences are the same and should lead to the same “correct” conclusion.

what's in our pants

 

Being transgender is not a medical condition. Being transgender can come with physical incongruence or dysphoria that even in a socially perfect world would be alleviated by medical treatment, but that’s not how it is for all trans people – many trans people love their bodies.

Being transgender can also come with social incongruence or dysphoria that can be helped with medical treatment in this imperfect world, where so much of our social assignment is related to the configuration of our bodies. Ideally, we will change the world to enable trans people to need less medical treatment, but we will never get rid of the need completely.

To be clear, changing the world means things like not assuming somebody’s gender based on the way they look, not invalidating somebody’s gender based on what they wear, how their voice sounds, what their physical attributes are or what’s in their pants. Yes, this means using gender neutral language until someone tells you their gender.

Because there is absolutely no way of knowing someone’s gender other than asking them or them telling you.

This also means not medicalising gender.  Doing away with terms like “gender confirmation surgery” that give extra validation to those who have had medical treatment. Not waiting until someone “passes” or until they’ve had surgery to start using the right pronouns for them. Not suddenly starting to misgender someone because you find out they haven’t had lower surgery. No more gross “hot dog or bun?” punchlines à la Zoolander 2.

Cumberbatch2

For non-binary people, it means not conflating “trans” with medical treatment, or using the “not-trans” identifier to distance yourself from people who have transitioned in more obvious and visible ways, as if those people are somehow a different species. We are all negotiating the complicated path of gender incongruence, and there is no neat dividing line between us. Transition can take on many forms, and “trans” encompasses many stories. It is an umbrella term, and all people who experience gender incongruence belong under it. If you don’t want the shelter, that’s cool, but if you are shunning this umbrella because you want to distance yourself from the people under it, then we need to talk.

I cannot label someone as trans who does not want to be labelled as such. [eta- Many other cultures have other, better language for what I call trans, and this is not about wanting to impose my label on those cultures, or on anyone who doesn’t want it, such as intersex people who have their own language to describe their experiences]. However, I personally see identifying as trans if you are non-binary in *any* way an act of solidarity, not an act of appropriation.

[eta- In other words, nobody non-binary should feel “not permitted” to claim the label, and I’d prefer those who do not want the label not to redefine trans in order to make the label look like it doesn’t apply to them].

Can we move away from the idea that trans is a tiny, marginalised and fenced off community and see that aspects of trans stories affect many lives? Surely that is a good thing, making gender a less rigid, sure and certain proposition.

 

 

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David Bowie – mirroring the times on gender

This morning I woke up to news of David Bowie’s death and felt a profound sense of personal loss. As a child of the seventies, Bowie had been a part of my life almost from day one.

One of my earliest memories is of seeing Bowie as Ziggy Stardust and falling completely in love. I was about three years old, and already having a complicated relationship with gender, which manifested in my continually removing the pretty grips my mother put in my hair and “losing” them in the garden. I can still recall seeing David Bowie’s made-up face on the TV, trying to work him out. I remember the thrill I got when I realised he was a man. David Bowie whispered something to me about gender difference that was compelling even at that tender age.

[image: Ziggy Stardust perches with mic on edge of stage, wearing a playsuit - black and white image]

I look back across his life and see that Bowie was both a gender pioneer, and a mirror of the times. In one of the earliest media clips of Bowie, he is challenging the expectation that men should conform to gender stereotypes, as part of “The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-haired Men”. It really is worth a watch, if only to see the kinds of conventions he was up against at the time:

A window opened up in the late sixties and seventies around gender liberation and queerness and Bowie jumped straight through it, dazzling us with the way he flaunted conventions of gender and sexuality. We will always be left to wonder how much of his gender variant expression and open bisexuality was a calculated performance and how much was an expression of his authentic self; but whichever it was, he did an immense amount for the visibility of bisexual and gender variant people, and gave hope to young queers like myself.

But, as if to prove that progress doesn’t just roll smoothly onwards, the 1980’s happened, with a new conservatism, a backlash against the LGBT community, and of course the AIDS crisis. At this point even Elton John was married to a woman, and Bowie started showing up in suits, the image of respectability. He then claimed that coming out as bisexual had been “a mistake” that was bad for his career. But there was a knowingness in his cultivated image even then; he made us look at ourselves and where we had got to. If even David Bowie is wearing a suit, god help us!

I was a teen in the 80’s, and this social regression at such a formative time made who I was seem almost impossible. I hid myself under roles as conventional as Bowie’s suits, and bided my time.

The gay world recovered considerably from the crisis of the eighties, but I’m not sure gender variance did in the same way, because while Elton John is now happily married to a man, a figure like Bowie becoming as iconic and successful while turning gender performance on its head seems even less likely now than it did in the year of my birth.

But the 2010’s have given gender variance a resurgence, the hint of new possibilities. And there was Bowie right in the middle of it all again, cross-dressing with Tilda Swinton in a perfect image that encapsulates so much about the gender story of both these icons:

 [image: Black and white image of Tilda Swinton dressed as David Bowie and David Bowie dressed as Tilda Swinton]

And then there was that amazing V&A retrospective on Bowie in 2013 reminding us of what had once been possible, whispering that perhaps it could be again.

It’s no surprise then that this has also been the decade when I came out fully about my own gender. Visibility begets visibility, makes it possible to be seen and at least partially understood. Bowie did not show me the way this time – rather, we were both riding the same wave. Many social movements follow this pattern – revolution, backlash and regression, and ultimately, integration. Whatever his motivations, Bowie was part of that revolution, inspiring generations and showing us a different way. At the very least he was a public, visible symbol of an important change that was happening.

Bowie also had many very problematic moments that we 100% need to acknowledge, such as sex with an underage groupie and a drug-fuelled brief fascination with fascism. And if you want to know if it’s still okay to admire aspects of Bowie after reading this, try this article on “How to be a fan of problematic things“.

Intriguing and compelling to the last, I feel huge loss for this man who showed me an image of masculinity that was a million miles from the buttoned-up rigidity of my military family. Thank you, David Bowie, for showing me other ways of being a man.

Shallow progress: What “The Force Awakens” and “The Danish Girl” have in common

CN – minor spoilers for both films , discussion of racism, sexism, intersex erasure  and cissexism

I watched Star Wars Episode IV in the cinema, aged 6, wide-eyed and full of uncritical wonder.  Later, as a much more critical adult, I was let down badly by the racism in the portrayal of Ja Ja Binks in The Phantom Menace (among so many other disappointments).

I was holding my breath before seeing The Force Awakens.

I didn’t buy into the hyped controversy around those racist asshats complaining about a black stormtrooper – it smacked of a publicity stunt, a way of displaying the film’s right-on credentials, and possibly encouraging us to overlook its shortcomings. And yet, when I went to see the film, I was seduced. I loved the film, uncritically and with the same childish wonder I had in 1977. More of a remake than a sequel, it was just like going back in time only the effects, and the acting, were so much better. And as a feminist, it was great to see a woman in the active, heroic role, spurning help and rescuing herself. It was great to see the film’s leading man playing second fiddle to her.

[image: fan art depicting Finn, a black male stormtrooper, and Rey, the white female hero from "The Force Awakens" - they are depicted next to the villain's lightsaber, which looks like a burning cross]

If it wasn’t for my feminism, would I have noticed the problem inherent in Finn being portrayed by a black actor? Because having a black man play second fiddle to a white woman is hardly shattering the status quo in quite the same way. I wonder if Finn being white would have been a much bigger challenge for mainstream audiences, or indeed for the writers. The problem is, the apparently right-on casting kind of cancels itself out: Finn being black dilutes the film’s feminism, and the strength of Rey’s character reduces Finn to yet another black character who lacks agency, as beautifully described here (more spoilers).

In the end, I felt Finn’s character, despite his prominence and screen time, perpetuated some pretty racist tropes, right down to his job in sanitation – a black janitor, how very ground-breaking.

But I still went back to see the film again, caught up in the magic of my childhood being reinvented for the 3D, IMAX generation. I saw the problem, but it was far too easy for me to overlook.

Which is where The Danish Girl comes in. Because when it’s a film about trans people, it’s much more personal. I find myself agitated and hurt when I see my cisgender friends going to see it, and tutting at my objections. I refuse to go and see it myself, based on the copious accounts I have gleaned from trans friends and commentators, all of which tally with one another.

.[image: Lili Elbe pre-and post-tranisition]

There are a number of problems with the film. Casting a cis man as a trans woman (who was also intersex) is problematic because it perpetuates the idea that trans women are men that become women. Ideally a trans or intersex woman would play Lili Elbe, but if not a cis woman would be more appropriate than a man. Just look at the picture of real life Lili pre-transition – she was never a man. I find it really sad that Nicole Kidman, apparently the original choice, was replaced by Eddie Redmayne.

There are many problematic tropes in the film, such as it focussing on the idea of performing femininity, as if being a woman is in itself just a performance, and all about clothes and mannerisms, rather than heartfelt identity. The film also has a sexualised and fetishistic gaze.

Worse, the true story has been fictionalised in ways that preserve a false but pervasive idea of trans lives. Real life Gerda was bisexual, and fully accepting of Lili – in the film she struggles, as no doubt she is expected to. Film Lili’s intersex condition is never mentioned, contributing to the ongoing erasure of intersex people. The film also appears to many to give the message that Lili died for “trying to be a woman”, with the implied blame laid at her door for her selfishness, another hurtful trope the trans community have heaped endlessly upon us. In fact Lili died because doctors tried an experimental and still impossible to this day surgery to transplant a uterus. The film has her dying as a result of a now routine and then successful vaginoplasty.

danish girl

History was changed to tell the story the cis director wanted to tell. Changed to be acceptable to the cis gaze.

Overall, a lot of trans people are concerned that yet again the film views trans people from a cis perspective that fundamentally misses the truth of our lives, and erases intersex altogether.

So is this cissexism worse than the racism of The Force Awakens because Lili was a real person, because this is fundamentally a trans and intersex story and not just a flight of fantasy? Or is it only worse because it is my minority affected by this movie?

I’ll admit it – I don’t want my friends to go put money in Tom Hooper’s coffers for this movie, I don’t want Lili’s true story trashed for this fantasy, and since it has been, I don’t want people to be sucked in.

But of course, cis people will go, and they will see it as progress, they will praise Redmayne and Hooper and they will probably brand those of us voicing concern as over-sensitive. They will tell us we should be grateful our stories are being told at all and many trans people will agree with them, thankful the portrayal is at least kind, if not accurate. It is progress, after a fashion, just like Rey and Finn are progress, sort of.

But the progress is shallow, and it too easily preserves the status quo and fails to challenge people’s views or really dig deep.

But I am a hypocrite, for while I will dig my heels in over The Danish Girl I will no doubt continue to be riveted, albeit somewhat critically, to the ongoing Star Wars reboot. I have no justification for this. In the end it is really difficult to judge the level of offence when it’s not you or people like you being undermined. All I can do is keep promising to listen to and amplify the voices that count and hope others do the same.