Monthly Archives: January 2017

Let’s talk about the challenges of Phalloplasty

I remember when my partner had come out to me as trans, but before he (or I) had come out to anyone else, I began to share more educational information about trans people on my personal Facebook feed. I had already been running the Facebook page “Lesbians and Feminists Against Transphobia” (now, alas, deceased because I was unable to manage the traffic from the 10,000 people who liked the page). I started to migrate some of the content to my own timeline, in the hopes that people would be somewhat prepared for the forthcoming announcement.

At that point, we were at the “I’m transgender, now what?” stage. Because what we are is not what we do. Robin knew he was a trans man, but the thought of transition is daunting, and there are so many options. Name changes and pronoun changes were some of the possibilities. Medically, one option was just to have chest surgery, one was to take hormones and have chest surgery. We weren’t really going any lower than that just yet. For me, there didn’t seem to be any options for “non-binary transition” (little I knew) so coming out (or not) was really the only option I was considering.

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They say when you go through something big you find out who your friends are. This is true, but you also find out which of your friends are bigots.

This was the point at which we discovered that a (thankfully not close) friend of ours was on her way to becoming a prolific and formidable anti-trans campaigner.

I would post something positive about trans people, this friend would come back with a response about how transitioning makes people suicidal. I posted an article about trans men, she launched into a discussion of the dangers of phalloplasty. She was the ultimate concern troll.

So hung up on how what’s in everyone’s pants should determine the ultimate and unbreakable social order, our friend had assumed trans man = phalloplasty. Which is ludicrous. There are so many different surgical and non-surgical options for trans men because what’s in people’s pants should not socially define them. And nobody should have to go through major surgery in order to gain social acceptance and safety.

But her graphic, alarmist response, also made me terrified of phalloplasty in a way that really was unhelpful, because the reality is some people have lower dysphoria, a sense that there is something missing that they cannot reconcile. And dramatic as surgery is, it makes some people feel whole and okay with themselves in a way that benefits how they are able to be in the world. Which is obviously a win/win, because people who are happy with themselves and their bodies generally make for better citizens, friends, partners, workers, lovers.

Admittedly it’s hard for trans people to be happy with themselves, given what a shitty world this is to trans people (hence the suicide stats), but all the evidence suggests being trans in itself isn’t the problem – but rather barriers to acceptance, support, and being able to transition as we need to. Negativity and barriers just make a hard life harder.

Let’s not pretend we live in a perfect world, and that medicalising trans identities is ideal. It isn’t. The media still very much use language that speaks of a process of transforming a person from woman into man, or vice versa, and our community still talks about someone being “pre-op” or of surgery being something that assigns or affirms gender, as if we need the surgery to make us real.

This is awful, and it has to stop.

At the same time, in a world that places so much social emphasis on what is in a person’s pants, it is impossible to ask trans people to feel okay with what’s down there, even if their dysphoria is not fundamentally physical rather than social. I think this varies from person to person and some trans people admittedly feel a profound, instinctive sense of something missing from their bodies long before it can possibly be the result of socialisation.

Some  trans people will cope with their bodies configured as they are, and some will not. This does not make us more or less transgender, it just means we are not experiencing lower dysphoria to the extent that having surgery will be beneficial to us.

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I was going to talk about how hard phalloplasty in particular is to go through, having just nursed my partner through the first stage. It is exhausting, terrifying, psychologically demanding, and I promise you the gaslighting comments from the anti-trans brigade make things a thousand times worse.

But I don’t need to tell any trans person how big a deal this is. We all know. The idea that well-meaning (concern trolling) cis people need to explain to us the demands of this surgery is infantilising and outrageous. No trans person gets to the point where they are signed off for major abdominal surgery that will leave them with visible scarring without knowing what they are about to undertake. Many trans men go for the slightly more straightforward metoidioplasty, or have no surgery at all, content with the growth they gained from taking testosterone, or just content with how their body is configured.

Most trans guys will follow others in groups or on YouTube and typically for men, no gory detail goes undescribed, including the times things go wrong. And they do. Phalloplasty still has only a 97% success rate and that is a scary thought, that you might go through all of this surgery and end up with nothing but scars. All this is heavy enough to deal with without ignorant creeps making you doubt yourself that it can ever be worth it.

Maybe the societal issue of not talking about men’s health plays a part in how we react to phallo. We know about the gory details but we probably don’t speak enough about what trans men and their supporters go through with this surgery. The months off work, the worry about it failing, the overwhelming stress, the involved care required for a skin graft and several wound sites, the two or three equally complicated follow-up surgeries. Maybe it’s still seen as some sort of “optional extra” and so the pain and magnitude of it is somehow disregarded. But for those who undergo it, I don’t think it really is “optional” but rather integral to their wellbeing.

Maybe I didn’t fully understand that until I saw Robin going through it. How alongside the pain there was something else – a sense of confidence and completion. Of rightness.

And just to be clear, this has nothing to do with sex, or dominance, or any other notions we may have about dick-swinging men. It’s more about walking in the world, about being able to use male toilets more comfortably, about what may happen when he is old and needing personal care. And simply about his relationship with his own body.

It can be worth it. It’s not an easy decision, but the reality is, like any self-awareness, dysphoria once acknowledged can’t just be wished away. Demi-boys like me spend a lot of time hoping that the little niggles of lower dysphoria we swat away will never manifest into something big enough to make surgery feel necessary. Nobody wants to need major surgery. But living with a trans man, I see it very clearly – how dysphoria has been taking up too much of his mind, his life. his energy. How this surgery has set him free from that and will allow him to live.

 

 

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I’m in an abusive relationship with Julie Bindel

This is a full length version of an article I wrote this week for The Queerness

I’m in an abusive relationship with Julie Bindel and I can’t escape.*

I come from an abusive family, I’ve worked for years with abuse survivors, I have an MA in Trauma Studies that focused on the consequences of abuse. I know what abuse looks like and feels like. It looks like this.

The cycle is familiar by now. It begins with Bindel and her enablers organising a talk that they know will have a negative impact on a minority – often that minority is trans people, as this seems to be her special interest, and I will focus on this, although her attitudes to sex work, bisexuality, mental health and Islam are equally questionable.

Her stated aim is to cast doubt on the validity of trans identities, which is appalling in itself, especially given the weight of scientific evidence and historical record that supports our identities. But her covert but equally apparent aim is even more pernicious – to whip up a storm that she can then claim to be a victim of, through which she achieves personal gain.

It is a sad fact that one abuse tactic is to make yourself look like your victim’s victim. Bindel excels at this.

In her latest escapade we find Bindel imposing herself on a space that should be inclusive of bi and trans people, as she is scheduled to give an LGBT history month talk. It’s not enough for her to bring her afab lesbian separatism to afab lesbian separatist spaces, she has to push herself on LGBT spaces she doesn’t believe should even exist.

Of course this is pure provocation and of course she knows it. Naturally, people will be frightened, upset. This will embolden biphobic and transphobic people and lend power to their discourse.

My Facebook feed is full of trans friends hurt and agonised over what to do. Ignoring her feels like being assaulted and pretending it isn’t happening, although my policy has long been to try and ignore people like Bindel and not be a pawn in their nasty game. I wrote about this when she came to my town two years ago and my position has not changed. Fighting back will bring the focus onto us and we as a community will be on trial for what any one of us does and says next. And with this much hurt and anger, somebody somewhere is bound to misfire.

This is another abuser trick – torment someone until they snap and then calmly tell the world “look how mad and bad this person is”.

Yes, we are traumatised

Bindel says we cannot be traumatised by her, but we can and we are. I have seen it and felt it. My heart rate goes up when Bindel’s name is mentioned. My body tenses. I lose sleep. I have intrusive thoughts about the verbal abuse I’ve experienced from her friends and enablers in relation to previous events. I have internalised Bindel’s own cruel words and they continue to taunt me even in her absence. Most of all, I feel something is being forced onto me and that I am powerless and voiceless.

I can speak out through a blog but I know my words will be drowned out because her audience is so much bigger and we are such a tiny community. Her lies have greater reach than our truth, and have the ring of veracity to people who know little about us and haven’t done their reading.

Fortunately the law now recognises the existence of emotional abuse, and I hope it’s only a matter of time until we recognise that the internet is not some magical place where words don’t hurt. Emotional abuse is real. Bullying is real. Harassment is real. Harassment is coming into a space that has “T” in it whilst being a very persistent and prolific campaigner against trans civil rights and the very idea of “LGBT”.

Another abuser trick is to spin what’s happening with a manipulative rhetoric. It’s easy to choose your words carefully and be charming when you’re not really the one under fire, of course. Abusers talk about people “taking offence” as some very cerebral and quite academic response to their abusive words. This sanitises the process and denies its real impact. MRAs will say this about survivors who are traumatised by rape jokes, that they are needlessly offended. When someone is emboldened to say something they absolutely know will chip away at another person’s safety or social inclusion, or their very sense of self, spinning their trauma-related reactions as “offence” is just so much newspeak.

“Free Speech” is a dangerous red herring

Bindel will claim that we should be always ready and refreshed to have the same debate over and over again that has been going on for 40 years now. She claims that the correct ideas will magically triumph in this Just And Fair World. Bindel seems somehow oblivious to the fact that America is now ruled by possibly the world’s worst misogynist.  This trendy and highly manipulative version of “free speech” ideology that she, along with people like Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos espouse, has certainly contributed to the awful shape the world is in.

It’s a kind of neoliberal version of discourse, a sort of “free market economy” for ideas, where somehow all will be well and the fittest ideas will win out. Of course, as we know, what happens with a free market is that wealth unjustly concentrates in the hands of a few fat cats. And equally, the people with the biggest platforms dominate and manipulate the ideological landscape when there are no ethical checks and balances.

Where once someone would have drawn a line and decided this had all gone way too far, people fell over themselves to give Trump a platform, claiming that enabling his hate would expose him. The policy failed not just because those that gave Trump an enormous media platform enabled his voice to be heard over others, but also by platforming it they endorsed it. Putting someone on a platform is not just permission to speak, it is validation of what they have to say. It is giving power to someone.

Trump dominated and people allowed him to. Almost as if people are scared of bullies and suck up to them.

Bindel herself argued for Trump to be given a platform.

Meanwhile, Trump showed such fragility, or such superb victim game, whichever you care to see it as, that he could weaponise any dissent as a good excuse to escalate. This is what abusers do; they create a pattern of coercive control which you either go along with, thus enabling them, or resist, which they use as an excuse to “retaliate”. You are trapped either way because they have the power. The whole point about abuse is the victim has less power.

Bindel is no different. She has such a strong media platform in a world that generally hates feminists exactly because she reinforces this abusive idea that it’s a fair world and if someone has power over you they deserve it. Bindel constantly manipulates in order to gain a greater platform, hurting bi and trans people, sex workers and PoC to consolidate her own position. People who give Bindel a platform are endorsing her, and they are also removing that opportunity from many other speakers who do not hurt people to get their own needs met.

With power, you control the narrative

Bindel also uses gaslighting techniques highly effectively. Telling us our lifelong deeply held experiences of self are illegitimate against the casual appraisal of strangers. Telling us that a mountain of medical and historic evidence are nothing compared to her feeling that trans people can’t be real.

Gaslighting works only when you have control of a situation. Bindel has an army of men and women who will jump at any opportunity to bash trans identities, diagnosing us as crazy, pathologising us as dangerous, legitimising any level of attack on us based on the lie Bindel herself espouses: we are a threat that must be ended at all costs. In this post truth world there doesn’t have to be any evidence of this, it just needs to feel true.

Of course if we are dangerous our fighting back against this hate takes on quite a different appearance. Somehow instead of being this tiny, marginalised community that meets daily abuse and disrespect, and is subject to disproportionate amounts of violence and trauma, we are the ultimate agents of patriachy/ satan and have all of the power behind us. Lies about our level of power and threat legitimise any level of attack against us. Dismissal of the impact of these behaviours makes the actors entirely unaccountable.

Just as Donald Trump could talk about women however he liked because he had a chorus of people denying, minimising and blaming on his behalf, Bindel is enabled to be as disrespectful and hateful as she likes toward my community, and in particular trans women.

Power always has accomplices

This cycle will continue as long as people give Bindel a platform, give her power. Once that happens, she has already won because both ignoring or attacking from the trans community will enable her. Cancel the event, she gets to play the victim and she gains more support and more power. Let her speak and she gains an audience (one inclined to be on her side) – more power again. There is no winning here.

Two years ago I made a commitment to myself I try (and sometimes fail) to keep. Recognising I was becoming increasingly traumatised by Bindel and her ilk I started to ignore them as much as possible, and bring people together to do positive work. From that decision a huge amount of supportive community organising has come about. But I’m by no means over the profound negative psychological impact that gender critical feminism has had on me, and it’s impossible to protect myself fully from it. Their tendrils are everywhere, influencing my cis friends, influencing policy, weighting the media discussion about us and generally making life miserable for trans people in multiple ways. I blogged about how much I had internalised their hateful doctrine here.

We are powerless and we are vulnerable; perhaps a natural state that should be embraced more by human beings, but never more true than if you are an outlier on the bell curve of humanity.

As long as people give power to bullies they will have power. And a platform is power. It’s not a right, to be elevated over others. It’s not an entitlement, although some seem to act like it is, have a sense of entitlement that is once again the characteristic of an abuser. It’s not free speech to have a newspaper column or a speaking engagement. It’s power. And using it to subjugate a minority and advocate the removal of their rights is abuse of that power.

Like Trump and Yiannopoulos, Bindel finds in these frightening days an opportunity to become powerful and wealthy and be surrounded by enablers. That she is representing a notion of “working class” at this latest event is the ultimate irony. Whatever her origins, Bindel is elite, dangerous and bad for the health of working class LGBT+ folk everywhere. Particularly trans people, bi people, PoC and sex workers, but her ideas are calamitous to all of us as they render us powerless to say “stop” when we are being abused, because “stop” and “no” are apparently censorship of her freedom to come at us relentlessly.

And, to be clear, I want to holler Stop! and No! I want to beg and plead – just leave me and my friends alone and find another special interest, please Julie. Your behaviour is intolerable and real people are profoundly affected by it, people who matter every bit as much as you.

But if I holler, just watch how many people will clap their hands over my mouth and tell me I “won’t help my cause” that way. These silencers – they’re enablers too, telling me if I acted just the right way the abuse would stop. That’s a lie, too.

I know as long as hurting me gives her power and wealth she will never stop, so ultimately, it’s her enablers who need to look at what they’ve created. Just as rape is enabled by rape culture, so this relentless abuse is enabled by our obsession with seeing gladiator-style opinion-fests based on ignorance and entitlement.

There is no solution to abuse as long as people are creating a culture that enables it. In the face of this abuse we must stay safe as best we can and look after the inevitable impact events like this have on the mental health of our community. My love goes to all my trans siblings who are in pain right now from this. My respect to you however you are dealing with it; whether you’re keeping your head down or struggling to make your voice heard. I know you are doing your best and this is not in any way your fault.

Meanwhile we must do all we can to raise up the voices of people who empower and support others rather than clawing their own way to personal power and wealth through the propagation of hate and division.

*after a threat of libel action my editor made the following addition, something I think should already be clear but apparently needs spelling out: “An abusive relationship in the multi-media world of the 21st Century does not need to have romantic or sexual connotations.” Clearly I am using “relationship” in the sense of connectedness. Bindel’s actions have a profound impact on my life, in that way we are in a relationship with each other whether I like it or not.