Tag Archives: Misgendering

Just an ordinary day

A snapshot of one day in the life of a transitioning non-binary person

CN: TERFs, mental health, dysphoria

About me: I am taking masculinising hormones, but am still generally read as female. I identify male-ish, femme-ish, queer, bisexual and (for want of a better word) non-binary (all these words are equivocal). I actually just prefer “transgender person” in some ways rather than trying to define things that are all so loaded with complex and variable social meanings. I use they/their/them, hate she, tolerate (barely) he, cope with Mr and for some unaccountable reason don’t like Mx. Will eventually try to destroy all titles. Or become a Dr. One or the other.

7 am: Facebook status update:

[Facebook status update: 7am. What the hell? New job starts for real today and I just wanna stay in bed]

I’ve been on and off ESA this last year, mainly stress related. Going back to work is a big deal, not least because I had some difficult trans-related discrimination to deal with last time I worked (I’m self employed too but that’s unreliable, and the coffers are getting low).

7.25 am: I’m still in bed. I’ve been arguing with TERFs on Twitter over the NSPCC’s aborted “debate”. Since I wrote a take down of one of Sarah Ditum’s articles and it went somewhat viral, she and her friends have been oh so attentive. I ask myself, as always, what good I am doing listening to this poison, what point there is in repeating facts they already know but don’t care about. If this was really about child welfare, they would be jumping up and down on behalf of intersex kids. They’re not. They just want to erode trans civil rights, legitimacy, recognition. They want to end us. It’s oppressive and abusive, and I know it is, and I have trauma reactions still lingering from some of my worst encounters with local TERFs.

The plus side is I discovered a great community via challenging their twisted ideology. Doing my homework built bonds and understanding with this huge, diverse, messy trans community. Yes folks, you heard it here first, TERFs turned me transgender! Or rather, they helped me to admit it and understand it better.

Unfortunately I now have a miniTERF living permanently inside my head. Logically I know it lies and manipulates, but that nasty, perpetual, gaslighting question plays incessantly “how do you really know who you are?”

The feelings I have about gender are political, feminist, radical and yet . . . they are also deeply personal. I have an experience – of soaking up male socialisation instinctively from an early age (the science geek bit of my brain whirrs . . . could gender identity come from the hypothalamus?? Is “gender instinct” a better term than “gender identity”?). I just wanna know why I am the way I am, to prove that I’m not crazy, that this really is a thing.

“You’re making it all up” says miniTERF, echoing the words of abusers everywhere. “You’re just unhinged”. Well who wouldn’t be unhinged with this constant drip of doubt challenging your own lived reality? I just can’t be a woman, it doesn’t work. I tried, god knows I tried. I tried every way to get comfortable in that lie but it kept falling off me like an unstitched suit.

These are the sort of thoughts I generally have before breakfast.

7.30 am: I get up, wash, shave off my still patchy stubble, put on my testosterone gel. Like I do every morning. Put on a somewhat flattening bra because I can no longer wear a binder. Too many health problems. Try to tell myself the contours don’t matter, but they do to me. I didn’t want to want them gone. Didn’t want to (miniTERF alert) “mutilate” my body. But it feels more like incising tumors. I can’t seem to be in my body with those there. I wish I could. Years of therapy, mostly from a radical lesbian feminist, hasn’t fixed me on being a woman. Okay, maybe, beloved as she was (and still is) to me, the radical lesbian feminist therapist didn’t help my trans self-esteem.

I try not to argue with TERFs any more because it nearly destroyed me, brought me close to suicide in the past. Logically I can see how they operate, how they twist everything, how they seem to live in a bubble where pronouns and toilet doors and words and birth certificates are straight from nature and untouched by human hands, while my fundamental and lifelong experience of myself is nothing, is just made up, simply cannot be.

Ugh. I eat breakfast, leave the house tea in hand. I manage to make the train. Donald Trump’s rapey behaviour all over the front page of the Metro. Ugh again.

9.20 am: Need a toilet and can only see Ladies and Gents at the station. Haven’t used the ladies for a few years now. I deal with using the gents, but always feel fear. Nobody gives me trouble. I still get ridiculous anxiety and sometimes it will wreck a trip out. I’ll be avoiding a pub toilet because of drunks, wondering how long I’m going to last, or I’ll realise people have wrongly assumed my gender as female and that using the gents will out me. My anxiety gets the better of me and I’m not much fun to be around.

Seeing a gender neutral toilet or accessible toilet that isn’t locked makes me ridiculously happy when it happens.

9.45 am: Arrive at HR reception with DBS check, the one with my prior name erased like a dirty secret. I shouldn’t have to feel shame because one day I decided to take back the name I chose for myself as a kid, the one nobody would use. Because names are also biological facts, sewn into our skin, apparently.

The receptionist rings the office and I tense, waiting for her to say “this lady has brought her form” or some other gendering words.

It doesn’t happen. She didn’t gender me! This is amazing. How often in our even casual interactions are we not gendered? I start to breathe again. I want to hug her.

10.00 am: Meet my line manager for the third time. He misgenders me “she, sorry, he” and I say as breezily as I can “I prefer they”. I already told him this. It takes a lot of practice and grit to sound easy breezy every one of the thousand times you get misgendered when each time it’s threatening to snap your very last nerve. He tells me it’s going to be hard for him. I get it. “They” is hard for the brain to get used to. I really understand, because I mess up myself with my “they” friends.

Only . . . wouldn’t it be nice if one time a cis person didn’t say “this is hard for me” and instead said “this must be hard for you”.

It sucks. (“You’re not real, you’re not real, transgender doesn’t exist and non-binary doesn’t exist even more!!!” miniTERF shouts gleefully).

12.45 pm: I get my staff pass. I’m waiting for her to go “Oh, there’s been a mistake, this says mister”. Holding my breath again. Don’t smile for the photo, men don’t smile.

She doesn’t correct it! My pass says Mr and nobody blinked!!! Today is a good day.

“Thank you so much.” I say in that lilting, raised, people-pleasing voice it took me years to learn in my efforts to properly pass as a woman. Dysphoria crashes down on me – I know my voice will give me away forever now.

The usual raft of options run through my head. It’s not too late to stop this, I do a pretty good job of passing as a woman, even if it took decades of practice. Surely it would be easier to pretend to be the person everyone wants me to be?

Easier, yes, and yet also impossible. You can’t unlearn the truth about yourself, unawaken. I can’t explain it, but there it is. Even if I don’t know exactly what I am, I can’t be a woman anymore, not even a boyish woman who in no way conforms to what a woman should be. I did that most of my life, and it never resolved that pervasive truth that no matter what I wear or how I act I still was being forced to be socially labelled and segregated according to what’s in my underpants.

I just can’t manage the drip drip drip of words that all mean the same thing; “you have a vagina and socially that means more than anything else! It defines you.”

Fuck you, assigned gender. Just fuck you.

2.30 pm Walking to a meeting across town, I have a difficult phone call about a homeless trans woman I’m (voluntarily) supporting. Everything suddenly feels difficult and busy and overwhelming. I suddenly feel the weight of this entire lost, rejected, hurt community on my shoulders. Why the hell can’t people just listenpigeon and help? Just be kind.

I stop to take pictures of a pigeon in the fountain and come back to earth. I don’t remember being this easily overwhelmed, but I guess my bucket is full from that drip drip drip. Minority stress. I lived as a lesbian for years but it wasn’t like this. Trans is worse. Folks treat trans people like shit, treat non-binary people like an insubstantial but very unpleasant fart.

4.30 pm: I’m on the tram and I have no idea where I’m getting off. A nice woman tells me she’ll warn me when my stop is coming up. We share some idle chat and I remember I will miss this, being talked to as if I’m a woman, as if therefore I’m safe to talk to, to make eye contact with. I really don’t want to be a man, I just want people not to gender me at all. I want the impossible, I remind myself.

Everyone will gender you, one way or the other.

6.30 pm: Home. Twitter is on fire. Must stop reading TERF poison.

11.00 pm: Had to deal with a TERF infestation on my Twitter feed. They’re like ants – first one comes, and the next thing you know they’re swarming all over you giving you no time to think. Profiles set up seemingly with the sole purpose of antagonising trans people. Pictures of Buffalo Bill, the serial killing pseudo-trans character from Silence of the Lambs. Self-descriptions that serve no other purpose than to mock or delegitimise trans people. Parody and hate and attack all dressed up as Freeze Peach.

My Achilles heel is I try to treat their manipulative questioning with sincerity, but really all they want from me is that I will be hurt enough by them to snap and say something that will then be used against every one of the millions of trans people on the planet (we are a hive mind, don’t you know). When I start blocking them others go on the attack, how dare I set boundaries and end a conversation they want to have over and over and over?

Maybe about a hundred (it feels like) TERFs now blocked. MiniTERF has fed well, and is pretty powerful and vicious right now.

The theme of tonight’s tweets was “detransition” and the idea that if a handful of us (hundreds amid millions) change direction, then the existence of all of us is a lie.

Here’s the truth. You can’t do anything about being transgender, whatever flavour of trans you are, and there are many. But there are choices – narrow ones, in a world that makes life damn near impossible. There are calculated risks you can take, and by and large they pay off. But not always.

People detransition. I might. I probably won’t, but I might, because the world is not a friendly place to non-binary trans people, and it’s significantly easier socially and professionally to live as a gender non-conforming queer woman. I know from experience.

But whoever I live as I will still be transgender, have always been transgender. And if I regret attempting transition, it will only be like the many other regrets in my life -shags, jobs, relationships that didn’t go as planned. We know statistically the outcomes are good for transitioning, but we can never know if it will work for us until we try it. It’s a leap of faith.

Midnight: Time to sleep. It’s been a long day. TERFy days are always the hardest, they shred your head if you let them. But I was out in the world and only got misgendered once, that’s a win. Generally, the world has been kinder than usual, and I can put the cruelty in its place. Is it worth all this stress and trauma? Still yes.

 

 

Sarah Ditum – not “gender critical” enough

Sarah Ditum’s article in the New Statesman this week is very clever. I’m not going to link to it – New Statesman knows well enough that publishing Ditum’s ongoing campaign against my community will always attract a lot of traffic to its site – drawn by the inevitable controversy that follows.

This is business, make no mistake, and if the trans community gets hurt and make a fuss, well that will be good for business too.

Sadly, folks don’t read enough articles written by actual trans people to see through the holes in Ditum’s arguments, and this latest article in particular reads to the ignorant as being very comprehensive, reasonable and balanced. So, for those who have already read it and been taken in, here’s what’s wrong with it. For those who have not read it – don’t bother, it adds nothing new whatsoever to the feminist conversation and is in fact a warmed-over version of some very past their sell-by-date ideas.

I’m going to take us through the over-long article point by point to expose its manipulations and distortions, so apologies if this is also a long response.

1. The header image

The header image shows a pair of false eyelashes nestled in a makeup box. This is a trope – it signals the “falseness” of trans identities by boiling them down to how we adorn ourselves. It sets the tone subtly to undermine the “realness” of us.

2. The subtitle

“In the US and UK, politicians want to enshrine respect for “gender identity” into law. The only problem? There is no scientific consensus on what gender is.”

Right in the subtitle of the piece is the heart of what this article is about. There is a “problem” with enshrining respect for gender identity in law (i.e. giving trans people civil rights), because science has not explained gender identity yet.

In the same way, I suppose we can’t enshrine respect for gay people because science hasn’t fully explained them either.

We cannot respect what we don’t understand. Let that sink in for a moment.

3. The threat

” Alex Drummond, who is male and identifies as female without having had any surgical or hormonal treatment – and with a full beard”

Alex Drummond is a woman with a beard. Harnaam Kaur is also a woman with a beard. One is cis, one is trans. But Ditum wants us to be afraid of Alex. Ditum calls Alex “male” knowing full well the baggage that goes with that word is so much more than biological. She is effectively gendering Alex. Misgendering her, in fact.

Why can’t Alex just live her life in a way that makes her healthy and comfortable? Why can’t she just be accepted as herself? Ditum will show us how dangerous this all is, and in doing so will take us back to a very regressive place, where as long as trans women have all the surgery and make every effort to “pass” in conventional terms, they will be somewhat tolerated, but trans liberation must not be allowed.

4. What explains us?

Ditum lays out four possibilities for what makes gender identity.

a) Gender is hardwired in the brain.

The idea she cites as favoured and acceptable. She makes it clear that this is essentialist (I agree, and so do most trans people I know) and not popular with feminists (quite right). She infers it is popular with trans people – not so.

Ditum then goes on to imply there are only 3 other options (also not true):

b) A sexual fetish, ie. autogynephilia

This is where her earlier (disputed) assertion that there are more trans women than men comes in handy – we can just ignore how trans men don’t fit this theory, can’t we? Oh, and we can ignore all the research that debunks the theory, too (I particularly like this one that shows cis women have identical experiences).

c) Faulty thinking due to autism.

Ditum exploits the fact that there is a higher incidence of autism in the trans population to suggest that autistic people “latch onto” gender identity due to feeling different. As an autistic person myself, this disableism is very unsettling. The idea that autistic people cannot know themselves as well as neurotypical people has no basis in reality.

Interestingly, the link between autism and sexuality has been explored in the past in similarly problematic ways, but now it is no longer acceptable to speculate about whether gay men are gay due to faulty wiring (Alan Turing, anyone?), we have moved on to scrutinise and undermine trans identities instead.

d) A response to trauma

Another nasty contrivance. Kids that grow up different are far more easy to marginalise and therefore to bully and abuse. So of course the levels of trauma in our communities are higher, as within the LGB community.

Yes, they used to say being a lesbian was caused by abuse too.

Apparently there are no other ways to frame our existence. We’ll see about that later.

5. Trans children must be stopped

Ditum goes on to stick up for “poor” Ken Zucker, saying he “was attacked for not conforming to the current trans political line, and ultimately forced from his job”.

Zucker, if you are not aware, is a proponent of reparative therapy for both LGB and trans children. Zucker increasingly shifted the focus of his work away from gay kids and towards trans kids due to “political” changes. Imagine if Ditum was writing now about that political shift – away from it being ok to try and “cure” gay people.

All the reputable psychological organisations condemn reparative therapy for gay and trans kids, and Zucker was a lone proponent, ultimately fired by an independent investigation.

The man was a renegade, so why is Ditum not citing other research by people who work with trans kids, for balance? The article pretends to be comprehensive and even handed, but look at just a small sample of what’s missing.

Ditum later rehashes a tired old myth when it comes to trans children. Using the very scientific method of watching a TV documentary and listening to an anecdote, she concludes that trans children think they are trans because they like things associated with the opposite sex. She perpetuates the myth of desistance and misleadingly cites:

“studies suggesting 80 per cent of gender non-conforming  children go on to live in their original gender as adults”

Yes, this figure is true, but that’s because trans and gender non-conforming are not the same thing. Read this article to understand how this statistic is misused over and over again. There is also a better study that shows that gender identity in trans kids is equally as consistent as for cis kids. Not to mention (oh ok, I will) the other important recent study that demonstrates extremely positive outcomes for trans kids that receive treatment.

It is frustrating how much good work has been done to clear up these myths and yet how often they get trotted out to trap the unwary people who haven’t done the reading.

Has Ditum not done her reading? Or is she deliberately suppressing one side of the story – I will leave you to decide. Given the size of her platform, can anyone see the danger for trans people if she has not been fully ethical, balanced and diligent in her research?

A transgender child’s identification with another gender goes far beyond mere gender expression, and is extremely persistent. Often kids and parents talk about expressions and choices as some of the clues they had along the way, but obviously you cannot encompass years of gender dysphoria into a soundbite or even a documentary. And having seen the BBC documentary mentioned, Ditum is also guilty of having cherry picked the one line out of an hour’s programme that fits her own biased narrative.

6. Ergo we don’t exist

“arguably non-existent gender identity”

“In the absence of compelling evidence for brainsex”

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – we are still exploring the complexity of gender and biology. It is interesting that the lack of fully established evidence for brainsex spurs Ditum to fall back on possibilities that have even less evidence, including the entirely debunked theory that it is a paraphilia (autogynephilia, see above).

Like Ditum, I believe gender identity may well be multi-determined, and I am fiercely in the middle of the nature/nurture debate, as are most reputable scholars – it’s likely to be both. I do however see there are hints of a mosaic of brain and hormonal differences that, as Daphna Joel has discovered, are by no means binary. These findings back the notion of sex-similarity far more than sex-difference. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the entirely debunked theories of Simon Baron-Cohen and others, it is possible that there is biology at work here, as well as, of course, gender socialisation.

Ditum also cites “a response to homophobia” as one possible cause of being trans. As a person who identified as a lesbian for a decade as a response to transphobia and my reluctance to come out as trans, my challenge to Ditum is this – show me the evidence that there is more stigma attached to being gay than trans in this country and I will believe you. Show me a single study that prompted you to throw that one in the mix. Or are you just falling back on the tired old trope that trans women are “confused gay men”? Yes, there is an interrelationship between gender identity and sexuality, but they are not the same. Neither are they in competition with each other.

I lived a prosperous life as a lesbian and have suffered a massive loss of privilege and circumstance in coming out as trans. I came out not because it was advantageous but because my lesbian identity was a half-truth and not a full expression of who I am, and I could not continue to manage living in that half-truth.

8. Trans is a narrow option

“as the doctrine of gender identity draws tighter, options become ever narrower”

Again, where is the evidence of this? My experience of the trans community is that the more freedom to explore ourselves and be accepted we have, the more diverse narratives spring up, the more options become open to us and the more the walls between us break down. Where 20 years ago trans people were expected to live heteronormative lives, now many of us are out and challenging many of society’s preconceptions around gender.

My trans circle is fiercely feminist, distinctly radical, and demonstrates a range of possibilities from assigned female “trans dykes” who use she/her but challenge what it is to be a woman, to non-binary people who manage to live outside of gender entirely. People who ease their dysphoria through medicine and people who don’t. And yes, people who know themselves to be women but don’t go through a medical process, who face huge challenges because of that. It’s funny how the nonconforming trans people like Alex Drummond are held up as the threat, and at one and the same time it is our community that is supposedly narrowing the options. Meanwhile, ultra conservative trans people like Caitlyn Jenner falsely dominate the public’s idea of what it is to be trans.

An observant person might suggest that cis people keep narrowing our options, while we keep trying to widen them so that we can live more healthily and congruently.

9. Cis people know better

“The fact of suffering is not evidence that the sufferer has unimpeachable insight into the source of that suffering”

A clever one, this. Yes, it’s true in a way, but it’s also deeply patronising. As a person-centred counsellor I have learned time and again that my client, whoever they are, is the expert on their own life. What is certainly not true is that Ditum can claim any real ability to shed light on this discussion.

10. It’s dangerous to give us rights

Finally, after an awful lot of going round the houses, we reach the real point of the article.

Ditum is very clearly arguing against trans people having civil rights, citing harm to “women” (read cis women) as the reason.

So, Ditum has cast trans acceptance as conflicting with both the gay community and the cis women’s community. A classic capitalist tactic to divide the groups that could be working together. She could almost be working for a neoliberal elite, so helpful is she being to them. At least, her career is probably doing very well because her message is so helpful in preserving the status quo.

So what do we know? We know, in fact, that the people who are most at risk of sexual, physical and domestic violence are trans women, and we know that there has never been any real problem accommodating them. I have experience of working in trans inclusive women’s services and it was never an issue.

What Ditum ignores is the position a trans woman has within women’s spaces. She will be scrutinised and suspected and watched. She does not hold the power in that space. How exactly is she to be a danger to others?

Ditum also plays on a fear that it is in patriarchy’s interests to perpetuate: women must keep themselves apart to be safe. Never mind that this excludes women’s voices in society, as I discuss in this blog post. Men want women to be afraid of them. They use the threat of rape and violence to enforce that fear, to convince women segregation is in their best interests. Fear of trans women is just another way of establishing that status quo.

Meanwhile, gender non-conforming cis women and lesbians are sharing with trans women the often violent consequences of this fear, as they always have.

Let’s be clear, there is absolutely no evidence that trans rights will have any detrimental effect on women’s rights. The changes in trans rights and acceptance that have happened so far over the last 40 years have not created problems for women. The problems people like Ditum feared have not come to pass. In fact, the experience of trans women and the violence, sexualisation and objectification they experience has highlighted the fact of misogyny and added a useful perspective to the feminist conversation. Transfeminism is exciting and vibrant and has earned its place within mainstream feminism.

11. Trans people are criminals

So, one Swedish study from a long time ago that has been much critiqued suggested that trans women (and trans men, as it happens) are incarcerated more than an average population of women.

It also says that trans people are more suicidal than the average population, no surprise there given how we are treated. This is often misrepresented, as in this article, to suggest we are more suicidal post-transition than pre-transition, something that has again been thoroughly debunked.

I could point out, as others have, that the study is old, has not been replicated, and was a very small sample. But actually, in the case of the criminality statistics, I really don’t need to.

Instead, imagine if Ditum was quoting the incidence of incarceration of other minority women compared to the norm for all women – say, lesbians, mentally ill women, women of colour, women living in poverty, women who have experienced trauma. Now let her continue to say those incarceration rates are due to something inherent in that population, rather than the fact that we know marginalised minority populations have higher offending rates for complex sociological reasons.

Ditum then says that prisoners might pretend to be trans to get more favourable housing. Well, yes initially they might, but when they see the hoops they have to jump through they will probably think again. Nobody is suggesting that there will be instant prison transfers on an inmate’s say-so, meaning of course that the prisoner will have to live as a woman for some time in a men’s prison, and experience the full force of misogyny that trans women experience.

All incarcerations are risk assessed, as are hostel placements and refuge placements. The reality is, sometimes cis women are too dangerous to house in a women’s prison, hostel or refuge, and special accommodations have to be made. We don’t need a special rule that affects an entire minority group, because we already have rules in place to deal with violent, dangerous, and sex offending cis women.

Ditum fails to mention Vicky Thomson, who killed herself when she was put in a men’s prison despite having lived as a woman for years. Or Tara Hudson, who was also imprisoned and sexually harassed in a men’s prison despite having transitioned long ago. Or Mary, who was raped 2000 times in a men’s prison. She fails to highlight the women who really are at risk in all this, as if trans women’s lives don’t actually matter in the same way. She also fails to highlight that those women are likely to be in danger in women’s prisons too, if we continue to stigmatise and doubt their existence.

Then, apparently thinking it will clinch her argument, Ditum cites a case of a trans inmate having sex with other inmates. Not rape, let’s be clear, but sex. Because apparently sex doesn’t happen in prisons when there are no trans women around. It takes the presence of a penis and testicles (yes, of course Ditum has to mention these) for sex to happen. And note the wording – the trans woman had sex with the other inmates, no possibility that, excited by the appearance of a penis in their midst, they might have been the ones “having sex with” her. Because cis women are always passive?

Don’t let all this essentialism slide – who people are and in what way they can move through society is being brought entirely down to the shape of their genitals. Note how, in all her discourse, Ditum is actually pushing trans women back towards a medicalised model where they will have to have “full surgery” to be tolerated. She is pushing us away from people being able to live as Alex Drummond lives.

11. Trans feminists aren’t proper feminists

“Julia Serano, who insists on a definition of feminism that contains no reference to patriarchy”

Ditum grossly misrepresents Serano’s work. I would recommend reading Whipping Girl and Excluded, but here’s a blog about this, where, funnily enough, Serano mentions the reality of patriarchy, as she often does:

“In Excluded, I describe these “gender systems” – whether it be patriarchy, the gender binary, and so on – as being models that provide a fairly decent approximation of how sexism and marginalization function in our culture. However, like all models, they are necessarily incomplete, and there will always be instances where they do not accurately describe the world.”

Why would Ditum be so dismissive of the nuanced and thought-provoking (although not always perfect) work of a noted transfeminist? Isn’t this a balanced article that’s supposed to be looking at all sides of the issue?

12. Save us from this false ideology!

“There is a real danger that an unproven theory of innate gender identity is now directing treatments”

Again, where is the evidence? Treatments are outcomes-based, not theory based – doctors try to alleviate suffering, and continue doing what works best until a better solution is found. Despite quoting again that one discredited Swedish study, we know treatment outcomes for trans people are really positive.

The answer to the philosophical question of “who are we, really, when you get right down to it?” is not necessary to know that gender reassignment works for those who want it, saves lives, and saves the NHS a fortune in mental health services that will never resolve the issue.

Whoever we are deep down, being allowed the freedom to live in a way that resolves our sense of incongruence is good for us. And actually, what’s good for the individual is generally good for the people around that individual too. Allowing trans people to be happy and healthy is a win-win.

Also note Ditum mentions that one Swedish study and fails to mention the many many more recent ones – so much for balance. There’s a handful of papers on my professional web page to get you started. Hey, that one old, unreplicated study has done an awful lot of heavy lifting for gender critical feminists, it must be tired by now.

Conclusion: Not critical enough

Despite the length of the article, I think I’ve demonstrated Ditum’s cherry picking of information prevents this from being a genuinely critical look at the full story.

But for me, the biggest issue here is the way Ditum’s argument reinforces gender.

Gender is a social construct, this is rightly a tenet of feminist belief. Gender is the word we use for everything man-made about the differences between men and women. I use “man-made”advisedly, because nobody here is arguing that patriarchy is not a real thing. As I have argued before, though, this inevitably means sex as a man-made social class and legal status is actually a part of gender.

Cue my favourite training slide:

not biology

So, in trying to reinforce the legal segregation of gender, upon which all social construction of gender is built, Ditum is in fact propping up the very thing she claims to want to dismantle. She has argued (on BBC Newsnight, earlier in the year) that sex needs to be legally recorded for women’s protection.

Let’s put that to the test in the usual way: “In order to ensure you as a gay citizen are protected, we need to legally record your status as a homosexual on all your documentation.”

No way that could go wrong, is there?

So, here is a possibility Ditum never discussed. Women and men are not that fundamentally different, although there are all sorts of complex nuances to our neurological, chromosomal, hormonal, and social experiences that create variety in how we are embodied and how we experience and interact with the culture around us.

That culture is oppressive in a number of ways – it favours heterosexuality, masculinity, men, and the idea of oppositional sex, as Serano terms it (as well as whiteness, able-bodiedness, neurotypicality, etc).

Gender segregation, in the form of legal and social sex (really gender) assignment at birth, is one way in which the culture is oppressive. This legal and social process oppresses gay people, women and trans people. Trans people are fighting to exist comfortably within this oppressive system, but many of us are also fighting to change it.

Ditum, let’s be clear, is fighting to preserve it.

Post-script- added 20/5/16

Given how hastily I wrote this, in just one afternoon, I am overwhelmed by the messages of support it has had. The only response I had from Ditum herself is as follows:

ditum

A friend pointed out this is a fine example of “dead cat politics“.

Of course that is not what I am saying! I am saying, however, that gender segregated toilets are not a feminist invention, and not necessarily in the interests of feminism, but that reaction to fear of men and rape, legitimate as that is, can sometimes lead to decisions to back gender-enshrining legislation that isn’t ultimately in women’s interests.

So, some folks then brought up the risk to women from lack of appropriate sanitation facilities in India and Africa. White women appropriating the experiences of women of colour to further their own agenda? Surely not. So let’s get this clear:

We do not have to have gender segregation enshrined in law to make safe provisions for diverse people in diverse situations. There are times, of course, when people are getting naked and need appropriate privacy, and it’s important to provide them with that. Women’s safety and children’s safety are absolutely important. This safety and privacy is generally achieved by providing a door with a lock on it, along with other reasonable security measures like safe external access. I think you’ll find most UK toilets and most new changing facilities afford this safety and privacy, and women everywhere have a right to demand this. Desegregated does not mean not risk assessed.

If facilities are not safe for everyone to use, we should probably stop letting our boy children use toilets. And women should probably start worrying about the 64,000 registered women sex offenders who are permitted to use all these facilities.

Will Young’s video and all those reactions

Deeply moved and affected. That’s the gut reaction of myself, my partner, and many other trans guys to seeing Will Young’s Brave Man video.

It’s an uncomfortable watch, but a powerful one. It speaks so strongly of the experience of having to constantly (metaphorically) take our clothes off in public – our bodies are everyone’s property and business, and we can never escape the cis gaze. If you don’t understand what I mean by this, imagine what it’s like to find yourself being questioned about your genitals by your new counselling supervisor, or where the most casual conversation can quickly turn to a verbal exploration of what’s under your clothes.

This is my experience of being transgender, and I know I am not alone.

It’s a world where my non-binary identity is often conflated with my (current) decision not to go for surgery, despite the fact that the two things have nothing to do with one another. The relief I felt when this man revealed himself to be non-op was palpable. Commenters who referred to the trans actor Finn as “androgynous” have dangerously missed the point. The power of seeing that non-standard male body against the constant repetition of the word “man” in the song was deeply moving. This is not about non-binary, or androgyny, it is about masculinity.

My understanding is that the video was made with very clear consent and in collaboration with the trans community. I am satisfied at the level of ethics that went into its making, but I appreciate that the video does feel an incredibly risky thing to expose to the cis gaze. While its message is to confront the way we are reduced to our bodies, I can understand how on a more simplistic level it feels like just such a reduction. As well as having a powerful emotional reaction to the video, my partner and I both experienced a lot of discomfort and fear. It’s not an easy piece of art. It is very challenging, and brave.

will-young1-1024x523

That “B” word. We are not brave for being who we are, and I get oh so tired of hearing that. Because inherent in the “brave” narrative is the inference of choice – that we are being trans because we’re brave enough to be different, rather than we are being trans because that’s simply who we are. We don’t really get to choose to avoid the oppression, scrutiny and attack that’s heaped upon us. At the same time, I kind of liked Young’s statement that it’s really about vulnerability – “to be vulnerable is to be strong“.

In addition to this, I am always thrilled as a feminist to see anything that puts maleness and vulnerability together, given the anti-vulnerability narrative that exists as part of toxic masculinity and infects trans guys as much as cis ones.

Another criticism is that it’s a trope to portray trans people as a “silent, agentless, friendless symbol of suffering” (CN Lester, on Twitter). I agree, it’s a trope. At the same time I think there’s something really powerful about showing this vulnerability, because despite these “tragic trans” tropes, our community is still seen as threatening and dangerous. Seeing the video resonated with me – yes, I am that vulnerable and at the mercy of the cis gaze. For me, the most powerful part of the video is Finn’s defiantly shrugging off a coat a well meaning cis woman places over him. My partner punched the air at this point. That was the fight we needed to see. Contrast this to the clumsy scene in “Boy Meets Girl” in which trans woman Judy landed a punch on one of her bullies and thereby reinforced the lie that trans women have male power and strength and live in a world where it’s safe to defend themselves.

Another issue raised is the whiteness of the video, and this is something I want to delicately unpick, at the same time as acknowledging my own whiteness. Yes, I would like to see more people of colour represented across the board in the media I consume, and I would like to see the stories of trans people of colour, particularly women, elevated. It’s astonishingly important to be intersectional in our approach to awareness raising and activism. We need to bring a focus onto the terrifying violence and oppression experienced globally by trans women of colour.

But I have begun to notice in the stories we trans folk tell ourselves a notion that being trans on its own isn’t enough of an issue. I think this is reinforced by the fact that we are a very small minority. It’s hard to get our voices heard alone, and we are early on in our fight for rights and recognition.

But just because being trans on its own is not spoken about so much, does not mean it is a “lesser” oppression. Being trans in its own right is the cause of significant oppression and social disadvantage. I think the rarely seen image of a trans man being visible and victimised strips away the complicating factors of other oppressions and makes trans oppression very clear. I don’t need to see this image over and over, but as a one off in the mainstream I think the image is important. As a community, we’ve been too schooled to be dismissive of trans oppression as a thing on its own, and not simply as a complicating factor in other oppressions.

Finn brave man

As for Young’s patriarchy comment, I am uncomfortable with it:

As I thought more about it, I realised that there is often coverage of what it is to be a woman in a man’s body, but never to my knowledge the documenting of the opposite (almost a perverted kind of patriarchy).”

I want to believe that Young is talking about how society falsely associates trans women with transgressive maleness and that’s why the violent hypervisibility lands on them, but it’s hard to escape the fact that this comment effectively misgenders trans women.

I would like to hear what Young has to say about this, and I think he needs to be called out over it. Is some of the reaction proportionate to his crime? Maybe not, but as someone who isn’t a trans women it’s hard for me to judge how it impacts them. Also, Will, can we please get away from that awful term “woman in a man’s body” – if you’re going to wade into ally waters, you seriously need to do some work on getting your language right. Being well meaning isn’t enough, and the community has a right to call you to account.

But this brings me to my final point – how easily a vulnerable, marginalised community can tear itself up over a video like this, and how hard it is to keep our reactions in proportion.

Why are trans people so “touchy” as one commenter described it? Because they are often traumatised and hyper-vigilant and frankly scared silly, and with good reason. Does this lead to overreactions at times? Of course – ask any traumatised person, we jump at our own shadows. Please let’s be compassionate with each other though, and not overreact to each other’s overreactions.

My own reaction is a non-binary one, just like me. This video, and Young’s words and intentions, are neither perfect nor completely reprehensible. I think the ensuing discussion, even with the over-reactions on either side, is important and valid, and I hope we can listen to the various thoughts and feelings this challenging video stirs up. I do not think my perspective is definitive, but I do have a valid stake in the conversation.

Language Matters

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.

rallyThe 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”listen to us, 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.

Yes, Deliberate Misgendering is Transphobia

“Is deliberate misgendering transphobic?”

This very debate is happening in spaces trans people are often not safe to access, because of, well, because of misgendering. Allies who jump in and assert that misgendering is transphobic get told they cannot speak for trans people, and often it’s hard for us to find our own voice in such environments. So, I decided to do a quick poll to check out what my community actually think of this, and surprise surprise, the vast majority of trans people who responded (94%) believed deliberate misgendering really is transphobic.

First, let’s be clear what we are talking about.

Deliberate misgendering is when people say that trans women are really men (and vice versa), or use male pronouns or old names to speak to or about them when their actual identity is known.

A good description of its impact can be read here.

As an aside, the dismissal of concerns about transphobia is often accompanied by the privileging of male-stereotypical traits. The trans community are urged to be “less sensitive”, or not to be so “weak and feeble”. This is part of a patriarchal anti-vulnerability narrative that we have all become far too indoctrinated with. If we tend to be emotional, sensitive, easily hurt, or vulnerable, there is, apparently no room for us in an activist sphere that was designed for people with thick skins (ironically, a physical trait that is linked to higher testosterone levels). When we say we are not safe in spaces where we are being continually misgendered, we are mocked and jeered at, or our concerns are simply dismissed.

Let’s face it, all suggestions that the trans community “toughen up” over the issue of misgendering are thinly veiled orders for us to “man up”.

The Poll

I polled 2 non-political Facebook groups for UK trans people. The following table makes it clear what a general transgender population thinks of deliberate misgendering:

Q: Is deliberately misgendering someone transphobia, yes or no? 68 Trans people responded to the poll Yes 94% Not always 6% No 0% Other words used: violent, aggressive, abusive, deliberately hurtful. feministchallengingtransphobia.wordpress.com

The “not always” category belonged to people who could see exceptional circumstances where it wouldn’t be transphobia; for instance where a trans man is called a “girl” in a teasing way, that’s simply sexism, and where friends and family are struggling with the change, it may not always be strictly transphobia at work. Also, when you are misgendering someone at their request and for their safety so as not to out them. However, the overwhelming feeling was clear: Misgendering is transphobia.

Which leads to the other important point made by more than one respondent – that it is not for people outside our community to decide what is and is not oppressive to people within our community, any more than it is for white people to decide what is and is not racist.

One defender of misgendering said it did not bother her so why should it bother trans people? This reminds me of a white teenage girl I once knew who told me there was nothing wrong with the N word; her friends called her it all the time and it did not upset her one little bit!

Misgendering is transphobia, end of story. When you engage in deliberate misgendering, you do so to undermine us; to make our social position less tenable; to cast doubt on our own words and explanations of ourselves; to privilege your explanation and categorisation of us; to expose us as “fraudulent” or “fake”; and frequently to infantilise, mock and belittle us. You also put us at higher risk of violence and lower access to social support and services by calling our identities into question, and this could substantially affect our wellbeing in multiple ways.

Of course misgendering is transphobic. Of course, as Laverne Cox says, it is an act of violence.

Tis the season to be misgendered

Well, the decorations are coming down and I have to say, an awesome holiday has been had.

My partner and I spent time with some fabulous, accepting, loving people. Life is good. We rounded off a year in which both of us came out as transgender knowing that we are still loved, we are still supported, and we are very privileged to have wonderful friends and family. Not everyone can make such a claim.

But oh, the misgendering! When everything is going so nicely, it is really hard to say to someone “please get our pronouns right” so I’m saying it now – please get our pronouns right! It makes a difference to both of us, it matters. It may be hard to make the adjustment, but we kind of need people to, because we both want to be nice about this but the truth is, it hurts to be misgendered.

I am not going to be that person who says “you got my pronouns wrong, you’re an arsehole!” Even trans people don’t always get each other’s pronouns right, and they’ve probably given the whole thing more thought than most people. But when we get pronouns wrong, we’re taking away a basic civility that most people are given automatically. It is surprisingly undermining. 

When I am called “she”, I feel an imposition that has never fitted my lived experience. “She” is not some fundamental biological fact, it is a human-invented word, a social categorisation, a box to put people into, and ultimately, it is a choice we do not have to make.

Yet when a friend of mine switched to gender neutral pronouns some time ago, I have to admit, despite how “cool” I thought I was about all things trans, I struggled to accept their pronouns. Despite the way I naturally use they/them/their without really thinking about it in everyday speech, using it for a specific person made my head rebel. I felt defensive and cross, and my resistance was strong. At times I was almost petulant about it.

I had to work to change my attitude. I had to have a word with myself about why I was resisting such a simple request. Much as I want to say I just needed to get used to it, it was more than that – I needed to fully accept this friend’s right to be respected in their difference. That friend eventually inspired me to make the same step myself, and I don’t doubt part of my own resistance was being forced to question gender rules I had been trained to perpetually reinforce. Breaking the rules, even inasmuch as changing their pronouns, was hard work, and if just saying a different pronoun is hard work, imagine what hard work it is living as transgender.

Struggling to use somebody’s pronouns can be a clue to our assumptions about how the world should be – taking a good, self-exploratory look at those assumptions may be an enlightening and enriching experience.