Tag Archives: TERFs

How cis lesbians can challenge transphobia after London Pride

Content note: This blog mentions transphobia, violence and sexual violence 

The events at London Pride inflicted huge distress and threat on trans people. Ensuing discussions have not always been useful, but as someone who lived within the lesbian community I understand how embedded misconceptions about trans issues are. I decided to write a longer blog specifically for my cisgender lesbian friends, to help them better challenge in-community transphobia.

“It’s important to keep talking until everyone understands/agrees”

Unfortunately, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. Most people will go along with the prevailing feeling of the group as a whole. If it feels they can get away with saying something nasty about a minority group they don’t really care about or want to understand, they will take the opportunity to do so. Strong social disapproval of this behaviour works much better than patient listening and arguing.

This is also because expressing controversial views is actually a display of power, as I discuss here.

If the prevailing dialogue is saying “we’ve had this conversation enough, trans women are women and we need to stop debating this”, then that sets a tone for inclusive spaces where trans people feel safe to come in without feeling they need to justify their very existence.

If the prevailing dialogue is “there is still much to talk about on this issue and it’s ok to keep discussing it til everyone agrees”, then we will carry on having this same conversation forever, because transphobes will always exist. If we centre the transphobes, even the unconsciously transphobic ones, and their need to talk, then we will forever be making spaces difficult to access for trans people.

At some point a moment happens where socially something shifts in people’s imagination from “it’s free speech” to “it’s just not an ok thing to say”. Usually, people claim “free speech” only if they have sympathy for the arguments. If you are letting cis people talk at length about the legitimacy of trans people, you are at the very least enabling transphobia, if not somewhat sympathising with it.

“The protest sheds light on the issues”

Does the increased opportunity to say bad things about minority groups “shed light” on issues and resolve them? Just look at the emboldening of the far right across the world and their own insistence on their right to “free speech” for an answer to that question. Prejudice is not something you can debate someone out of – social non-acceptance of prejudice is a far stronger tool than debate. See the paradox of tolerance for more on this.

I was told by a number of people the protest on Saturday created “an opportunity”. But the protest in reality just reinforced trans people’s positions as outsiders.

This has made trans people much more afraid of attending LGB(t) events, particularly Prides. An online video where a Pride in London steward says “We don’t mind you being here, we appreciate it”  (at the 3.50 mark) to the protesters doesn’t help things. Neither does the fact that Police did not act despite it being a public order offence, but did try to stop trans women shouting back at the protesters, who were shouting “dykes not dicks” and “men can’t be lesbians” at the time, whilst distributing leaflets calling trans women rapists.

One person told me I should be glad about the protest and I asked how he would feel if someone distributed hundreds of leaflets accusing him of being a rapist. Unfortunately, accusations stick, and these leaflets and the circulated videos and banner pictures will influence people. If you say hateful things about a minority group, it will socially influence people to think you must have a reason for doing so, and the respect given to the protesters will give their words even more weight.

Contrast the treatment of the privileged figures who led this protest (Julia Long is an established and well heeled white, middle aged, middle class, senior academic), with the treatment of other Pride protesters over the years. This photo, taken at Glasgow Pride last year, shows how young trans protesters are treated:

trans activists being rough-handled by police as they are arrested for demonstrating at Glasgow Pride

Listening over and over to transphobes and allowing their discourse to dominate lesbian spaces even though they are arguably a minority, means the community spends more time and empathy on the unfounded fears of transphobes than the very real fears of trans people.

This discourse is directly undermining potential and existing civil rights, as well as putting vulnerable trans women in increased danger. But it also silences younger cis lesbians, who are far more likely to be trans inclusive, and it reinforces power dynamics about who controls lesbian space.

“No one side of this is more oppressed than the other”

Saying this is tantamount to saying trans women are not women. If you think that, you are being transphobic. You might not want to think of yourself that way, but that doesn’t change it.

There is an enormous body of evidence to support the existence of trans people both historical, archeological, psychological and biological. You want your neat sex binary? Tough, it doesn’t exist. You want to believe that birth certificates and pronouns are biological facts that cannot be changed? Well, they aren’t.

Trans women are women. Trans lesbians are lesbians. So when a cis lesbian attacks a trans woman yes she is absolutely acting oppressively, because they are both women and only one of them is trans.

“But I’m being called a transphobe for not wanting to sleep with trans women”

Okay, first of all, your body, your choice. You can sleep with whoever you like!

But here’s the thing, if you would not consider dating a trans woman because you’re a lesbian, then you probably consider her to be outside your dating pool. And that means deep down you probably see her as outside of the category “woman”.

Sorry, but it really is transphobic to exclude trans women from the category “woman”. So, yes, you don’t have to date trans women, but making the statement that you wouldn’t date trans women reinforces the idea that they are not legitimate people for (cis) lesbians to date. All the cis lesbians who are dating trans women would very much disagree with you.

It’s transphobic to say that trans women can’t be lesbians and cannot date lesbians. This doesn’t mean anyone is forcing anyone to sleep with trans women, but it is saying you do not have the right to decide for everyone else what woman means, what lesbian means, or what transphobia is. Excluding trans women and the cis women who date them from the word lesbian or from lesbian spaces is transphobic.

“But lesbians don’t like penis”

Some trans women have a penis. And some lesbians are fine with that. If that’s not you, that’s ok. I lived as a lesbian for many years and I can tell you there are many kinds of lesbian with many different likes and wants. Dictating what all lesbians do and do not like isn’t ok.

Stigmatising anyone for being different is a truly horrible thing to do. There are all sorts of reasons trans women cannot or don’t have surgery. But saying things online like “I would never date a woman with a penis” is really, really hurtful and stigmatising. It doesn’t just hurt trans women, it hurts over-endowed intersex women too.

I couldn’t be around penises intimately for a long time when I was going through abuse recovery. It is totally ok to feel that way and not be stigmatised for that. There will be times when you need to share that information. Online, as a result of a discussion about whether trans lesbians are valid is not one of those times. To use your personal trauma around penises to invalidate trans lesbians is just plain manipulative.

Sleep with whoever you like. Your body, your rules. But just like Grindr statuses saying “no fats no femmes” can perpetuate systemic prejudice against certain bodies and presentations, so can unnecessarily broadcasting your negative feelings about some trans women’s bodies.

“But some trans people do bad things”

There are 64,000 registered female sex offenders in this country. A trans exclusionary radical feminist (Valerie Solanas) shot Andy Warhol, leaving him with a life limiting injury. A cis lesbian nurse (Beverley Allit) was Britain’s most notorious child serial killer. I also know a number of women who have been violently attacked, both sexually and otherwise, by cis lesbians, and who have been left with permanent injuries.

What do these facts have to do with each other? Absolutely nothing.

If I were to raise any of these issues in the context of trying to say there was something inherently problematic about cis women, that would be deeply problematic. If I were to talk about the cis lesbian violence cited above in the context of a conversation that was discussing lesbian exclusion from women’s spaces, or trying to portray them as more violent than other women. that would make me lesbophobic, pure and simple.

It wasn’t so long ago that het women were saying lesbians didn’t experience the same oppressions they did, had male energy, might make advances on them, were more likely to commit crimes, be violent, be sexually aggressive, etc. We didn’t get past that stage by over and over allowing homophobic rhetoric to be tediously discussed, but by shutting it down for the nonsense that it was. Because there isn’t a group of people alive that is devoid of criminal activity, and citing individual crimes in the context of a civil rights discussion is simply oppressive.

It’s transphobic to highlight individual misdemeanours of trans people as some sort of statement about the group. Of course it is. By all means call out problematic behaviour, but never on the basis that somebody is trans. That’s transphobia.

Trans people are ok, but trans activists are going too far”

Every civil rights movement in history has been painted as evil. This is nothing new. I wince when I hear feminists coming out with the exact same nonsense we hear about feminism – “too aggressive, political correctness gone mad, pendulum swung too far, I’m being oppressed by not being able to say what I want to say.”

At a time when the internet is full of far right sock puppet accounts and 4chan-produced memes trying to stir up fights on the left, I don’t doubt that bad things are said sometimes by some people who are trans or purporting to be, and I don’t doubt that in every civil rights movement there will be the cool heads and the less cool ones.

But nine times out of ten the poor victim of these “terrible trans activists” has actually simply been told that they are transphobic, and doesn’t believe this is the case.

You are not being oppressed by being called transphobic. If you’re told you’re transphobic just say “I didn’t intend to be, but I will reflect on that”. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. You don’t need to defend yourself, and if you do, of course people will keep coming at you, that’s the nature of the internet. But people being called transphobes aren’t an oppressed minority, and aren’t going to have their civil rights taken away. Unless you think being humoured in bigotry is a civil right.

If trans activist is a dirty word I am happy to take my place alongside other dirty words like feminist, because it means we’re changing things and conservatives don’t want us to. We won’t stop until we’re equal.

I am personally non-violent, but the question of whether violence helps gain civil rights, the Stonewall bricks, the Suffragette bombs, will always be a lively one and I do think in any civil rights battle violence is going to happen at some stage, whether justifiable or not, because people don’t like to be oppressed, and oppression is structural violence that in this case materially affects the wellbeing and life expectancy of trans people.

In other words, trans people are dying as a direct result of transphobia. Trans exclusionary feminists, for instance, managed to argue for an exception to the Equality Act that specifically allows trans women to be excluded from the DV and sexual violence services they proportionately need more than cis women. Although most services such as women’s refuges that I train are actually trans including because they understand the need, it deters trans women from approaching services, and this puts them at increased risk.

Often privileged people tell minorities they are “not helping their cause” because it stops the privileged person having to look at their own complicity in oppression. Those who are not actively campaigning for trans civil rights are the ones not helping our cause, don’t blame trans people. We will be safe when people stop being afraid to stand with us or looking for flimsy excuses like one bad apple to distance themselves.

“I support you and want you to have rights, just not the right to be women”

The only civil rights trans people want are to be recognised as who we say we are, and accepted without stigma or prejudice. Saying trans women are men is unacceptable. Saying “why don’t you all just have your own bathrooms and be registered third gender” is SEGREGATION. This is unacceptable.

If you do not accept the enormous body of evidence supporting trans existence, and accept that we are allowed our place in society, you are transphobic. It’s that simple. If you want us to be segregated out of your spaces, you are transphobic. If you want to stop trans women being fully recognised as women, trans men being fully recognised as men, and non-binary people being allowed to choose which side of the current legal gender binary they fit or opting out of the legal binary, you are transphobic.

“I accept trans women are women, but I also believe men are saying they are trans women for dubious reasons”

Let’s be clear that this isn’t really much different from “trans women are men”, it’s just switching over to “some/most trans women are men”. I have heard all sorts of nonsense on this one. Autogynephilia, an entirely debunked theory, is one of the many ways trans women are sexualised and portrayed as deviant men. The word rape and trans women gets used in the same sentence so often that it naturally contributes to the climate where trans women are portrayed over and over as a danger rather than in danger. The alarmingly high incidence of sexual assault of trans women is evidence of the result of this narrative – trans women receive all the objectification of cis women with none of the protection.

Every day, trans women fail the test of being “woman enough” for cis people, and are expected to be held to cis people’s judgement. Are not allowed to decide for themselves who they are. Of course, this happens to all trans people, but for trans women there is the addition of misogyny, where being demeaned, objectified and considered “lesser” by virtue of their femininity is part of their oppression.

Misunderstandings of what the GRA reforms mean add to this panic. I say misunderstandings, I mean lies – in the media, online, everywhere, the anti trans lobby are trying to block these reforms, but they are really going after the Equality Act 2010 protections that we currently have. They want to reverse our civil rights.

It is the Equality Act that allows us to self-identify in everyday life – use toilets, changing rooms and services as we need, without a Gender Recognition Certificate. Trans women and men have actually been self-identifying and living their lives for many years, but the EA gave them some protection and rights in this. Not to wave their willy around in a changing room in front of kids as some transphobes suggest, that’s still indecent exposure and it will continue to be illegal, but to use facilities just like other people. We don’t have to produce a birth certificate at the door, and we have a right not to be harassed.

“But women only spaces are at risk”

Women’s refuges, prisons and other spaces come up a lot. My local Women’s Centre has allowed self-identifying trans women to use it since 1998. Transphobes were so outraged about this, in one incident a transphobic woman spat on one of the cis women who pushed for the change. The change happened, of course, because of cis women deciding they wanted to include trans women. They understood trans women are vulnerable and should not be left outside.

In my extensive experience of women only spaces such as domestic violence services and lesbian or women only events, trans exclusionary types are invariably in the minority. They are often bullies, however, who want to control the spaces.

How many problems have their been with the Women’s Centre’s policy in its 20 years of including self-IDing trans women? Exactly none. Not once has someone represented themself as a trans woman to gain access to the centre.

When I do training at the centre, it turns out the real problem is convincing trans women that they are safe there – it is still very under-used by trans women. This was also my experience working for trans including Women’s Aid organisations – despite 80% of trans people experiencing DV, they don’t feel safe to approach services, and of course this puts them at greater risk.

We didn’t need to fear that a man would slip under the radar and access a refuge, because we did thorough risk assessments before allowing access, just as prisons do. And in both cases, some cis women would be excluded for being too violent or unsafe to include.

If you drill into the “some trans women aren’t real, some are” rhetoric, you find that the proponents of this believe all trans women are men, but will tokenise compliant trans women who are happy to say “we are mentally ill, we are men really, we are only valid if we have surgery, and we don’t need any civil rights”. Studies clearly prove trans people are not mentally ill, but are just part of life’s natural diversity, and that the best way of confirming what somebody’s gender is is simply to ask them.

Why haven’t men taken advantage of the EA to invade women’s spaces like everyone feared? Why haven’t they taken advantage of the Irish legislation that now allows people to legally self-declare their gender? It’s simple. Men don’t need to go through any such nonsense in order to attack women, nor would these legislations in any way help them to do so. Making a statutory declaration, as they have in Ireland and propose to have in England, is a legal commitment, and doing it falsely would be fraud.

“We should have the right to self-organise how we please”

Actually, I agree with this. Transphobes should absolutely be allowed to set up their trans woman-excluding spaces if they want to. But in my experience, that’s not enough for them. Back in the 70s, when these ideas first came up, they dominated women only spaces, but increasingly cis women have fought to include trans women, and little by little “women’s space” has come to be trans inclusive. As this shift has happened, the transphobes have lost control of these spaces and the women within them, and that’s the real issue here.

When they protest younger assigned female people transitioning, it becomes quite clear how proprietorial they are over other people’s bodies and identities. Personal and bodily autonomy go out the window – people must live the way the transphobes dictate. It is all, of course, about power and control, and sowing fear is one of the best ways in which to control other people.

As someone who lived for many years as a lesbian, because it was a socially easier, less stigmatised identity, I abhor the way some lesbians try to police transness out of the community. It will always be there, because gender and sexuality are interlinked, although separate.

Many lesbians experience a spectrum of gender dysphoria issues, and many lesbians surreptitiously have these issues medically treated with hormones or surgery. But coming out as trans into the community is impossible, because a hard line is drawn where none really exists. There are lesbians with no gender issues, there are lesbians with some gender issues, and I know a few lesbians are open to me if not elsewhere that they would come out as trans men if it felt safer to do so.

Who would have thought, gender is on a continuum, just like sexuality.

When my partner came out as trans, I received an email that same day saying “now you are straight, you should remove yourself from this lesbian email group”. When I came out as non-binary, but still lesbian-identified, I received another email: “As a man, it’s disrespectful for you to comment in this group” these people were, of course, known transphobes, but their views were overly tolerated in my old social circles.

I didn’t leave the lesbian community and didn’t want to – it left me. It could not contain the huge diversity of people who resonate at some point with the word “lesbian”. The rules of belonging were too rigid, and too binary.

I realise this may not be true for everyone, but in the spaces I was in there is no way to get away from the fact that the lesbian community was institutionally transphobic and also biphobic.

“We need sex-based, not gender-based protections”

Anyone who knows me, knows I fundamentally disagree that we should legally assign gender at birth. It is bad for women, intersex people, and trans people. It is segregation, it enforces a binary where none exists, and it massively exaggerates the implication of being born with certain organs.

Gay people, black people, disabled people have protection in law from discrimination and can self-organise without legal registration. In fact, we would be horrified if we legally registered people for being gay.

I do not have a problem with legal protection for people based on reproductive capacity. We rightly should protect pregnancy, for instance, as a factor that can lead to discrimination. But this is not a woman’s issue solely, because men and NB people can give birth, and many cis women cannot.

A transphobe once said to me that rape of trans women is not as serious because they cannot get pregnant. Appalling when you realise rape of children or post-menopausal or infertile women is by implication also less serious. Or an infertile rapist is committing a lesser crime. Of course we cannot make such simplistic and nonsensical statements. Rape is traumatic for all those who experience it and all those who experience it, whatever their gender, have experienced someone having power and control over their body, the ultimate oppression.

Pregnancy, abortion, period tax, smear tests, are all important issues, we need to talk about them, but we also need to remember they are issues for some men and NB people, and not issues for some cis women. The myth is trans women are saying we can’t talk about these things, the truth is that assigned female people like me are asking we talk about them more inclusively and with more awareness. And obviously never bring them up deliberately to exclude trans women.

I do not need to be legally registered and socially labelled because of my uterus, but there are rights and medical needs I do have because of my body, or did have when I was younger. I also don’t need a shop assistant to call me by a particular salutation because of my uterus, in fact I am puzzled that any woman is fighting for this bizarre social convention to be preserved.

I do want there to be access to gynaecological healthcare, contraception, abortion, smear tests, pregnancy leave and rights, an end to period tax and ideally have tampons on the NHS. I want childcare to be valued and equalised. None of these are related to having to be legally registered as female or needing to have she/her/ma’am/Ms applied to me.

If I had been born without a functioning uterus but still assigned female, the idea that that would that have made me “less of a woman”, that rape would have been less serious, that I could have been decentred from feminist conversations as childless lesbians once were, is abhorrent to me.

The way Mumsnet users have been radicalised in the anti-trans crusade I can see we are slipping backwards to a time when women are considered walking wombs or baby-makers and very little else. Ironically, they call the cis women opposing this “Handmaids”. It is well known in trans circles that the influence of this radicalisation ultimately comes from the misogynist and evangelical right wing, not from the left but intended to divide it.

“Lesbian, not queer”

None of this is good for a healthy, diverse lesbian community. But older lesbians, if you want to know why more and more younger people are identifying as “queer” it’s to distance themselves from this nonsense, and to embrace a diverse community rather than a rigid one, in which trans people are included not universally shut out.

I personally don’t think we should lose the identity lesbian, but rather embrace the fact that it is ever evolving. At different times in its history it has been more about sexuality, or more about gender. Radical feminist Monique Wittig, for instance, saw all lesbians as “third gender”, but most modern definitions solely cite exclusive attraction to women. But “lesbian” is still a broad church. For some it’s about attraction to “female masculinity”, others to “femmes” and “femininity”. Believe it or not, there are even some self-identified cis lesbians who sleep with gay men, because sexuality is complex and diverse.

Of course, people are complicated and identity is complicated. When I organise, I focus on creating anti-oppressive space rather than space that excludes certain people. I look at what is going to be centred, rather than trying to create a pure monoculture. I organise across difference rather than encouraging people to focus on sameness.

Women centred/ lesbian centred space rather than women only space is one possible future for the increasingly complicated lesbian terrain. I would give anything to organise with and socialise with lesbians again, but things do need to change and I have no desire to set foot in spaces labelled women only, especially if those spaces exclude trans women or include me only by erasing my identity.

“What can we do, though?”

I’d like lesbians reading this to ask themselves some reflective questions. Have you spent more time in your life listening to transphobes that trans people? Have you spent more social time in spaces where trans people wouldn’t feel comfortable than in spaces where transphobes wouldn’t feel comfortable? Have you read/consumed the words of transphobes or “gender critics” more than the words of trans feminists like Julia Serano or CN Lester? Count the even slightly transphobic people in your life. Now count the trans people. How does that tally?

How might these things perpetuate biases you aren’t even aware of?

Now, please go and fill out the GRA consultation affirmatively, and share information about it, such as that from Stonewall and TransActual.

Get behind trans friendly cis lesbians like Ruth Hunt and Grace Petrie and share their words. Follow my Facebook page Trans Inclusive Feminism and subscribe to this blog. Learn ways to stop transphobic discussions running amok in spaces you hold or frequent.

Sometimes that’s about being firm and saying “trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are legitimate, and it’s oppressive to say otherwise”, rather than engaging in long-winded debates you may not be equipped for and that just give awful views even more of a hearing.

Please help trans people get civil rights, and ask your friends to do the same. Without you, we are looking at our rights going into reverse, and trust me, we are the canaries but this alt-right fuelled division will be after you next. All of us need to choose this moment to cease to be silent in the face of any hatred against marginalised people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Can I be non-binary and transsexual?

I talked in a recent blog post about ditching the term “binary trans person”. I want to talk about another binary in this blog, the TS/TG (transsexual/transgender) binary. This is as a result of an admin of a trans group telling me I shouldn’t comment on a thread because it was for “transsexuals only” and “being TS means you identify with the traditional binary”, that non-binary  people “absolutely cannot be transsexual”.

Obviously, I felt hurt and excluded by these remarks, and wanted to explore them. The subsequent conversation left me feeling unwelcome in the group as a non-binary person, and I left. It’s sad, but there are still many trans spaces that feel unwelcoming to non-binary people.

So here we have yet another binary, but also one created so that non-binary (NB) people can be excluded. We can be trans or transgender, but never transsexual, which smacks of the age-old issue of who gets to be “trans enough” and what it means not to be.

One underlying issue that creates this supposed divide is specific to trans women. A frequent complaint I hear from trans women is about happily-living-as-male crossdressers (CDs) throwing their weight around, as people with a bit of male privilege often do, without understanding the oppression and violence trans women suffer. Because many who might once have been called “crossdressers” have now adopted the term non-binary, this has perhaps created a narrow impression of what non-binary means. Some assume non-binary is synonymous with having less gender dysphoria, desiring less medical intervention, or not needing to socially transition. But none of these things is true.

I will fight forever for a diverse community to be held and protected under one umbrella. But we are not all the same. Non-binary covers a variety of people who don’t fit the prescribed and artificial binary that society currently inflicts on us. It does not mean we don’t transition, or don’t experience gender dysphoria, or have less gender dysphoria, or have less legitimately gendered or sexed bodies after transition.

So can transitioning non-binary people be transsexual? Some folks say that NB people cannot be transsexual because the historically older term was coined at a time when NB was not recognised and we had no civil rights. We are excluded because, well, we always have been.

But what’s the difference between a transitioning trans man or woman and a transitioning NB person? I have what some people call gender dysphoria, both physical and social. I changed my name, live in my identity, underwent medical treatment to change my physical sexual characteristics. Many NB peeps have lower surgery, and I’m not ruling it out. But some insist NB folk can never be transsexual. Our dysphoria is not like trans men or women’s dysphoria. Their gender identity carries some meaning and legitimacy that mine does not. Legally and socially that’s currently true, of course, but it still hurts when the trans community perpetuates this separation, particularly because they are people who have themselves faced a cis society that delegitimises their identities.

But what is dysphoria?

Not everyone likes the term gender dysphoria, because it’s associated with medical diagnosis. The opposite of euphoria, it means the clinically significant distress some trans people feel as a result of being trans. Some argue that in a perfect world, being trans should not cause distress, and a landmark Lancet study agrees that being trans is not, in and of itself, a cause of mental illness, but rather the treatment of trans people in society is.

Looking back at the conversation that sparked this blog, the implication was that having “lower dysphoria”, the desire to change your genitals, is what makes a person TS. But how do we know, when people desire to change their genitals, that it always means the same thing or feels the same way? Or if they don’t, might there also be multiple reasons for this?

Let’s look at how trans guys and AFAB non-binary people feel about their bodies. For a start, dysphoria is not just one thing but many strands of experience. You may feel that having a penis is part of being a man or male, and you will be incomplete/not a man without one. That it is impossible to be a man without a penis. This is an aspect of social dysphoria – a feeling created by the way society sees men and thinks about trans men. If you are surrounded by people who accept trans men fully, whether or not they have a penis, this type of dysphoria is less likely to cause you to need surgery. You may be disabled and fear how you will be treated during personal care, or fear personal care when you are older, if your genitals do not match the way you look. The experience of many trans men with their carers bears this fear out. Again, this would be resolved by feeling confident that carers will always treat you as a man no matter what is in your pants. This, too, is social dysphoria. You may fear being rejected by lovers or partners based on what your genitals look like. Again, that’s social dysphoria, and this may be lessened if you are in validating relationship.

Physical dysphoria is something different. Sometimes likened to “phantom limb syndrome” it’s the feeling that something should be there that isn’t. Or shouldn’t be there but is. This can happen with all kinds of body parts, a wiring glitch where the brain does not accurately map onto the body. So, there are people who, for instance, feel like certain body parts do not belong to them. Brains and bodies are weird and the way people experience their embodiment is diverse. So for instance, there are AFAB peeple who feel agender or woman-identified but have strong physical dysphoria, desiring male-typical anatomy.

For some, physical dysphoria is unendurable and the need for surgery is intense. For others, it can be resolved through the use of prosthetics and surgery is unnecessary. For people like myself who are dissociative or out of touch with their bodies, it may be easy to ignore or we may even be unaware of physical dysphoria, as I describe here.

There is also a third kind of dysphoria some people call internal dysphoria – neither physical nor social, it is about how the person feels inside of themself, outside of a physical or social context. Again, this varies hugely from person to person.

dysphoria diagram

Let’s not forget also that for AFAB trans people reproductive organs are more than just external genitals. Some people, like myself, feel far more physically dysphoric about our internal reproductive systems (owning a womb, having periods, hormone cycles, potential of pregnancy) than we feel about the size of our erections.

Because with or without intervention, AFAB people get erections! We have our very own erectile tissue. And when we take T, it generally grows (a bit, don’t get *too* excited). And for many of us, this growth is sufficient for our needs. Or we might be much more focused on chest reconstruction. Or just hysterectomy. And if we do decide we need more length, or want to stand to pee, there are a range of options from the very simple clitoral release, the more difficult metoidioplasty to the very complex surgery of phalloplasty. And of course, many disabled people and people without access to funded healthcare find lower surgery unavailable to them, however dysphoric they feel.

Am I defined by my gender or my sex?

I’ve written about how gender and sex are far more interconnected entities than we would like to believe. The reason transgender as a term has gained traction over transsexual is, I think, an acknowledgement of how much trans lives are affected by social gender (including birth assignment) rather than simply the shape of our genitals/size of our gametes. It’s the social consequence of our body shapes that affects us more than our bodies themselves. We are trapped in people’s perceptions of our bodies, as the saying goes.

The other reason the term transgender has gained traction is because more trans people now consider their gender to be something pre-existing a desire to transition – transition does not create us, it helps us be more comfortable. So I, for instance, feel I was trans as far back as I can remember – that my experience of gender, and the way I was treated, is not the same as the experiences of women who are my contemporaries. In other words, transition doesn’t make me trans, I just am.

But the term transsexual persists, usually meaning a trans person who alters their sexual characteristics medically. Let’s take it down to brass tacks – sexually, what am I now, with a male hormonal profile and secondary sexual characteristics, but XX chromosomes? If I can’t be described as transsexual, then how can that term carry any meaning at all?

I have so many questions about how this TG/TS distinction could possibly work in practice, and even more about why it is needed. Of course the reality is, it’s just some people preferring one term and some the other, and the terms thoroughly overlap each other.

Divide and conquer?

We know TERFs want the TS/TG distinction because they are trying to convince trans women that a special exception will be made for them if they have had all the available treatment, that they will be allowed civil rights and be partially treated as women as long as they hold the line against the rest of us gaining any rights. A classic divide and conquer tactic which alas seems to work all too well, playing into a widespread fear that non-binary rights are just going too far. But trans women already have civil rights, and these were never TERF’s to bestow. Whether or not they have surgery, they can have their gender recognised. The Equality Act 2010 defines “transsexual” as “proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.” Transitioning non-binary people are understood to be covered by this wording.

So in law, I am transsexual. In my gender doctor’s notes, I am transsexual. It’s not my favourite word, and I tend to prefer my trans umbrella to be wider rather than narrower, but if TS is to endure as a term, can we at least make it mean something that isn’t NB erasing? Because saying my transition is so fundamentally different from a trans man or woman’s transition that it needs a separate word is unbelievably othering.

What is the underlying fantasy in all this? That there are clear lines dividing transsexual from transgender, non-binary from trans men and women, and that we can pin everyone down clearly, with no bodies straying over the lines? But many “crossdressers” are “true transsexuals” waiting for the right moment to take the plunge. Many NB people have more medical intervention than people who identify as trans men or women.

Ultimately (trust me on this) when you drill down into people’s experiences, the words they claim to describe themselves are often used in unique and idiosyncratic ways, and we are all still floundering around for the right universal language. So there are people who identify as non-binary transsexuals, some others who see the word transsexual as old hat, and some who think it signifies a binary, because it was coined by people who hadn’t imagined anything more than a binary.

Who gets to decide? That’s always an interesting question. Who are the gatekeepers of any community, the holders of the keys, who get to set the terms? Personally, I believe “transsexual” will remain with us as a term. Some people like it, some loathe it, but as long as it’s alive, and used by some people to self-identify, it’s valid, and we shouldn’t be denigrating its use. Is using it a valid way of creating spaces and discussions that explicitly exclude non-binary people? No, that would be really oppressive.

Do non-binary and other trans people need to reflect whether they have relative male privilege, or whether they are comfortable enough in their assigned sex they will never need to socially or medically transition, and so are exempt from particular aspects of trans experience? Sure. I know I’ve had moments of anger when someone happily living and working as a man has taken a place on a podium speaking as a trans woman.

But we need to remember if we were to exclude those with assumed “male privilege” we might also exclude the most vulnerable of trans women and NB people. I know many trans people who are unable to access trans medical treatment because of other, pre-existing physical or mental health conditions. If you’re homeless, access to healthcare, to clothes, to shaving equipment and all the other means to present in your gender may be inaccessible, not to mention how unsafe it can be to present as trans or gender non-conforming while homeless. Other trans people are awaiting the result of asylum applications before embarking on transition because they would not be safe in their country of origin. Some are not safe to transition for economic reasons (they would lose their income, home, or other security), others are waiting for elderly parents to die, for whom they are sole carers, or for children to grow up. Or perhaps they are children themselves, with unsupportive parents. Still others are in abusive family situations where it would not be safe to come out. Some of us had to work through complex mental health issues before coming to terms with our gender.

Non-binary people have the additional hurdles of trying to live within genders not legally or socially recognised, which restricts our choices and means there is no clear transition pathway for us. Many non-binary people have publicly transitioned and are living in their gender as much as they are able yet their identity is perpetually erased and defaulted back to their birth assignment, and this is certainly not a privilege. So “living as” is not the same as “identifies as” is not the same as “perceived to be”.

Not forgetting that NHS waits are 2 years now, and everyone deals with that wait differently.

There is a variety of privilege, and a range of experience within this community. But is there a TS/TG binary? A TS/CD binary? Is there a clear dividing line between non-binary and trans man or woman? The hell there is. Life is just not that simple. We all exist on a continuum. We are who we are, all our self-identities are valid, but gross generalisations need not apply.

Surgical liberation

CN: discusses top surgery and associated body parts in some detail (with post-surgery photo), also trigger warning for references of child sexual abuse, trigger warning for anyone with emetophobia

Today was the big reveal, my post-op appointment 10 days after chest reconstruction surgery with Mr Kneeshaw at Castle Hill Hospital, near Hull. This has been such an emotional ride, and I feel the need to share some of the highs and lows. When I made the choice to have surgery, it felt more like a necessary evil than something I longed for, so I was completely unprepared for the joy I would feel when it finally happened.

I was never one of those people that hated their breasts. I was happy with one aspect of them for many years – being an inconsequential AA cup size meant nobody had ever ogled them, catcalled me because of them or even really noticed them. Then I got fat, and they grew (a little), and for a while I enjoyed the fleeting sensation of being womanly.

I was always at odds with my gender, wanting to be a woman or at least feeling I ought to work at being a woman, and finding it impossible to achieve in a way that felt authentic. This despite enormous effort on my part to feminise my voice, my clothes, my behaviour, my walk. So for a while, having (still fairly inconsequential) boobs felt like an accomplishment, but soon enough, they began to feel like an anachronism, a lie.

But even after starting to take testosterone, it took me a long while to consider having my chest surgically reconstructed. At first, I bound them with commercial chest binders, but these caused me pain, (curse my fibromyalgia), and were difficult for me to get into and out of. I could at this point wax lyrical about how little we talk about the health risks of chest binding. Eventually I passed my binders on (please consider sending your cast-offs to Morf) and I made my own binder, a much looser garment created from an old bra, with a flat panel sewn in at the front in place of the cups.

After the surgery, I had a ritual burning ceremony for this by now exceedingly manky piece of kit. It made me wonder about the (somewhat apocryphal) bra burners of the 1960s, and whether any of them were actually suffering from dysphoria.

[image: a home made binder burning in a galvanised steel bucket]

Would I have felt more comfortable with my breasts if they had not been constantly associated with social gender labels like “ladies”, “she” and “ma’am”? Would I have felt my gender dysphoria more keenly had I not suffered from such extreme dissociation for much of my life that it’s hard for me to connect to my body at all? It’s impossible to say, because what we go through makes us who we are. But I had a lot to untangle to get here.

How abuse stopped me hearing my dysphoria

I have spent a lot of time lately diligently reflecting on the journey my breasts and I have taken together.

At times, I was grateful to my breasts, because when they grew, the abuse I suffered throughout my childhood stopped. I don’t want to get into the head of my abuser, but he left my two sisters alone, and treated me in many ways like a boy, so I have little sense that the abuse I suffered was specific to my birth anatomy rather than my gender presentation.

It’s hard to mention abuse in conjunction with being trans, but here’s the reality – AFAB or AMAB regardless, around 50% of us are sexually abused as children, a figure that’s much higher than for cis women. A potential reason for this is because as non-conforming children we are less valued, looked after, believed, and socially supported. Easier to isolate and prey upon.

Because of the negative way society thinks about trans people, it’s easy to internalise “did abuse make me trans?” and ignore the reality, that abuse can interfere with the clarity with which we understand our trans selves.

If anything, abuse blocked the intensity of feeling I had towards my body, and pushed me towards thinking of myself as a woman, which was far from a natural inclination. I also thought of myself as a woman because society equates sexual abuse with femaleness and erases the high levels of abuse in minority populations such as trans, queer, racially oppressed and disabled.

When I went through recovery, there were no books for sexual abuse survivors who weren’t women. It was as if being a woman was the only kind of oppression in existence. This forced me to think about my gender in a particular way that was ultimately unhelpful. I was urged to learn to “love my body” by an old-fashioned and puritanical feminist rhetoric that disallowed the possibility of making your body more comfortable to live in. I worked through the abuse, but in the process got tangled into some very simplistic messages about gender, that delayed me fully acknowledging my transness.

I realise now, I freed my body from the abuse I experienced as a child, but handed it over to the control of a particularly toxic kind of feminism (other, wonderful, intersectional feminisms are available). Suddenly my body was owned by, and politicised by, a clumsy kind of second wave feminism. And amidst all the other liberations, surgery has also cut me free of that trap.

Getting my body back

In the last year, as testosterone slowly made me happier with some parts of myself, I allowed myself to connect to my breasts and was shocked to discover the strength of feeling I had about them. I had thought the intense body dysphoria of other trans guys was altogether alien to me. Instead, I discovered it had been carefully and thoroughly suppressed. And as I let go, it was like discovering some hidden programme running in the background that’s hogging all your processing power – dysphoria is a truly disabling mental state, and when you unearth it, the relief and overwhelm is indescribable.

As surgery neared, I began to feel my fear of the anaesthetic’s impact on my fibromyalgia (and thanks to fibro pals especially womandrogyne, I took this warning card with me for the anaesthetist, which seems to have helped a whole lot). But there was another, growing feeling – excitement. Unambiguous, uncomplicated pleasure at the thought that I own my body and can shape it to be more comfortable for me to live in. My guilt, perpetuated by the mini-TERF that lives in my head, began to slip away. Perhaps, after all, a procedure that would allow me to connect to my body more and love and take care of myself and be happy is not so drastic. Not a mutilation, but an alteration, a sending to the menders of something that simply didn’t fit right no matter how hard I wriggled around in it.

The double incision procedure that I had is relatively simple. Two curved incisions, removal of tissue, nipple re-sizing and re-placing. You’re usually left with scars and loss of nipple sensation with this procedure. It’s an overnight stay. Under Dr Kneeshaw, you come home from the hospital with two drains concealed in fabric bags that the hospital lends you. I was given two very flowery bags, and a kind nurse offered to swap them for something more “manly”. Of course, I declined, but with gratitude for her sensitivity. For bigger folks the procedure’s technically trickier, sometimes revisions are needed.

I see a lot of overjoyed faces beaming through anaesthetic haze when my friends go through this. I wasn’t expecting to be one of them. But there I was, post-anaesthetic, lying in bed with a huge grin on my face. Even the projectile vomiting a couple of hours later didn’t completely wipe the smile away.

Pure joy. I thought it was perhaps some drug-induced high, but it hasn’t left me. A weight off my chest, indeed.

Transition hasn’t been easy for me. However much my story overlaps with that of trans men, it doesn’t quite compare and that has left me out on a non-binary limb. I don’t get the same civil rights as my partner. I’ve experienced job discrimination, and astonishingly bad behaviour from some members of the lesbian and gay communities. Testosterone has taken its sweet time to make changes and I’ve felt in limbo. I fell into a pretty bad pit of depression and got well and truly stuck there. And I was afraid that surgery and too much time to myself during recovery would only make things worse.

I simply had not anticipated the possibility of being happy about my new chest. But here it is, in all its rawness, freshly revealed; and it does make me feel incredibly happy – so happy that I’m sharing a picture of a bit of my body, not something I am used to doing.

[image: a freshly revealed chest post reconstruction, with two curved incisions below the grafted nipples}

It is curious the way I can connect to my body now in a way I never could, and this gives me hope for being able to care for myself better in the future, and potentially make health gains because of this. I feel not the slightest regret. Surgery was the necessary price of my wellbeing, and I’m confident that what I give back to the world can be greater now I no longer struggle under the burden of dysphoria.

I am unbelievably grateful to the NHS. It took time for me to realise I could not do without this op, that it was as necessary as any other procedure available in our increasingly beleaguered healthcare system. The nurses and doctors at Castle Hill are amazing. Mr Kneeshaw* is one of the kindest and most down to earth surgeons I’ve ever met; his results are good, and he’s not huffy about doing revisions if needed.

This procedure is life-changing and potentially life-saving, and I am simply overjoyed and full of gratitude.

PS – after the post-op, Robin and I treated ourselves to vegan rocky road brownies from Blondes in Cottingham – life really couldn’t get any better than this!*

[image: vegan rocky road brownie with edible glitter]

*nobody is paying me for these endorsements

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.

 

 

Careless talk costs

The hardest thing to do as a therapist is help people learn that although they are not responsible for the horrors that have befallen them, they are ultimately responsible for themselves and their own behaviour. It is particularly hard to help a traumatised, hypervigilent person to see that they have a choice in how they are acting. I know this only too well, having also been on the other side of the therapeutic relationship; I spent a long time in trauma counselling trying to re-learn trusting, relationship-based interactions with people and unlearn fear-focused, control-based patterns of relating.

I’m sure, if I’m honest, that I still have a lot to learn.

The trouble with the internet, is we can self-publish our own words without any kind of moderating process, meaning highly triggered and triggering responses can go out into the ether unchecked. Careless words leave opponents feeling blamed and shamed and unlikely to listen, more likely to spew back yet more triggered and triggering material. Careless words also tap into the trauma and hypervigilance of like-minded people, fueling their sense of entitlement to their own rage, and often sparking the kind of mindless mob that becomes too much of a blunt weapon to make any kind of breakthrough. It ends up not being about who is right or wrong, who is the most oppressed or entitled to their angry feelings; it becomes about people being in too high a state of fear arousal to really listen to anything at all, rendering the entire interaction utterly pointless other than to provide the fuel for further drama.

I tend to think of anger as a good thing to be in touch with, but I also think it is dangerous for any of us to have a sense of entitlement to our anger – anger is just a feeling; it is information, it is not a right. Feeling angry does not legitimise any ensuing behaviour; the strength of our trauma response does not necessarily hold the triggering person responsible for all our feelings. We are responsible for our feelings, and for our triggers. Other people are only responsible for their own behaviour.

I do not go into situations as a blank slate with no previous baggage, my trauma responses are far more deep rooted than anything that is happening in the here and now, so much as I would love to blame TERFs or MRAs for all my bad days (and they would like to blame me for theirs), this would be rather disingenuous. Even without my trauma history, living life as a gender variant child and adult exerts huge psychological pressure in a world that bullies and excludes us. We are social beings, and if we are different, the social structures supporting us are far less reliable, leaving us vulnerable to victimisation, abuse and trauma, and ultimately to poor mental health.

I am not responsible for the way the world treats a queer kid, but I have to be responsible for the person that I am in this world, and that means owning my fear, lack of trust, hypervigilance and fury at any form of oppression, marginalisation or injustice. My well-examined and thought-through anger is a splendid tool in my activism, but only when I am fully self-aware. When I screw my anger up and throw it without any pause or self-reflection, which I do more often than I would like, I add to the burden of aggression, tension, drama and even abuse that exists in this world. I fuel the fear. I know that so much of my activism has gone astray because I just didn’t have a proper hold of myself, and that all those misfires are wasted energy that undermines where I and others are trying to get to.

None of us is completely insignificant, especially those of us with a voice on the internet. Feeling entitled to our rage can be dangerous, and feeling completely powerless even more so, especially if it gives us permission to “let rip” at our opponents, or allies who have got it wrong. Others pile in, and soon we have that old fashioned angry mob with the cyber equivalent of waving pitchforks. Mobs have power, even mobs of relatively powerless individuals. I have seen lesbian mobs, feminist mobs, trans mobs, TERF mobs, and every other kind of mob you can think of. The mob always looks much friendlier when it isn’t after you, but from an outsider perspective all mobs are as ugly as each other.

I am trying to learn to ask questions before I speak out, collectively or unilaterally: When we’re organising for our rights, are we leaving time and space for each of us to reflect on our own behaviour? Do we think about the power we have or the power our actions might manifest? Are we whipping others up with triggering stories that override their ability to reflect? I keep trying to be non-violent in my approach to activism, not just because I’m a dreamy hippy, but because non-violent communication builds bridges and creates change.

Trouble is, when I’m full of fear I knock down as many bridges as I build.