Tag Archives: Transgender

Let’s talk about the challenges of Phalloplasty

I remember when my partner had come out to me as trans, but before he (or I) had come out to anyone else, I began to share more educational information about trans people on my personal Facebook feed. I had already been running the Facebook page “Lesbians and Feminists Against Transphobia” (now, alas, deceased because I was unable to manage the traffic from the 10,000 people who liked the page). I started to migrate some of the content to my own timeline, in the hopes that people would be somewhat prepared for the forthcoming announcement.

At that point, we were at the “I’m transgender, now what?” stage. Because what we are is not what we do. Robin knew he was a trans man, but the thought of transition is daunting, and there are so many options. Name changes and pronoun changes were some of the possibilities. Medically, one option was just to have chest surgery, one was to take hormones and have chest surgery. We weren’t really going any lower than that just yet. For me, there didn’t seem to be any options for “non-binary transition” (little I knew) so coming out (or not) was really the only option I was considering.

text

They say when you go through something big you find out who your friends are. This is true, but you also find out which of your friends are bigots.

This was the point at which we discovered that a (thankfully not close) friend of ours was on her way to becoming a prolific and formidable anti-trans campaigner.

I would post something positive about trans people, this friend would come back with a response about how transitioning makes people suicidal. I posted an article about trans men, she launched into a discussion of the dangers of phalloplasty. She was the ultimate concern troll.

So hung up on how what’s in everyone’s pants should determine the ultimate and unbreakable social order, our friend had assumed trans man = phalloplasty. Which is ludicrous. There are so many different surgical and non-surgical options for trans men because what’s in people’s pants should not socially define them. And nobody should have to go through major surgery in order to gain social acceptance and safety.

But her graphic, alarmist response, also made me terrified of phalloplasty in a way that really was unhelpful, because the reality is some people have lower dysphoria, a sense that there is something missing that they cannot reconcile. And dramatic as surgery is, it makes some people feel whole and okay with themselves in a way that benefits how they are able to be in the world. Which is obviously a win/win, because people who are happy with themselves and their bodies generally make for better citizens, friends, partners, workers, lovers.

Admittedly it’s hard for trans people to be happy with themselves, given what a shitty world this is to trans people (hence the suicide stats), but all the evidence suggests being trans in itself isn’t the problem – but rather barriers to acceptance, support, and being able to transition as we need to. Negativity and barriers just make a hard life harder.

Let’s not pretend we live in a perfect world, and that medicalising trans identities is ideal. It isn’t. The media still very much use language that speaks of a process of transforming a person from woman into man, or vice versa, and our community still talks about someone being “pre-op” or of surgery being something that assigns or affirms gender, as if we need the surgery to make us real.

This is awful, and it has to stop.

At the same time, in a world that places so much social emphasis on what is in a person’s pants, it is impossible to ask trans people to feel okay with what’s down there, even if their dysphoria is not fundamentally physical rather than social. I think this varies from person to person and some trans people admittedly feel a profound, instinctive sense of something missing from their bodies long before it can possibly be the result of socialisation.

Some  trans people will cope with their bodies configured as they are, and some will not. This does not make us more or less transgender, it just means we are not experiencing lower dysphoria to the extent that having surgery will be beneficial to us.

text

I was going to talk about how hard phalloplasty in particular is to go through, having just nursed my partner through the first stage. It is exhausting, terrifying, psychologically demanding, and I promise you the gaslighting comments from the anti-trans brigade make things a thousand times worse.

But I don’t need to tell any trans person how big a deal this is. We all know. The idea that well-meaning (concern trolling) cis people need to explain to us the demands of this surgery is infantilising and outrageous. No trans person gets to the point where they are signed off for major abdominal surgery that will leave them with visible scarring without knowing what they are about to undertake. Many trans men go for the slightly more straightforward metoidioplasty, or have no surgery at all, content with the growth they gained from taking testosterone, or just content with how their body is configured.

Most trans guys will follow others in groups or on YouTube and typically for men, no gory detail goes undescribed, including the times things go wrong. And they do. Phalloplasty still has only a 97% success rate and that is a scary thought, that you might go through all of this surgery and end up with nothing but scars. All this is heavy enough to deal with without ignorant creeps making you doubt yourself that it can ever be worth it.

Maybe the societal issue of not talking about men’s health plays a part in how we react to phallo. We know about the gory details but we probably don’t speak enough about what trans men and their supporters go through with this surgery. The months off work, the worry about it failing, the overwhelming stress, the involved care required for a skin graft and several wound sites, the two or three equally complicated follow-up surgeries. Maybe it’s still seen as some sort of “optional extra” and so the pain and magnitude of it is somehow disregarded. But for those who undergo it, I don’t think it really is “optional” but rather integral to their wellbeing.

Maybe I didn’t fully understand that until I saw Robin going through it. How alongside the pain there was something else – a sense of confidence and completion. Of rightness.

And just to be clear, this has nothing to do with sex, or dominance, or any other notions we may have about dick-swinging men. It’s more about walking in the world, about being able to use male toilets more comfortably, about what may happen when he is old and needing personal care. And simply about his relationship with his own body.

It can be worth it. It’s not an easy decision, but the reality is, like any self-awareness, dysphoria once acknowledged can’t just be wished away. Demi-boys like me spend a lot of time hoping that the little niggles of lower dysphoria we swat away will never manifest into something big enough to make surgery feel necessary. Nobody wants to need major surgery. But living with a trans man, I see it very clearly – how dysphoria has been taking up too much of his mind, his life. his energy. How this surgery has set him free from that and will allow him to live.

 

 

It is vital we talk about the welfare of trans kids

Transgender children have once again been in the news spotlight, following the NSPCC’s cancelled debate and the somewhat confusing story of a possibly trans child taken away from their mother.

A spate of troubling Daily Mail headlines ensued, attacking the charity Mermaids and the BBC and stirring up some hefty moral panic about children being encouraged to be transgender, as if it’s possible to make somebody trans when they are not. . .

Read the full article on my professional site

mail_640x345_acf_cropped-1

Testosterone Myths

I remember when I first realised my partner Robin might take T (testosterone) I was totally freaked out.

“You don’t need to act like any more of a man than you already do!” I whined, terrified that in changing his outsides to be more manly, I would lose from him some of the softer side of his already pretty blokey behaviours. “What if you get aggressive?” I pleaded. At one point I remember having a particular freak out and telling him I wouldn’t stick by him if he took that drug.

Oh, the shame.

And frankly, the unnecessary stress I put myself through because of a whole chunk of lies society tells us about testosterone. Now, a little more learned on the subject, I sigh inwardly when I watch a film and see the male protagonists’ adolescent, competitive bragging put down to “testosterone”.

T gets a really bad rap, and it also excuses a whole lot of crappy behaviour it isn’t responsible for.

man_applying_testo_2666043b-300x187

So first, let me tell you what it’s like living with a trans guy who has been on T for a couple of years.

Right from the start: So much calmer. Yes, you heard me right.

Robin has always, like me, been a little high strung and occasionally temperamental, but since taking T he has calmed right down. I’d like to say he’s happier, but that’s complicated. Life hasn’t been easy, with two of us transitioning. But he is less temperamental than he used to be, he really has chilled out.

The only exception was a few months in, he seemed edgy and grumpy and out of sorts and I thought to myself oh, aye, is this the T finally showing its true colours?

Turns out his T levels had dropped really, really low. A quick boost and he was right as rain again.

A year and a bit after Robin started on T, and a bit more than a year ago, I followed suit, and have experienced similar. I wouldn’t say I am calmer, exactly – I used to bite down my anger way too much, and these days I’m more likely to express it, to say “back  off” to someone who’s out of order rather than patiently explain myself ad nauseum. I don’t think it’s the T making me like that, it could be a growing sense of male entitlement or simply confidence as I feel more me. I’m less of a pushover, and I think that’s probably a good thing, although I have some way to go on that. One thing’s for sure, there have been no uncontrolled, T fuelled rages, no noticeable changes in my personality or who I fundamentally am. Maybe I am a bit more centred and growing into myself, but the changes are subtle.

And honestly, throughout life people change anyway, with or without hormones.

Of course, not all guys report this calmness, but most of the ones I know do. I worry about T’s bad rap, though, because just like it falsely legitimises crap behaviour in cis guys, so it can in trans guys who probably need to get counselling or anger management or do some anti-sexism work rather than blaming their shitty attitudes or bad behaviour on T. When Chaz Bono complained he was finding women’s voices more irritating, for instance, he blamed his “increasing maleness”, when a more likely culprit could be sensitivity to sound, a sensory problem common in trans people and exacerbated by stress. That or he’s just plain sexist.

And then there’s the sex drive thing. Yes, it does increase, and some guys don’t quite know what to do with that. Again, male mythology plays a part in this, as trans guys think they’ve developed a “male” sexuality with all the narrative baggage that comes with that. Having not (in some cases) enjoyed puberty first time round, they may have missed that burgeoning sexuality in their teen years, and think this is something exclusive to men (it isn’t).

Often, we’re just not quite ready to share this emerging sexuality with partners, we need to explore it on our own, along with a changing relationship with our bodies. It settles down, but my gosh we have such a dim view of men and their control over their own sex drive (poor helpless babies, my ass) that it can be almost frightening to feel like your body has been “taken over” by this drive. The mythology is at least as powerful as the increase in libido, and takes a bit of coming to terms with.

There is nothing exceptional about a male sex drive, and men’s sexual violence and objectifying behaviour has everything to do with rape culture, with notions of power and dominance, and nothing to do with testosterone or body parts. Studies show social and environmental, rather than biological, causes for human violence, including male violence. Meanwhile, guess what? Sex drives, violence, masculine traits and everything else are on a continuum, there are no binaries.

So, guys and enbys taking masculinising hormones: No excuses. it isn’t your hormones, it’s your socialisation, your trauma, your unchecked privilege, your sexism, your unsifted baggage. Roid rage happens to guys down the gym because they’re not being carefully, medically dosed and hormonal fluctuations indeed can cause problems, as can taking testosterone when you already have enough of it. Messing around with artificial hormones, taking them off prescription is not to be recommended, but if you’re transgender, and your brain maps onto a different hormone than the one running through your veins, T just might help (and it might not, and you can stop taking it if it doesn’t).

Just an ordinary day

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

CN: TERFs, mental health, dysphoria

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

7 am: Facebook status update:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck you, assigned gender. Just fuck you.

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

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

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

Everyone will gender you, one way or the other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

World Mental Health Day

CN: mental illness, police, suicide, abuse

Mental Health is something I’ve been mulling over a lot recently. My own, and other people’s. It’s particularly relevant to the trans community, not because being trans is actually a mental illness, they have proved it isn’t. But because incidence of mental ill health is common in the trans community for the obvious reasons that we have less social support, are more likely to be abused and traumatised, and experience homelessness and other life stresses that can cause or exacerbate mental health problems.

My own health has been shaky this past couple of years. The stress of myself and my partner going through transition; our changing relationships with a lesbian community we were very much involved with; the discovery that once trusted friends are deeply transphobic; the experience that coming out as trans has fundamentally altered how people view me professionally and severely derailed my career; the backing off people have done as they’ve seen my increased need for support and haven’t necessarily felt up to the job. All these have played their part.

Alongside this is complex trauma that goes way back: like many trans children, and other children who are obviously different, I had a really bad start in life. And I’m autistic, a difference I share with many trans people, and one that also tends to marginalise you and leave you prey to abusers.

Because my particular mental health issues do not have easy medical fixes and are poorly understood, I’ve tended to avoid doctors for my mental health and turned to therapists, who have substantially helped me. Being a therapist myself, I’ve had access to supportive environments most people can only dream of, but I’ve often had to keep the extent of my inner turmoil close to my chest in a world that sees mental health in very “us and them” terms.

Perhaps that’s why I felt a chill in the air when I came out as trans and found myself experiencing pretty blatant discrimination in multiple professional arenas. Because many associate trans people with mental illness, and because mental illness carries a stigma.

And here’s the thing; one of the biggest strains of all on mentally ill people is the effort it takes to hide our distress because the world refuses to accept, support and hold it.

Care in the community?

For the last few weeks I’ve been dealing with a young woman in my street becoming increasingly paranoid and psychotic.

A regular round of police and ambulances, both of which cost and neither of which help. I’ve had to intervene several times in midnight screaming matches at hapless and hopeless public servants or ill equipped friends and relatives.

I have a knack for calming her and she now sees me as a safe person so is knocking on the door regularly and popping notes through the door which are alarming and bizarre. There is a grain of sense in everything, of course, and a true sad story going back a long way. Like most ill people her mind isn’t disturbed simply from a chemical imbalance, faulty genes or poor personal choices but years of trauma for which she’s had no support.

While I am in no doubt that she currently needs medication and probably hospitalisation for her psychosis, kindness and listening work a kind of magic on her. If only she had been listened to and supported more during her traumatic childhood maybe things would be different now. But now, helping her is not so easy.

So often I find that people who show resilience to life’s trials actually had support from somewhere. It’s that which makes the difference. Humans really cannot function without other humans supporting them, whatever our individualistic society likes to think. But we withdraw support from others quite quickly when things get tricky, scared that people will “take too much” and oblivious to the fact that if we act generously, as if we have an abundance of time and care, people often feel resourced and find their own resilience again, whereas if we keep pushing them away, well they keep experiencing a deficit and their need will be never ending.

Of course, there are some for whom the deficit they have had from others over decades means we may never be able to make up for it. This neighbour, and many in the trans community who have turned to me for help are examples of the enormous social deficit some people experience.

In the absence of social structures designed to meet need with genuine care, we spend a fortune on substandard care and have the police standing as care in the community. An abundance of people whose job it is to listen could obliterate the loneliness, isolation and marginalisation that lead to people falling prey to harmful and abusive people or to self-soothing behaviours that in the end make things worse, such as substance misuse.

Meanwhile our prisons are full of mentally ill people, and a large proportion of trauma and deaths at the hands of police happen to mentally ill and disabled people. Police and prisons are an expensive and entirely unhelpful resource for what is a healthcare and social issue.

More support, early intervention and warm, person centred care for those who need it, would save us millions and more importantly make our communities happier places for all.

Understanding resilience comes through vulnerability, not strength

This requires a fundamental philosophical shift: Support makes people and communities more resilient. Shouldering too much without help can make you crumble. The idea that “mollycoddling” makes people weak is a popular but dangerous myth.

So often people think they’ve not had support and have “got through” on their own but some support is invisible – sometimes it’s generally socially supportive attitudes to your circumstance, a difficulty that’s understood or portrayed favourably in the media rather than one that’s taboo or dealt with badly.

As primates, we really do very badly on our own, we are so fundamentally social. And as social creatures, evolved to collaborate and work collectively, our capacity for mutual support is what makes us awesome. Crowning achievements like the NHS show just what we can be, and chipping away at the edges of this service until we have people who need inpatient care sleeping in police cells and police acting as expensive and untrained care workers, well this does not just affect the individuals who are suffering, it puts stresses on whole communities and increases the cost of police and prisons. In effect it is the very opposite of the old adage “a stitch in time saves nine”. Saving money on mental health can work out very expensive indeed.

Withholding our care does not toughen people up, in fact quite the reverse. Yes, many people with mental ill health need medicine, and many need walks in the woods and exercise as certain internet memes insist.

But what we all need most is human support and empathy, and there is no substitute for this. That cannot be found in a forest or a bottle, but it is nevertheless an abundant resource.

 

[Cartoon image of a black woman with a black and pink background. At the top the text "Feeling uncomfortable is a necessary part", the text continues at the bottom of the image- "of unlearning oppressive behaviours".]

Not allowed to say we’re oppressed

Some months ago I was invited by Metropolitan Housing to send them our local community group’s Safer Space Guidelines with a view to them signing up. I received a response, that they could not sign up because the guidelines were “very negative”. When I asked for clarification of this sweeping statement, I was told the guidelines were “very defensive and aggressive” and that they went “against some of our values”. Still no actual detail, or suggestions of how to rectify the problem.

After much probing, I discovered that rather than the entire document being problematic, the contention was use of the word “oppressed”. Metropolitan eventually asserted they were not saying trans people are not oppressed, just that it was not “positive” to say so.

I remember the day a group of 20 people, with the backing of a few hundred people consulted online, put the guidelines together. We were cis and trans, we were professionals, parents, lay people, feminists. I remember how we were challenged as to whether we were “allowed” to boldly state “trans people are oppressed”. We still ask ourselves this, but with an air of sadness and frustration that it is so controversial to speak the truth about our lives.

Metropolitan

Of course it’s true that trans people are oppressed. There are legal and social structures in place in today’s society that make trans lives difficult by design. Trans people are in a constant fight to be safe, to have access to healthcare, legal recognition, equal employment and fair anti-discrimination legislation. But though we are oppressed, can we actually say it?

The catch 22 for minorities struggling to be granted equality is this issue of “polite request”. Put simply, we are expected to be deferential and cheery in our requests for fair treatment. This largely gets ignored, but if we are too strong or assertive we are slapped back and told we can’t expect equality if we don’t put our case in a palatable (more easily ignored) way. This is the double-bind that maintains oppressive power structures. No civil rights battle was won on deferential pleading alone, but any attempts to do otherwise are invariably, inevitably met with accusations of aggression and violence.

This is nothing new. The “aggressive” trans activist can proudly take their place next to the “angry” black rights activist and the “militant” feminist, with a shared understanding of how these words are used to silence us.

So the issue we are faced with is a community group is, do we change the guidelines so that the average person can read them through without being discomfited, and if so what will they achieve? Many organisations have signed the guidelines, and presumably they too had to think a moment about our bold use of the word “oppressed”.

Metropolitan

That’s good, we cannot let people be too comfortable with our words because comfort signifies a lack of challenge, and the status quo needs to be challenged. If people are reading through this document thinking “this is easy, this won’t challenge us, we’re already doing all of this” then it is no way near enough, because let’s be clear, we all have a long way to go and this is no time for laurel-resting.

Metropolitan went on to claim how good their own policies were on trans people, and directed me to a flimsy equalities page where they had not even managed to spell transgender correctly.

The process of challenging Metropolitan, not about their choice to not sign up, but about the way they had dealt with this, was the usual exhausting process of speaking truth to power. They of course have a complete right not to sign up to the guidelines, but how they handled the correspondence speaks volumes about them as an organisation.

This is something like how Metropolitan should have worded their original feedback: “We appreciate that we do not have the right to dictate how trans people should speak about their own experiences, but we were uncertain about the helpfulness of the specific use of “oppressed” and wondered whether there is any leeway in changing this wording?”

(Better still, they would have challenged themselves as to why they find this such a difficult word to hear.)

Here’s why my wording is non-oppressive: it doesn’t mention whether or not Metropolitan will or won’t sign up, thus it isn’t threatening the community with the withholding of support if they don’t comply. NTH don’t chase people over sign-ups, organisations sign up via the website and it’s up to them, they don’t need to defend or excuse not signing because we have no power to get organisations on board. The process is voluntary.

Metropolitan

The suggestion I’ve made is specific feedback about the wording, it isn’t vague, it isn’t patronising and condescending, it isn’t emotive, it isn’t critical, it isn’t over-generalised, and it isn’t “tone-policing”, as the original feedback was on all counts. It honours that trans people are the ones who should be able to articulate their own experiences best.

Ironically, despite their assertion that they “would be shocked if anyone in Metropolitan worked against the guidelines”, Metropolitan have indicated in their response their dismissal of the voices of the local trans community, the very issue the guidelines seek to redress. My ensuing battle to be heard by them felt akin to having my voice deliberately muted.

I remain in shock that Metropolitan as an organisation stand by the original condescending and humiliating “feedback” as being acceptable and professional. The icing on the cake for me was the phrase in response to my complaint “we’re sorry you were upset”, which only served to reinforce the humiliation and high-handedness I experienced from them.

Pretty upsetting and depressing, really, that an organisation feels comfortable dealing so shabbily with people who lack structural power, and not too encouraging as to how trans people will be dealt with by Metropolitan.

I suspect that if trans people are suitably grateful for Metropolitan’s condescension, though, and know their place, they will be just fine. Just don’t expect them to treat trans people with actual respect, equality and dignity.

In fact, Metropolitan, you have acted oppressively. But of course, I’m not allowed to say that, am I?

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.