Tag Archives: Trans Exclusion

Sarah Ditum – not “gender critical” enough

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

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

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

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

1. The header image

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

2. The subtitle

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

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

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

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

3. The threat

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

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

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

4. What explains us?

Ditum lays out four possibilities for what makes gender identity.

a) Gender is hardwired in the brain.

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

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

b) A sexual fetish, ie. autogynephilia

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

c) Faulty thinking due to autism.

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

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

d) A response to trauma

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

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

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

5. Trans children must be stopped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Ergo we don’t exist

“arguably non-existent gender identity”

“In the absence of compelling evidence for brainsex”

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

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

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

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

8. Trans is a narrow option

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

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

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

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

9. Cis people know better

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

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

10. It’s dangerous to give us rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Trans people are criminals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Trans feminists aren’t proper feminists

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

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

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

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

12. Save us from this false ideology!

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Not critical enough

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

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

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

Cue my favourite training slide:

not biology

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

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

No way that could go wrong, is there?

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

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

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

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

Post-script- added 20/5/16

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

ditum

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not trans”

Everyone of course has the right to define themself how they like. All labels are invented, equivocal, imperfect, subjective.

But I’d like to encourage those out there who identify as non-binary and “not trans” to reflect on what this might mean.

o-TRANS-DEBATE-2-570

Jack Monroe vs Julia Long, C4 News

It’s a tricky territory to negotiate. There is currently a backlash against non-binary, both inside and outside the trans community. In a month that saw the two most prominent  UK non-binary and trans people, CN Lester and Jack Monroe, being pitted against the worst of trans-antagonistic feminism on the national news, I have been experiencing an equivalent attack from within the community, from a minority of trans men and women.

While “radical” feminists on Twitter told Jack and CN that they looked like girls and that their scarves precluded them from being taken seriously . . .

jack

. . . some trans men and women on Facebook were fighting hard for language that continued to medicalise trans existence, or to base our validity firmly in the realm of appearance and presentation. Fighting for terms like “gender confirmation surgery” with its suggestion that we need to alter ourselves to fully affirm our identity. Fighting for the right to have their gender assumed by strangers after transition, ignoring how much that erases those who don’t or won’t or can’t have medical treatment or ever “pass”.

If I hear one more passing trans guy tell me he needs strangers to assume he’s a man because he’s “worked so hard to get there” I’m going to get really cranky. I understand the pain of being constantly misgendered and can imagine the relief when that ends, but it only ends for a lucky few, and that’s a privilege. To insist on that privilege being reinforced, to the detriment of those who can’t experience it, throws an awful lot of people under the bus – boyish looking lesbians, non-binary people, trans people who can’t access healthcare, trans people who simply don’t pass, and people whose presentation does not match their identity.

Because we are not just what we look like, or what’s in our pants, and the sooner we stop making assumptions about other people’s genders, the better the world will be.

And this is where “not trans” non-binary people feed into this narrative, because often “not trans” is put forward to mean “not having any medical interventions” and in creating those definitions, it medicalises trans identities. It’s fine for people to self-identify however they want, but care is needed not to redefine someone else’s identity inaccurately in the process. There is also, among a small minority of “not trans” non-binary people, an air of being superior in the way they are dealing with their gender incongruence – as if all our experiences are the same and should lead to the same “correct” conclusion.

what's in our pants

 

Being transgender is not a medical condition. Being transgender can come with physical incongruence or dysphoria that even in a socially perfect world would be alleviated by medical treatment, but that’s not how it is for all trans people – many trans people love their bodies.

Being transgender can also come with social incongruence or dysphoria that can be helped with medical treatment in this imperfect world, where so much of our social assignment is related to the configuration of our bodies. Ideally, we will change the world to enable trans people to need less medical treatment, but we will never get rid of the need completely.

To be clear, changing the world means things like not assuming somebody’s gender based on the way they look, not invalidating somebody’s gender based on what they wear, how their voice sounds, what their physical attributes are or what’s in their pants. Yes, this means using gender neutral language until someone tells you their gender.

Because there is absolutely no way of knowing someone’s gender other than asking them or them telling you.

This also means not medicalising gender.  Doing away with terms like “gender confirmation surgery” that give extra validation to those who have had medical treatment. Not waiting until someone “passes” or until they’ve had surgery to start using the right pronouns for them. Not suddenly starting to misgender someone because you find out they haven’t had lower surgery. No more gross “hot dog or bun?” punchlines à la Zoolander 2.

Cumberbatch2

For non-binary people, it means not conflating “trans” with medical treatment, or using the “not-trans” identifier to distance yourself from people who have transitioned in more obvious and visible ways, as if those people are somehow a different species. We are all negotiating the complicated path of gender incongruence, and there is no neat dividing line between us. Transition can take on many forms, and “trans” encompasses many stories. It is an umbrella term, and all people who experience gender incongruence belong under it. If you don’t want the shelter, that’s cool, but if you are shunning this umbrella because you want to distance yourself from the people under it, then we need to talk.

I cannot label someone as trans who does not want to be labelled as such. [eta- Many other cultures have other, better language for what I call trans, and this is not about wanting to impose my label on those cultures, or on anyone who doesn’t want it, such as intersex people who have their own language to describe their experiences]. However, I personally see identifying as trans if you are non-binary in *any* way an act of solidarity, not an act of appropriation.

[eta- In other words, nobody non-binary should feel “not permitted” to claim the label, and I’d prefer those who do not want the label not to redefine trans in order to make the label look like it doesn’t apply to them].

Can we move away from the idea that trans is a tiny, marginalised and fenced off community and see that aspects of trans stories affect many lives? Surely that is a good thing, making gender a less rigid, sure and certain proposition.

 

 

Together in our differences

When I came out at work about my plans to undergo a medical transition, at first I didn’t even bother to go into “non-binary” and what that means, because it felt too hard for people to understand. I told colleagues a simplified version of my truth, which implied I was transitioning to live “as a man”. It felt right at the time, but I quickly realised this identity was just as suffocating for me as the assigned female identity I’d been lumbered with at birth. I rectified the situation, took time to explain non-binary to people. They were nice about it, but clearly they did not understand. I felt more authentic, but way out on a very bendy limb. I was a unicorn*, tempted to saw off my horn to appear like a less authentic but more believable pony.

Of course, if all us unicorns wore our horns out and proud, we wouldn’t seem so imaginary. But the reality is, most of us, cis or trans, spend time negotiating the varying sized gap between “fitting in” and “being ourselves”.

Was I lying to my colleagues when I implied I was a man? No – in a world where currently there are only two legal and social options, I’m enough of a man – maleness being a significant part of my gender story – to deserve to be included in male spaces, male toilets, male services, if that’s what I need to exist in this imperfect, either/or world.

If we start to erase my right to belong to the group “men” by citing my femaleness, my femininity, then we’re falling into dodgy territory where people need to perform a perfect version of masculinity in order to be acceptable. Hell no, that’s not the way to go – though of course trans people are under constant pressure to perform this perfect stereotype because our identities are continually scrutinised and questioned – any hint of femininity, female socialisation, female-typical or stereotypical behaviour, and I am invalidated, as people encourage me to widen my leg position, shorten my hair, lower my voice etc. to “pass” as myself.

I am not always given the space I need to be “the same, but different”.

not afraid

(I wish)

The tension between “sameness” and difference

I guess it’s normal to hide a difference if it comes with the threat of exclusion, but at the same time parts of ourselves can be suffocated, crying out to express “I am not the same as you!”

Trans people have our own unique experiences and culture, we have our own history of oppression and a profound difference in how we relate to our bodies, and how we culturally respond to assigned sex and gender. At the same time, when we are “othered” it marginalises us to the point where it becomes difficult for us to access things like services, toilets, social spaces and employment, so many of us spend a lot of time fighting for inclusion, and stressing our “sameness”.

Our dilemma is how to let the world know we are both different and the same; the dance many minority groups find themselves in, between isolating self-segregation and crushing assimilation.

Everyone has their own, entirely unique relationship with gender, sex and their own body. There are common themes, but none of them are absolutes. People need space to be different without risking rejection from the warmth, safety and security of the pack. Humans are suited to collective endeavour, but we are not a hive mind.

Organising across difference

Whether we focus on similarities or differences matters a lot when it comes to any kind of social organising. If we can only join together with other “people like us” to organise against oppression, or to create safety, there are problematic consequences. Organising around sameness and commonality risks erasing or excluding all difference. It also creates an inherently oppressive atmosphere in which assumptions are made about what “we” collectively think, feel and experience. It negates the need for us to work on our empathy and our ability to build bridges across divides.

Organising across difference lets the air in – people are free to not “fit in”, but to work together for something collectively beneficial. In a place where difference is celebrated and accepted, we are not always seeking to expel or exclude people, we are not focussed on doubting their legitimacy or vulnerability.

For non binary folk like me, there is an importance for both/and thinking that fights against the tyranny of the either/or: I have some experiences, feelings, history and biology that situate me as a woman. On the other hand, my predominant instincts from my earliest memories have drawn me towards male social rules, expression and behaviour, and in that I find I have a lot, if not more, in common with men. How I negotiate my relationship with the world given these complicated facts – how I identify, and where and how I wish to be included, should be up to me, as these experiences are inherently marginalising and render me highly vulnerable.

In an ideal world both parts of myself, and all the other parts of me that do not neatly fit this dichotomy, would be generally welcomed rather than excluded – there are some conversations that I do not feel a part of, but there are many, held under the banner of “women’s issues”, that certainly affect me.

The same but different

In reality, I am forced to conform to narrow ideas about who I am in order to negotiate my relationship with the rest of the human race; in my need to belong, I might sometimes grow tired of wearing my unicorn’s horn for all to see.

I am just the same as you, and I am nothing like you. Because mine is the minority experience, cis people have the power to choose whether to include me, accept me, believe me, or whether to use my differences to shut me out of spaces, conversations, civil rights, services, employment, toilets, and the safety of social inclusion; my being part of the human pack is entirely at the discretion of people who do not share, and may not understand, my experience and my difference.

*This blog was written just before I discovered the new, and infinitely improved, gender unicorn graphic

gender unicorn

Feminist organising across difference

I previously wrote about the need to be together in our differences from a personal perspective, but what I hinted at in that blog piece, I want to make more explicit here, in a call to feminism to stop centreing sameness and commonality in our organising.

I cannot possibly write more eloquently on this subject than Mia McKenzie did in this Black Girl Dangerous article, or punch up more effectively than the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag.

But the purpose of this blog is to build relationship and understanding between cis and trans feminists, and with regard to our particular differences I may have things that need saying.

Organising around “sameness”

In feminist organising, the need to emphasise “sameness” can be destructive, for all the notion of half the world united is deeply appealing. This idea of commonality prevents white women reaching out to their sisters of colour on issues such as FGM on a basis of anything other than shared biology. Differences can be erased in a rather appropriative way – FGM becomes a “shared female experience”. But FGM is not a biological inevitability and it is not something most white women are at risk from.

At worst, white feminists can appropriate the FGM experiences of women of colour to drive forward their own personal transantagonistic agendas, citing biology as some fundamental and unifying standpoint for women in a way that is erasing of their own relative advantages and freedom from such practices.

When commonality and sameness are a focus, instead of being united in our differences as feminists, trans women are witch-hunted into proving their similarities and shared experiences in order to be included. Or worse, their differences are used as reasons to exclude them.

It’s okay to be different

Let’s get it out there – of course trans women are different from cis women.

And trans women are different from each other. And you know what? cis women are all different from other cis women too. And yet at the same time there are many experiences of oppression that are shared, and they fall under the categories misogyny and sexism; the things feminism is specifically fighting.

Organising across difference rather than sameness changes the way we look at inclusion – people can fit some ways and not others, and that’s okay. We can unite to work together for something collectively beneficial, and still have spaces and conversations we don’t need to be a part of.

In a place where difference is celebrated and accepted, trans women are free to say “I have no need to be in a discussion about menstruation or abortion, but some of my trans AFAB siblings might want in on this” and it would not be a device to exclude them from women’s organising altogether, but simply a conversation they could step out of without feeling that it in any way compromised their position as women.

In a world where it’s okay to have differences, cis women would not use reproductive biology to exclude trans women from such things as discussion and services around sexual and domestic violence, which disproportionately affect trans women.

They would not, for instance, pull that old trick of citing pregnancy risk as the thing that sets apart a cis woman’s experience of rape – a notion that is not only demeaning to trans women’s experiences of rape, but also erasing of the experiences of infertile, post-menopausal or pre-pubescent cis female victims.

Is our movement mature enough for nuance?

There are aspects of sexism and misogyny that affect trans women, some that affect non-binary folks and sometimes trans men too. Because binaries and either/ors are generally an illusion, it is possible to build a stronger movement when we do away with arbitrary and simplistic sorting processes in feminist organising. We are fully able to have intelligent, here and now discussions – just who is affected by this issue in front of us right now? Who needs in on the conversation? How can we make sure they’re considered and included? How can we ensure our non-erasure of their differences?

Feminism has an important choice, and it is at the heart of the movement towards pro-intersectional feminism – do we homogenise, and then attempt to draw clear and arbitrary lines as to where that homogenity ends, or do we do the hard work of recognising that every different conversation we have in feminism will hold a different balance of power – who is most vulnerable in this regard, who needs to be held and centred, who can be overlooked, who holds the aces – this is a constantly shifting and nuanced story.

If registered sex offenders can pee, why can’t we?

Recently in the US, “bathroom bills” have been introduced that would prevent transgender people using the toilet they need to. Discussion still rolls on in the UK about access to toilets for transgender people, particularly trans women.

urinal selfie

Click for source

We cannot be complacent that similar restrictions would never be considered here in the UK – we live in a world where various minorities are being scapegoated as a threat to “ordinary, decent people”, and toilet access is still a live debate here in the UK. There follows a stark illustration of the extent to which hate and prejudice against transgender people has led to wildly exaggerated safety fears.

The underlying prejudice that leads to such bills is that there is a risk to toilet users from sexual offenders if trans people are freely allowed to choose the appropriate facility for themselves. But a small amount of research will inform you that in neither the UK, nor the US, are there any restrictions on registered sex offenders using public toilets.

In the UK, there are an estimated 64,000 female sex offenders, this in contrast to the estimated 10,000 transgender individuals who have presented for medical treatment.

This means that even if all transgender women were sex offenders, they would still present statistically less risk than cisgender (non trans) women, if indeed there was a genuinely significant risk of non-consensual sex offences happening in toilets.

Which, of course, there isn’t. If there was, we would not, as a culture, so freely allow our boy and girl children to use most facilities unaccompanied.

In reality, there is no evidence that trans women pose more danger in toilets than cis women, and data from the US demonstrates that inclusive laws present no increased danger to cis women.

Legislators speak of “preventative” measures as if trans people have not been around and using facilities for a long time now, as if trans people appeared yesterday and we don’t have years of experience of all being well to reassure us that this “trans threat” is just not real.

This toilet issue is, of course, the pointy end of a huge debate that has rolled on since the 1970s among right wing and left wing reactionaries alike. But why have we not got past it? Society once held similar fears about the presence of gays and lesbians, but although homophobia is far from a thing of the past, such basic, ill-informed prejudice does not seem to be informing legislation to quite the same extent.

My local (Nottingham) Women’s Centre has been inclusive of trans women for 17 years. Of course trans inclusion kicked up a rumpus at the time, but none of the problems feared by some have arisen. And yet people in my town still talk as if trans inclusion is some untested thing and will unleash all manner of horrors on cis women. Equally, I have worked for a women only domestic violence service that helped trans as well as cis women, and zero problems occurred as a result of this inclusion.

Trans women have been using toilets at least since the 1960s, and everything points to the fact that it is trans women, not cis women, who tend to experience violence and harassment in relation to toilet access. Given that it is trans people who bear the most risk, legislation that is there to protect cis people and not trans makes a clear statement that the discomfort and prejudice of cis people is more important than the genuine safety of trans people.

So are public toilets safe? One older woman told me of a sobering story of a man hiding in a public toilet and attempting to attack her. Surely, she said, this is why this is such an important issue, even if such occurrences are rare.

Was the man dressed as a woman? I inquired.

Well, no, she replied.

Surprisingly to some, men who want to commit crimes against women don’t need to go to extraordinary lengths to pass themselves off as being legitimately allowed into a space – they will simply break one law to commit another crime. And there are, alas, plenty of spaces where men have the opportunity to attack women, which is why men dressing up as women in order to commit such crimes is not actually a significant issue. Meanwhile, there are already plenty of laws in place to protect women and girls from sexual assault, indecent and lewd behaviour.

The panic over toilets is founded in myth and prejudice, in the still-alive although thoroughly debunked idea that being transgender is motivated by sexual inclinations. It is not. Trans women in toilets are there for the same reason everyone else is.

And they are, I assure you, more terrified of you than you are of them.

This frightening level of hyped-up and manufactured hate and prejudice has led some women to be influenced into viewing trans women as more dangerous than known sex offenders. There are no campaigns to stop registered sex offenders from using public toilets – think about that. Think about those c.64,000 female sex offenders that you have never once worried about peeing next to. That, because of the general safety of using a toilet, you do not need to be worried about peeing next to.

This, in a nutshell, is a startling illustration of the daily battle against prejudice experienced by the trans community.

An act of conscience

There’s nothing like a guilty conscience to motivate you into activism. My decision, years before I came out as transgender, to “do something” about the ignorance and prejudice from lesbians and feminists towards the trans community in general, and trans women in particular, was largely motivated by a realisation of my own ignorance and prejudice.

A few years back, I lost a trans woman friend, a very good friend. She’s the one, if you’ve been following my blog for a while, that I met at my very first lesbian event, the one who quickly discovered the event had a “women born women only” policy, something neither she nor I had ever heard of or could quite comprehend.

I was totally on her side – too timid back then to protest very loudly but certainly confident enough to say in discussions “I don’t agree with this”. But some “older and wiser” lesbians took me to one side and painstakingly explained all the politics and issues that I had been unaware of, trying to convince me that my attitudes were naïve and problematic and unfeminist. They inferred I was “junior” in this space and should defer to them. I slowly lapsed into a long silence, in which I listened a lot and said very little on the subject.

What I was failing to tell anyone was that my seeking out lesbian spaces had come about as a result not of my sexual orientation (I had been out as bi for many years) but my need for a community where it was acceptable to be gender variant, where I could live outside of the prescribed gender roles of heteronormative society. All that prejudiced stuff people said about trans women – about male gaze, male energy, male behaviours, male socialisation – was uncomfortable to hear when I had long known my trans women friends showed far more typically female socialisation patterns than I. It was me that had that male gaze, male energy, male attitudes, male socialisation, and it shamed me, forced me deeper into the closet about my gender identity.

My friend never protested the trans exclusionary policy; like many trans women she was too busy surviving constant street harassment, stones thrown at her windows and the inherent unsafety of being a visible trans woman to be confident enough to argue with unaccepting and prejudiced people. But their lack of acceptance, the discovery that she was barred from yet another potentially supportive space and community, hurt her deeply.

We remained friends for a long time, and I watched her crumble, watched her PTSD worsen, watched her emotional wellbeing deteriorate. I started to question whether she had done the right thing – surely, if transition was right for her, she should be happy? I blamed her mental health on her transition, and refused to see the truth, which was that her mental health was a direct result of the oppressive and abusive way she was treated by the people around her. The lesbian feminist community, me included, had a hand in that oppression, and a shared responsibility for her poor mental health.

As a therapist, I understand there is a very clear correlation between mental wellbeing and social support, which is why on average LGBT folks have poorer mental health than cis/het folks, and why over time the mental health of LGB folks (with the B lagging sadly behind) has improved significantly alongside changes in societal attitudes.

How much easier, though, to place the illness as a symptom of the person themselves rather than place some responsibility on their social situation. How much easier to infantilise and pathologise trans women instead of standing in awe of their courage to be themselves in a hostile world.

The crunch came when I could no longer bear to hear her sorrow that she was so unaccepted, so unloved for who she was. I remembered, some time before, a prejudiced lesbian I knew saying “trans women are socialised as men, and like all men they expect us to look after their emotional needs”. These words started to influence my thinking. It was the ultimate get-out; I didn’t have to care about this human being because her neediness was not, after all, because society was being shit to her but because of her male sense of entitlement, her expectation, nay, demand, that I listen to her problems as if it was my job. As a good feminist it was my responsibility to be less caring.

I can honestly say without a shadow of doubt that my problem in this instance was not “caring too much” but understanding too little, but it’s a neat excuse for people with little empathy to lower their already low standards.

I pulled away from her, and we eventually lost touch. Despite my buying into a “tragic trans” narrative for her, the next time I saw her she was supremely happy – she had found love and built herself a more reliable community. She deserved love – now I look back, I see that she had looked after my emotional needs far better than I had looked after hers – she had been a good friend, she had cooked for me, given me a spare room to escape to through bad times, cuddled me when I was low, listened to my fears and worries and never once called me on my prejudices and mistaken beliefs about transgender people. In fact, I was the male-typical “what about me?” person in that relationship. She deserved a whole lot better.

I’ve never spoken about how much I let her down. It’s only now that I can see some people responding in similar ways to me that I fully understand the impact of my prejudice. I now also understand that I couldn’t bear to hear her sorrow because it was a foreshadowing of my own.

It’s a simple equation – trans people’s wellbeing depends on the full acceptance of wider society – non-acceptance is in and of itself the source of transgender oppression.

This is about authenticity, not privilege

In the past year both my partner and I came out as transgender. He is transitioning, I’m not, but we’re both not so very far from each other in the gender multiverse. Somewhere in the “in-between” leaning towards maleness, but not all the way over. Even if he’s a he and I’m a they, even if I keep bits he doesn’t want, even if he gets bits I don’t want, this relationship is still effectively homo. Despite this we can feel our community slipping away from us, as people assume we’ve become a straight couple because they only believe in binaries, or as folks simply back away in shear incomprehension or disbelief.

Don’t get me wrong, we have many amazing, supportive friends. But I’m talking now about the wider community and the mainstream attitudes and practices within that community. For ten years I silenced myself over gender because the dominant lesbian narrative carefully constructs gender variance as an aspect of sexual orientation, and characterises being openly transgender as some sort of deluded cop-out.

Sometimes I too have my moments of “hey, have we just lost our minds???” but if so, why, in the face of all opposition, do I feel so grounded and so clear, like the only person in the theatre who has seen through a magic trick?

For many folks, though, this is way out of their reckoning, and deeply suspect. They have their own answers to what’s going on, the main one being that after a combined 40ish years of being lesbians and feminists, we just couldn’t hack it and want to acquire hetero and male privilege.

I never had a problem being out as a lesbian, but when I felt I needed to out myself as trans* at work, I cried every night for a week, agonising over whether I really needed to tell them or whether I should stay in the closet. They already knew my partner was transgender because I couldn’t very well hide the change of pronouns, but me too? That doesn’t fit so neatly; sounds a bit far-fetched. I know nobody’s going to be getting my pronouns right, I know few people will understand, so why should I bother sharing this intimate detail with the world?

Well, because I’m a counsellor and a writer and who I am and what I do pretty much relies on me being congruent and authentic. I can’t hide a huge part of who I am without becoming incongruent and false; the very opposite of what I need to be to do my work well.

The tears, in the end, were the agony of silence. When it was all out in the open, I felt ok, even if I knew I wasn’t always being fully understood. And now I’m out I can state with absolute certainty that saying you’re a lesbian is easier in any scenario than saying you’re transgender. Lesbians are 1 in 20, transgender folk are more like 1 in 1000 – and people just don’t get it.

What doesn’t fit someone’s experience or knowledge still attracts confident conclusions – conclusions about your mental health, about your not coping with being a lesbian or never having been a proper one, about what your sexuality really is, about your wanting to appear more “normal” or normative; your trying to gain privilege. They decide you’re trying to escape something or making drama or simply hell-bent on misery. Anything other than the simple reality that you went deeper into yourself and came nearer to the truth.

And then there are the members of your community who are involved in such deeply transphobic campaigning that your hands start to shake at the mention of their name. Others politely try to see both sides and remain neutral. They don’t really get how much the campaigning hurts or the damage it does. Suddenly you’re afraid to go to parties and gatherings and you realise the transphobes are more welcome in what you considered your own community than you are.

I’ve discovered the hard way that what I thought was an inclusive community is often just a bunch of people who want to hang out with folks as similar to them as possible, and in that respect they are really no more enlightened than a bunch of cis-het white dudes. Their cool extra weapon for marginalisation is attaching spurious privilege to you in any way they can, so they can feel righteous rather than guilty about shunning you. Or they simply say you should go hang out with other people like you.

But there aren’t too many out people like me, although I’m touched by the number of lesbian friends who have affirmed how my story resonates with their experience. There are even fewer out transmen. It’s lonely here, because for all I have good friends I really do fear I’m losing my community. Permaculture tells us growth happens on the margins, but still the margins are a precarious place to be.

I’m not going to pretend to be what I’m not in order to fit the mainstream lesbian narrative. I’m strong enough to stand apart, and I am indeed privileged to have the inner resources and the circle of support to do this. But it does hurt to be in a “community” that goes to such great lengths to organise groups and events that only cater for the majority, and leaves trans* people (among others) uncertain of their welcome or certain of their exclusion.