Just in case you missed it, I’ve been doing a spot of guest writing for The Queerness, and I wanted to share two of these pieces with my blog readers
Just in case you missed it, I’ve been doing a spot of guest writing for The Queerness, and I wanted to share two of these pieces with my blog readers
What do we do when people are really trying to help, but getting it wrong? Do we smile and be generous and accepting of their clumsy attempts? Or do we challenge them to do things better? What happens when people’s safety is on the line? Is it “negative” to pick up on people’s mistakes when those mistakes could have a big cost to vulnerable people? Or is it positive, because it is creating change, seeking a better way forward? These are the questions I struggled with as I considered whether to write this blog.
Because on the one hand we trans people do have reason to be simply relieved, glad and grateful to those who are kind to us in a world where not everyone is kind. At the same time, I think we are allowed some frustration at the ignorance that is still to be found crystallised at the heart of some people’s kindness.
The subject I wanted to blog about is a recent rally for a trans woman who had been the victim of hate crime. I had reservations about the event happening; it seemed to have been carried along by well meaning cis people without much consultation with the local trans community, or consideration for their safety going to and from, and in the wake of, the event. But it was important to me to go along and show support for the woman at the centre of it all, and in the end I think the event was helpful at least in showing the woman she was not alone. And that was a great kindness, and I honour the cis allies who showed their support.
Local radio had picked up the story, and they took the somewhat classist attitude that this was a problem with the rather impoverished and insular town and its treatment of trans folk. Mansfield, the town in question, was compared unfavourably to Nottingham, the nearest university town. They set the trans woman involved in opposition to the town and its “ignorant” ways.
But I feel the problem lies not just with a few screwed-up bullies who will go after anyone they see as a legitimate target, but with the “great and good” who forget to make the effort to learn about us or speak to us, even while they are speaking for us and about us. Because those are the people who set the tone, who create an environment conducive to us being targeted.
It started with the radio interview, 26th August, just after the 8.00 news. DJ Andy Whittaker used the following terms: “she’s known that she wanted to be a woman from when she was a seven year old boy” “changing her sex” “going through the change”.
Meanwhile the interviewee, an ally and apparently one of the rally organisers, echoed this language, stating that the woman was very “brave” to go through this “change”, something he would not feel brave enough to “do” himself.
Sadly this is the kind of language that underpins violence against and harassment of trans people, particularly women. These folk, supposedly more “enlightened” than the folk of Mansfield, I would argue are more polite and “well behaved”, but nevertheless mired in ignorance.
Because they are still thinking of transgender as something a person does, rather than what someone is. They are still thinking of a trans woman as having once been a man, and this is misgendering. It reduces us to a process we go through, something that seems like a choice that anyone could make. The reality is transgender is something a person is not something a person does.
Try this for size: “Sally knew she was a girl from the age of seven, even though she had been told she was a boy. As soon as it felt possible to do so, she began to live as the women she knew she was, and sought support from a gender identity clinic to confirm that she is transgender and get treatment that could help her live more comfortably as herself.” No talk of a “sex change”, no suggestion Sally “used to be a man” and suddenly we are able to see this fictional Sally and her story much more clearly and truthfully.
This is not just about political correctness, because the way folk speak about trans people reflects what they think about trans people – we can tell the difference between someone who believes “this is who we are” and those who think we’re “doing” a thing they don’t really understand.
Later in the week, after the rally, I was interviewed by another radio station, who again encouraged me to speak against the people of Mansfield. I turned it around and spoke of the responsibility of broadcasters to work much harder at portraying trans people more fairly and accurately, consulting us and listening to us more.
Because the way “polite society” talks about us is related and connected to the violence and hate we get from “less polite” society.
Needless to say, they didn’t use my interview, and as if to drive home the point that we don’t really matter to them beyond a good story, they used “transgendered” throughout the report. Again, that word with it’s verb-like “-ed” suffix has been dropped by most of us from the trans lexicon because it implies a process – something we do rather than something we fundamentally are. If they were at all concerned about getting the language right, they would have checked up and known that.
At the rally, I spoke to a cis woman who seemed pleased that she was in part responsible for organising this “publicity stunt” (her words). When I started to talk to her about Notts Trans Hub, and how it was set up to help people like her reach out to the trans community and consult us before going ahead with events and other things that may impact us, she could not have been less interested. It seemed as if all she wanted from me was my gratitude for her taking it upon herself to stick up for the trans community.
This powerless, mute gratitude we’re supposed to feel when people are well meaning to us is becoming too familiar. People will happily be our knights in shining armour, which I suppose is better than abusing us or kicking us to the ground, but if we speak up and ask our knights to listen to us and change how they’re rescuing us so that it actually helps, we often get ditched as ungrateful and “difficult”.
Events like this can backfire. I really hope in this case it will have been wholly positive, but it was a risky manoeuvre, and while the allies get to feel good about doing it, the risk is entirely taken by the trans woman involved and the wider trans community. Which is why “talk to us, listen to us, and learn the right language to tell our story accurately” seems to me the least folk can do if they truly want to support this community.
IDAHOBiT day gave me a chance to reflect on trans inclusion within what sometimes feels like the LGB(t) movement. I’ve written lots before about the importance of organising across difference, and I make no bones about it – I think whenever and wherever we can, we should be as inclusive and pro-intersectional in our community organising as possible.
This point was drilled home for me in one of the events in IDAHOBiT week that I co-organised – a creative writing workshop followed by open mic event that was all about the trans community being empowered to tell our stories. We deliberately made no exclusions – trans people were prioritised, but anyone could attend. This inclusiveness led to the discovery of how many themes connected across the different groups represented. We don’t have to be “the same” in order to connect to one another.
I’ve been struck, also, in some of the other organising I do, where socials are organised across a broad LGBTIQA spectrum, that so many LGB people who approach these inclusive spaces are reporting experiences that intersect with a trans story, even if they do not want to live or identify openly as trans people. I’ve met lesbians, for instance, who have some gender dysphoria, and who feel like imposters in women’s spaces, as I once did, or gay men who toyed with transitioning but decided it was not for them, but nevertheless remain gender variant. These people often feel marginalised in the communities that are supposed to be “theirs”.
Gender is an unspoken issue across LGB campaigning. When it is not spoken about, we pave the way for “acceptance” that is based in cisnormative values – if you act and present yourself in gender conforming ways, you can sleep with, and indeed marry, who you like. LGB people have been sold an idea of “rights” that looks a lot like assimilation. This leaves gender non-conforming LGB folks, who often face the most prejudice, high and dry.
Gender and sexuality have only recently been seen as two entirely separable things. When the term “lesbian” was first coined in the late 1800s, it represented gender non-conformity rather than simply sexuality. In Nazi Germany, when “homosexuals” were sent to the death camps, that included people we would now think of as trans. In the early 1930s, Germany had been pioneering transsexual surgery – the Nazis burned down the institute responsible.
At the Stonewall riots, butch lesbians and “drag queens” took a lead role – these were the people subject to the most violence and oppression, the folks who did not conform to gender. Stonewall icons Sylvia Riviera and Marcia P Johnson, called “drag queens” at the time, would now be known as transgender women.
Since Stonewall, we have come to understand gender identity and sexuality to be different things, and our community has separated out in a way it never was before. The movement for rights in same sex relationships has forged ahead, with gender non-conforming folks being left behind with weak promises that the bus will come back for us.
Now inclusion is improving, and I’m pleased to say locally there was good representation of T and B at IDAHOBiT events. But representation is often based on the idea that it is LGB’s movement and we Ts are crashing it. However, those folks within the LGB community most in danger, most at risk, are those with the biggest connection to the trans narrative. This is why gender variant folk have always been at the forefront of LGBT activism.
In reality, there is a huge overlap between our communities. Our rainbow is an ever-merging spectrum, rather than neatly divisible colours. It is not that we are “all the same” but that we are on a continuum, with no clear place to draw a divide between us.
We are and always will be one movement.
IDAHOBiT day celebrates the day, 25 years ago, when homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness by WHO. However, Gender Dysphoria is still in DSM V, the latest manual for psychiatric illnesses. Of all days, this has to be a day to raise awareness of the fact that trans people are still fighting a stigma that LGB folk have had lifted.
Those that say IDAHO is really about being gay and nothing to do with trans folk are missing not only the interconnectedness of our lives and histories, but also the importance of reaching out in empathy and fellowship to people who still fall under the stigma of psychiatric diagnosis.
Even when we’re nominally included, the extra difficulty trans people face in participating in events is often overlooked. Trans women in particular are more likely to experience hate and violence than other members of the community, and are often, therefore, terrified of being visible. Many if not most trans folk have trauma levels higher than the general population. Making participation safe and welcoming is therefore a disability access issue.
And let’s not forget that the violence figures for queer people of colour are even higher still.
But often instead of being supported to participate, trans and queer people are branded “unreliable” or “difficult” and cis folks just shrug and say “we tried”. Often they haven’t listened carefully enough, at worst they see us as an inconvenience, or too demanding.
In reality, if we’re not making events accessible and fully inclusive to trans people, we are probably also deterring other vulnerable and marginalised elements of our LGBTQ+ community. IDAHOBiT needs to be more than just a day when white professionals can come out to represent “diversity”. Youth, disability, race, gender non-conformity, class, mental health and a whole lot of other issues are the casualties when this happens. When we start to focus on inclusion, it’s hard work, but the benefits to the whole community are enormous.
Recently I asked why, during their consultation meetings, Stonewall appeared to have elected to hold men only groups but not women only groups (I am now unclear whether this is actually the case, but the subsequent discussion still warrants some thought.)
As a feminist, I’m sure you can imagine I was outraged by the idea of men only groups without women only groups. But I was assured the situation is different within the trans community, because trans women “dominate” the discussion and are over-represented, so man-only spaces are needed. It wasn’t long before the underlying belief was voiced – a trans man boldly stated that trans women have louder voices because they were raised in male privilege.
What scares me is that hardly anyone seemed to bat an eyelid at this statement.
If this is going to be the underlying assumption influencing Stonewall’s thinking about trans people, then we are moving into dangerous territory. The idea that trans women have louder voices in the community because of male privilege is an assumption based in a repeated myth from second wave feminist spaces, reiterated so often it begins to sound true.
I believe the reality is that trans women, due to the unique oppressions they face, often have to learn to be “fighty” when it isn’t actually in their nature or upbringing at all. Most of the fight I’ve experienced in my trans women friends has developed as they transition – it is a response to their experience of oppression. The association with “maleness” is a lazy and unfounded leap, based on a transparently false assumption that all AMAB people are socialized with identical traits.
I also see trans men, who generally get listened to without the need to shout, being worryingly uncomfortable about acknowledging the structural inequality between themselves and trans women. While I agree trans men also experience some misogyny when they are perceived as women, I am not sure how many trans men or AFAB non-binary folks are aware of how toxic an entity transmisogyny is – that is the specific violence that is targeted at AMAB people when they expose even the slightest hint of their femininity. Transmisogyny is linked to society’s undervaluing and violence towards everything that is perceived as feminine, which is in turn an enormous part of what underpins the structural inequality between the sexes.
Trans men do not experience societal violence in the way trans women do, because becoming more “manly” and “masculine” is not seen as faulty or transgressive in the same way – femininity is cast, even by some feminists, as weak, artificial, pointless, valueless, and of course, inherently sexual. This means that trans women are more scrutinised and suspect, and experience higher rates of harassment, violence and murder. There is less social stigma in somebody assigned female wanting what’s perceived as a male role, male dress or male occupation. The evidence of the inequality between trans men and women can also be shown in this article about pay and employment.
Trans men are also less visible – pre-transition, they can dress as they choose with less stigma, post-transition, they are more likely to “pass” because of the one-way effects of male hormonal puberty. Because of this, most trans guys I know are not as interested in being involved with a trans community, except for a brief period while they are more visible during transition. It’s not a good thing for any person to feel compelled to hide their history in order to feel safe, but reality is a lot of trans guys can and do hide – they choose to quietly live their lives and not be visible.
Trans women receive a greater degree of social stigma and harassment, often coupled with increased visibility. Understandable, then, if they throw themselves more into activism, get more angry. But just as has been said to many feminists over the years in order to put women back in their place, trans women who speak up are told they are “acting like men”.
That such statements come from within the trans community is especially troubling. Trans men who say they don’t have a voice, who cry “what about the men?” are replicating something that is happening everywhere. That we see it as being outrageous that trans spaces are women-led says a lot about how we think about women, and echoes how threatened cis men feel by women-dominated feminist spaces.
Hooray for women-dominated spaces, I say – how dare we as a community twist that and misgender trans women rather than admiring the long fight and painstaking social organizing that has helped trans women fight back against the forces of their oppression.
Sure, trans men and AFAB trans folks need to be more visible, but we do that by taking our place within the community and not minding having our masculine expectations shattered – we are not the most important people here. I have no problem with more leaders in the trans community being women. I accept that transfeminine people are at greater risk in our society; they experience societal violence from birth, in the form of physical, sexual and emotional attack on all perceived femininity in assigned male people.
I am less afraid of loud and fighty trans women than I am of a community of trans women who meekly learn to “know their place” in order to rebut accusations of maleness. I also fear that in being seen as the “default” trans person, trans women will have their unique experiences as women invisibilised, and will quickly lose their ability to speak about transmisogyny as women’s issues once again get swept to the side in favour of the issues that affect men too.
This is a crucial time in the evolution of our relationship with Stonewall – allowing lazy assumptions about the male privilege of trans women to pass unchallenged could have a long term impact on how Stonewall handles future issues.
edit – after feedback, I’ve edited two sloppy bits of wording – I was never against men-only groups if there are women-only groups in parallel, and suggesting masculine clothing on AFAB folks goes without comment was definitely an overstatement. Apologies to those whose cages were unnecessarily rattled by my poor choice of words.
I have a foot in two worlds, and this gives me unique insight into the connections and crossovers between the experiences of the trans and LGB communities, which I wanted to reflect on in this blog.
We don’t fully know what makes people gay or trans, but the science is suggestive that both could be manifestations of hormonal fluctuations while we’re “cooking” in utero – so I have come to think of gay and trans people as cakes and cookies – lots of the same ingredients, some different. I tend to think we have more in common than not, and that we are stronger together as an inclusive queer community.
I have been trying to get my head round the odd estrangement between gay and trans communities ever since a “friend” of mine linked to an article about why there should be no “T” in “LGB(T)”. I refuse to give the article an audience, but the nub of it was that gay rights will advance more quickly if trans people are excluded. The outrageous honesty of the piece declared what a lot of trans people and gender variant gay people already know – in the struggle for acceptance and assimilation, some gender conforming gay folks are distancing themselves not only from the trans* community but also from butch lesbians and feminine gay men.
It is time to speak about the equivalences in the gay and trans struggles. I know that comparisons between rights movements can often be clumsy, and I know that games of “Oppression Olympics” are tiresome, but in this case there is so much connection and crossover between the two communities it is absurd and false to separate them. We are stronger together, that ought to be self evident, but there’s something more at stake here; when we distance ourselves from people based on their differences, we soon end up with a community that stifles variation.
The wrong “choice”
Being gay has been described as a “lifestyle choice” rather than something a person just is. The inference is not only do gay people choose to be gay in some sort of whimsical fashion, but also that not being gay is a preferable choice. Being trans is equally seen as a choice, and the wrong choice to make. Yet all the evidence shows that it is impossible to change your sexuality or gender identity at will.
“My definitions are based on the fact of human reproduction”
Homophobes define sex in terms of human reproduction. The implication for gay people is that their lovemaking falls outside of the terms set to describe what sex is for, and can then be trivialised, fetishised, degraded and marginalised. Equally trans identities are trivialised, fetishised, degraded and marginalised when we make the completely arbitrary assumption that the categorisation of human beings should be strictly in terms of reproductive organs or chromosomes.
There is no test for being gay or trans, and no apparent genetic difference. We have biological hints and clues in a process known as epigenesis. We see behaviour reminiscent of both gay and trans experience in the animal kingdom, but we cannot prove or disprove being gay or trans, nor can we simplistically extrapolate findings in nature to our more socially complex existence. Self-identification is the only option. We have mostly come to accept the self-identification of gay people, now we need to offer the same dignity to trans people.
“It’s a modern invention”
There is a belief in some cultures that homosexuality was invented in the modern west, a symbol of its decadence and corruption. Of course, we know that homosexuality has occurred in different social forms and with different meanings throughout history, and we also understand that homophobia may well be the result of colonialism in many countries who now cling to it. Equally, being trans did not originate with western culture and medicine. It takes many forms and meanings throughout history and culture and appears in many religions. Even surgical alteration has manifested in history, and while modern medicine provides new choices, it was the pre-existing trans community that asked for these options, not a medical profession diagnosing and enforcing them.
“If we allow it, everyone will do it”
You can’t “turn” someone gay. You can’t “turn” someone trans. Acceptance may bring more people out of the closet, but it will not change people’s orientation.
“I hate the word cisgender”
Heterosexual people resisted the introduction of a word that describes them impartially in relation to gay people. They prefer to use words like “normal” “natural” or “straight” (the opposite of their own chosen terms for gay people; queer, bent, abnormal, unnatural). Likewise cisgender (non-trans) people are resisting this neutral word, preferring terms like real, natural, or biological (even if being trans is entirely likely to be natural and biological in origin). Hopefully, we all know that people exist on a continuum, and that gay/straight, trans/cis should not be seen in terms of simplistic dichotomies.
“It’s a sickness – treat their mental health!”
It is established, and written into the guidelines of most psychological and counselling bodies, that reparative therapy does not work for either gay or trans people, and that neither is a sign of mental illness. It is now understood that the increased mental illness found in gay and trans populations is as a result of marginalisation and oppression. The bestowing of rights and social support decreases the incidence of mental health issues.
“You’re just confused”
Being trans and being gay are constantly confused with one another – if a man acts “effeminate” or a woman is “masculine”, it is assumed to be related to their sexuality rather than their gender. In countries like Iran, transitioning is seen as a culturally acceptable way to “deal with” being gay, but in most western cultures being gay is more socially acceptable than being trans. The confusion lies in the fact that there is a clear crossover between the two populations; nonetheless they are separate things, and trans people are not confused gay people any more than gay people are confused trans people.
The interrelatedness of these two experiences and the prevalence of gender variance within the LGB community means it is essential for LGB people to be the most passionate allies to the trans community, and vice versa. In the words of Audre Lorde:
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”