Tag Archives: Trans activism

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

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

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

I was holding my breath before seeing The Force Awakens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

danish girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Asterisk and its Fables

As a former user of the asterisk, and then a passionate non-user, I have been somewhat bewildered by the twists and turns in this story of the trans asterisk. I am satisfied, after a lot of consultation in  lot of groups, that the asterisk is on its way out and probably needs to go. Certainly more people from all positions under the trans umbrella loathe it than love it.

I personally would prefer people not to use it, but I also believe that there is very nearly a consensus on this, with just a few folks holding onto its usefulness.

But today, I want to share some words that are not mine, because I think they tell an important piece of history, from a trans feminine perspective, and I don’t want that to be lost. Shared with gratitude from Facebook with the writer Womandrogyne’s permission.

A long (sorry!) but interesting example of trans social history and the subjective nature of “stories” follows:

I came out as trans nearly 5 years ago now, and I joined a big online trans forum (which I ended up as a mod on for a while, until the forum infighting made me run for cover – but that’s another story). There was a nasty phenomenon going on all of the time that I was there, of (mainly) trans women who’d had, or intended to have, surgery thinking of themselves as the “True Trans” people, and making a distinction between being transsexual (which they thought of as “really trans”) and transgender (which they treated as “the lower classes”).

In response to that hierarchical nonsense, the label trans* (with an asterisk) started being used by people, who meant by it specifically “trans+whatever (-gender, -sexual) is simply trans and simply valid – nobody gets to police anyone else’s identity or labels anyway, but surgery is no yardstick of the validity of someone’s transness.” So having been a part of that movement, I associate trans* with equality as well as inclusivity.

Meanwhile, it turns out that in other trans circles and communities, trans* got coined too, but with several different and competing meanings and intents, all of which were different from the meaning/intent we were using. And now there’s been a strong backlash against using trans*, because for many people it has apparently come to represent the exact opposite of what it meant to us. To those people, it means “trans people are the TrueTrans™ people, and everyone else is merely trans*” – or/and it’s come to mean somehow that the voices of white, entitled transmasculine people are heard at the expense of everyone else (this is what I’m being told, anyway).

So I innocently used the phrase “supporting trans* young people” in a post the other day, and got strafed by someone for whom this is a slur. We sort of discussed the matter, I did some reading up, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m no longer going to use the asterisk, even though it means something really positive to me and a load of people – because there are another load of people out there who feel very disenfranchised by it.

Actually, I’d be very content for trans to become the default term, if it meant we moved on from transgender/transsexual (and that godsawful “transgendered” that people use sometimes) altogether (and all together). Shortening of terms is a good sign of cultural assimilation, according to sociolinguistics.

I’m also fascinated by how each group of us had no idea that trans* meant anything different to other people from what we were used to it meaning, and how easy it is to assume that “my/our story” must be the “true story”.

End of ramble.

Edited to add: An interesting thought just struck me: to those of us with a computing background, the asterisk very much symbolises inclusivity, as it means “anything at all can go here” – whereas for non-computery folk and/or academics, the asterisk perhaps implies “not important enough to include in the main text, but worthy of a footnote”. I’d never even considered the possible differences in asterisk-affect.

[Padmavyuha (aka Womandrogyne), is “genderless, trans female, aspie, and Buddhist (none of these are nouns)”]

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.

Taking a deep breath and stepping up once again

After a long time of feeling beaten, I’ve been inspired by the film Selma not to be daunted by the much more minor danger I have put myself in as someone who defends trans people’s civil rights.

First of all, the film has taught me I am unlikely to be shot or physically beaten, that things are not as bad for me as they are for many people of colour, and I remind myself every day of the enormous privilege I have in this world.

But I have been endangered in other ways. The gaslighting from people who seek to invalidate trans identities is a heavy burden. The foundation of all trans oppression is that because ours is an unusual, minority experience, therefore we are wrong, delusional, and politically undermining of the majority position and values others cling to. The burden trans people carry is delegitimisation and social exclusion, which is no small burden. Social support has time and time again been proven to protect people’s mental health and wellbeing, and to render them less exposed to societal violence and abuse. Trans people are expected to go without such support.

Some months ago I stopped blogging, closed my facebook page, removed myself from all feminist and trans activist spaces, and severely curtailed my social interactions in order to protect myself from the mental violence of these campaigns. I had been targeted individually, and unfairly, and became quickly aware that being out as a trans person put me outside the “circle of care” for some people, and gave them a sense of entitlement to speak about me in ways that to me and those close to me seemed extreme and outrageous. Online, I have fared even worse when I have been mistaken for a trans woman, so I hold an awareness that I still have relative privilege. This is what has kept me wanting to stand up and use that privilege to challenge the oppression of trans people, and trans women in particular.

To be clear, these campaigners exist all over the world, and I oppose all of them. That some of them live in my home town and are a little closer to home adds to my discomfort, but everyone who knows me knows I have stood up against trans exclusion and delegitimisation for years and long before I was aware of the particular individuals who are most involved locally with such campaigning.

I know I have acted with integrity, but I have been outspoken, and it is unsurprising that I’ve been targeted and attacked by people who want to silence me, and that the positive, bridge-building work I’ve been doing has been undermined. When I saw what happened at Selma – the violence people were prepared to use to maintain their dominance, I felt at once enormously privileged by comparison and at the same time a sense of resonance – I know I have been experiencing another kind of oppression, and those close to me know this too, and understand its profound impact on me and on my partner.

By choosing to stand up for my own and others rights, particularly those of trans women, I have put myself in the firing line, but I am not the one pulling the trigger. Activists always get a bad reputation in contrast to those members of minority groups who keep heads down and “know their place” – feminists are seen as oppressive, full of hatred and anger towards men, black activists are seen as violent and dangerous. Trans activists are treated no differently by those who wish to stop us having civil rights and who wish, let’s be honest, that the rights we have in the UK, such as the Gender Recognition Act, and our protections under the Equality Act, would be revoked and that we would not be recognised as a legitimate minority group with a legitimate experience of oppression.

Often my friends as much as my enemies urge me to “pipe down” because they don’t want to see me hurt, and they know in their bones that people who are vulnerable and stand up for themselves do, always, get hurt. And so I have, in fact it has nearly broken me at times.

But I will keep working towards change – I have done some good, and I will not be intimidated and silenced by the way I, other trans folk, and people who have offered me allyship have been targeted. I have always strived to work with integrity, and in a non-violent way that builds bridges and brings people together, but there are some positions I will not build a bridge to because that would require the reversal of rights I already have as a trans person, and give credence to the outrageous claim that giving me rights erodes somebody else’s.

If anyone believes any of the rather extreme things said about me or many other trans activists, I urge them to check the evidence and in my case I also urge them to challenge me directly and have a conversation with me about their concerns, because I am not in a position to do anyone any harm. There are bad apples in every movement. I am confident that despite my lack of charm I am not one of them.

There is currently said to be a trans “tipping point”; we are finally achieving a modicum of acceptance and recognition, but the gaining of rights is always accompanied by a backlash from those who either fear the pendulum will “swing too far” or believe that those asking for rights were never oppressed in the first place, and therefore their protection will afford them unacceptable privileges.

So we need ally support now more than ever. We need allies to be strong. We need them to not turn away from what is happening and fill in the blanks in their mind with a story that allows them to do nothing, a story where trans people are responsible for their own misfortune, where the concerns they express are “individual” and “personal” rather than a collective call for human rights and an end to oppression, and a plea to cis people to start noticing and scrutinising the actions and behaviours of those who actively campaign against our rights, acceptance and recognition.

Our rights, let’s be clear, to be recognised as who we say we are, to live in our identities unimpeded, and not to be segregated or subjected to “separate but equal” treatment.

Being trans* in the lesbian community

Since coming out as genderqueer, I can’t tell you how many of my friends have told me that they, too have gender issues, issues that are entirely separate from their sexuality. Lesbian friends, not all of them remotely butch, have admitted they never felt like a woman. Straight but “gay-looking” friends have opened my closed mind to the fact that it was a gender issue, not a sexuality issue, I was picking up in them.

Fellow dykes, when you walk down the street and see a straight woman who “doesn’t know she’s a dyke” what you’re seeing may be their gender, not their sexuality. Time to open our minds – gender and sexuality are two entirely different things; that’s why femmes exist.

So why does the lesbian community lock gender issues so firmly in the closet?

For me, the message came through at my first ever lesbian event; I made good friends with a trans* woman and then we found out she wasn’t welcome; the event had a “women born women only” policy. I soon learned that many women’s spaces are trans* excluding. Even when they’re nominally inclusive, the amount of hostility to trans* women from a vocal minority in the community makes them feel completely unwelcome.

My friend wasn’t an activist. She was quiet and shy, like most of my trans* friends. She didn’t know about the policy, because it wasn’t advertised. She was a woman who liked women; she thought the event was for her. When she found out, she didn’t kick up a fuss, she just left, devastated and bewildered. Most of the people there didn’t agree with the policy, but they didn’t fight it either. Everyone just carried on enjoying themselves in a trans* free space, like white South Africans who didn’t really agree with apartheid but were still more comfortable sunning themselves on white-only beaches and not having to deal with people who are different.

There’s this whole bullshit, garbled theory to justify trans* exclusion, based on “if we say it’s not real, we’re right and all these people with all this complex, unique experience – well, they’re wrong.” Oh, and science is wrong too. And if we never talk to those people or allow them into our events or conversations, then we never have to examine whether our ideas really hold water (hint: they don’t).

If you want to get really technical, the “trans-critical” theories are a bizarre mash-up of a) the post-modern ideas of Judith Butler (who is trans* accepting, intersectional and inclusive, as it happens) and b) some essentialist ideas about sex and biology being destiny. So far, so not very radical. A simplistic and essentialist model of binary, biological sex trumping all other considerations becomes the clumsy crayon with which we’re expected to draw our identities, (and police other people’s).

But I understand their fear, because I feel it too. Opening your mind to trans* issues shakes the foundations of everything we believe about sex and gender; however radical we may think we are, really wrapping our head around the multiverse of trans* identities is one giant leap beyond anything non-intersectional feminism has to say. But as Judith Butler puts it:

“the feminist framework that takes the structural domination of women as the starting point from which all other analyses of gender must proceed imperils its own viability by refusing to countenance the various ways that gender emerges as a political issue, bearing a specific set of social and physical risks.   . . .That feminism has always countered violence against women, sexual and nonsexual, ought to serve as a basis for alliance with those other movements since phobic violence against bodies is part of what joins anti-homophobic, antiracist, feminist, trans, and intersex activism.” Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, p.9

In simpler words, (because Butler’s words are never simple) ignoring gender variance as a real thing and ignoring the inherent risks and oppressions connected to any kind of gender variance, is likely to undermine feminism (and reinforce patriarchy). So Trans* exclusion is brilliantly doing patriarchy’s work for it, assisting in the oppression and marginalisation of gender non-conforming individuals.

For me, I quickly learned to keep my own gender issues under wraps, but I’m fed up now of cutting off bits of myself in order to conform to one group or another. I hereby resign from the binary and the either/or in all its manifestations. And I still belong here.