Just in case you missed it, I’ve been doing a spot of guest writing for The Queerness, and I wanted to share two of these pieces with my blog readers
Just in case you missed it, I’ve been doing a spot of guest writing for The Queerness, and I wanted to share two of these pieces with my blog readers
There’s a lot said about the co-occurrence of transness and autism, but I am struggling to find an article that does not slip into unhelpful speculation about how autism might “cause” transness. The latest article I read is good for the most part, but still falls in to speculation about cause along with other tropes and inaccuracies, particularly about non-binary people, that I found unhelpful.
I wanted to write a little about my own personal journey to embracing the simple fact that a lot of people are both trans and autistic, including me.
Human variances often co-occur
Let’s start by laying out a simple fact. We know, from research, that there are a whole bunch of divergent traits that cluster together in the population – non-heterosexuality, left-handedness, genius, synaesthesia, certain tissue disorders such as EDS, gender variance, certain physical appearances, dyslexia, adhd, sensitivity, autism, etc.
So, “different” people tend to be different in lots of ways. Break some of the above “things” down a bit more, and we see that they are in fact clusters of other traits that come together, like Seurat’s dots, to make a certain kind of picture – and that actually, when you start looking at these individual traits, you discover that no two geniuses, and no two autistic people, have quite the same formula of traits, even though the overall effects can have something in common. Genius isn’t a “thing” and neither is autism, nor transness – these are all many threads of experience woven together to create overall effects that are broadly similar but often diverge in the detail.
Which differences do we see as “pathological”?
How we respond to these traits is interesting in itself. A hundred years ago, left-handedness was seen as unacceptable. In my (left-handed) grandmother’s time, children were forced to write with their right hand. In my (also left-handed) mother’s time, left-handedness was still disapproved of, but reluctantly allowed. Now, I hope, prejudice against left-handed people has all but vanished, though the vestiges of it remain in language in words like sinister.
Suppose the stigma was still around today, in our society that loves to pin things down with “hard answers”. Would the co-occurrence of left-handedness and autism start people down a track of “maybe autistic people just don’t feel able to conform the way neurotypicals do, and that’s why they write with their left hands”. Would the inevitable bullying that any person who is different gets, and the resultant anxiety and stress, lead people to see left-handedness as a symptom of mental health problems or abuse, rather than understanding stigma and bullying due to being different as the cause of any mental health problems or abusive treatment?
Society decides which traits are a “problem” and which are an asset. Nobody is going to diagnose somebody with “genius disorder” and raise funding for a cure. Thus Alan Turing was celebrated for his genius, treated (relatively) neutrally for his left-handedness, isolated for his (probable) autism, and driven to suicide as a result of horrific criminal and medical interventions for being gay.
Nature or nurture?
I’m guessing most people, looking at the list above, will have some traits they prefer to think of as more “biological” and some which they would prefer to think of as less so, but we are all, as Cordelia Fine says, the result of a ““sheer exhilarating tangle of a continuous interaction among genes, brain and environment.”
What matters, is that trans people are more likely to be autistic, and autistic people are more likely to be trans. Not why this happens, unless you want to see human variation as disease, and look to cure it. This non-affirmative, pathology approach is what leads to tragedy, as in the case of trans and autistic Kayden Clarke. If both/all aspects of Kayden’s identity had been affirmed and accepted, he might still be here.
Besides, what dullness and lack of creativity would ensue if some humans did not exist outside the boxes the world expects, and thus teach people to expand their horizons and frontiers? If we try to iron out differences society sees as problematic, what other treasures might be erased in the process?
As somebody who instinctively picked up a lot of male socialisation, but fumbled with female socialisation, I reject the idea that my gender identity is caused by my autism in a “you are poor at reading social cues, therefore you didn’t learn how to be a girl” way. If I was so bad at picking up cues, how did I take to male-socialised behaviours like a duck to water?
Then there’s “your thinking is rigid – you’ve decided because you liked boy things you must be a boy”. I hear this a lot – that the autistic mind is deluded, unable to cope with nuance. But my autistic mind is just a fountain of nuance – I am open to so many possibilities, so sensitive to detail that yes, I can get overwhelmed and lost, and it has taken me a half a lifetime and a lot of therapy to find my own edges amid a sea of information and cultural story about gender.
That I must be socially labelled and legally categorised according to the shape of my genitals is a rigidity I cannot live with. To me, it’s an idea that becomes increasingly bizarre and arbitrary the more times I think about it. If my autism helps me more easily defy these arbitrary rules, why then it is an asset.
Conformity vs divergence
I think in our increasingly individualistic society, it’s important to understand that human beings have evolved to cooperate with one another, and that this is generally a positive thing about humans. But I like to think of human difference as an important balance to our tendency to conform. Cooperation can put a person on the moon, but people are also too good at going along with things that are not in the best interests of anyone – this is how we can end up voting for fascists, or arbitrarily colour coding our children.
We need to both go along with each other, but also put our feet down and say no. It’s a delicate balance between our immense capacity to work together for the greater good and our equally immense capacity to form a mindless mob that can be led into all kinds of nastiness.
People who smell colours, kick the ball with a different foot, experience gender differently, and focus in on all kinds of human experience in a drastically different way to the norm, are able to offer up different possibilities, remind us our experience is not monolithic, introduce the element of uncertainty that we require to balance progress that can take us to the moon but also over cliffs.
Combating the shame
The process of coming to terms with being both autistic and trans has led me to at times fall into a pit of shame. “Why can’t I just be like everyone else, why do I have to make it awkward for people?” is a constant theme, as I find myself presenting a challenge for everyone I meet that makes our interactions at times not fun for anyone. I feel shame that I can’t perform woman, or small talk, or gratitude for being allowed to exist, but instead speak my mind, tell people how I really feel, and who I really am.
In the worst moments, I consider it would be better for everyone if I did not exist – the road would be smoother. But the road to where? Where is the human race going, that it cannot take people like me with it? Where is the LG community heading, that it hasn’t got room on the bus for people who don’t conform to an assimilationist idea of monogamous, neurotypical, gender conforming respectability?
I feel like an inconvenience, but maybe I am the grit that forms the pearl. Maybe I am the grey cloud that waters the dry earth. Maybe people like me are meant to be here and have our value and our place.
Maybe we could be celebrated, instead of being constantly, relentlessly pushed aside.
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.
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.
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.
This is a full length version of an article I wrote this week for The Queerness
I’m in an abusive relationship with Julie Bindel and I can’t escape.*
I come from an abusive family, I’ve worked for years with abuse survivors, I have an MA in Trauma Studies that focused on the consequences of abuse. I know what abuse looks like and feels like. It looks like this.
The cycle is familiar by now. It begins with Bindel and her enablers organising a talk that they know will have a negative impact on a minority – often that minority is trans people, as this seems to be her special interest, and I will focus on this, although her attitudes to sex work, bisexuality, mental health and Islam are equally questionable.
Her stated aim is to cast doubt on the validity of trans identities, which is appalling in itself, especially given the weight of scientific evidence and historical record that supports our identities. But her covert but equally apparent aim is even more pernicious – to whip up a storm that she can then claim to be a victim of, through which she achieves personal gain.
It is a sad fact that one abuse tactic is to make yourself look like your victim’s victim. Bindel excels at this.
In her latest escapade we find Bindel imposing herself on a space that should be inclusive of bi and trans people, as she is scheduled to give an LGBT history month talk. It’s not enough for her to bring her afab lesbian separatism to afab lesbian separatist spaces, she has to push herself on LGBT spaces she doesn’t believe should even exist.
Of course this is pure provocation and of course she knows it. Naturally, people will be frightened, upset. This will embolden biphobic and transphobic people and lend power to their discourse.
My Facebook feed is full of trans friends hurt and agonised over what to do. Ignoring her feels like being assaulted and pretending it isn’t happening, although my policy has long been to try and ignore people like Bindel and not be a pawn in their nasty game. I wrote about this when she came to my town two years ago and my position has not changed. Fighting back will bring the focus onto us and we as a community will be on trial for what any one of us does and says next. And with this much hurt and anger, somebody somewhere is bound to misfire.
This is another abuser trick – torment someone until they snap and then calmly tell the world “look how mad and bad this person is”.
Yes, we are traumatised
Bindel says we cannot be traumatised by her, but we can and we are. I have seen it and felt it. My heart rate goes up when Bindel’s name is mentioned. My body tenses. I lose sleep. I have intrusive thoughts about the verbal abuse I’ve experienced from her friends and enablers in relation to previous events. I have internalised Bindel’s own cruel words and they continue to taunt me even in her absence. Most of all, I feel something is being forced onto me and that I am powerless and voiceless.
I can speak out through a blog but I know my words will be drowned out because her audience is so much bigger and we are such a tiny community. Her lies have greater reach than our truth, and have the ring of veracity to people who know little about us and haven’t done their reading.
Fortunately the law now recognises the existence of emotional abuse, and I hope it’s only a matter of time until we recognise that the internet is not some magical place where words don’t hurt. Emotional abuse is real. Bullying is real. Harassment is real. Harassment is coming into a space that has “T” in it whilst being a very persistent and prolific campaigner against trans civil rights and the very idea of “LGBT”.
Another abuser trick is to spin what’s happening with a manipulative rhetoric. It’s easy to choose your words carefully and be charming when you’re not really the one under fire, of course. Abusers talk about people “taking offence” as some very cerebral and quite academic response to their abusive words. This sanitises the process and denies its real impact. MRAs will say this about survivors who are traumatised by rape jokes, that they are needlessly offended. When someone is emboldened to say something they absolutely know will chip away at another person’s safety or social inclusion, or their very sense of self, spinning their trauma-related reactions as “offence” is just so much newspeak.
“Free Speech” is a dangerous red herring
Bindel will claim that we should be always ready and refreshed to have the same debate over and over again that has been going on for 40 years now. She claims that the correct ideas will magically triumph in this Just And Fair World. Bindel seems somehow oblivious to the fact that America is now ruled by possibly the world’s worst misogynist. This trendy and highly manipulative version of “free speech” ideology that she, along with people like Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos espouse, has certainly contributed to the awful shape the world is in.
It’s a kind of neoliberal version of discourse, a sort of “free market economy” for ideas, where somehow all will be well and the fittest ideas will win out. Of course, as we know, what happens with a free market is that wealth unjustly concentrates in the hands of a few fat cats. And equally, the people with the biggest platforms dominate and manipulate the ideological landscape when there are no ethical checks and balances.
Where once someone would have drawn a line and decided this had all gone way too far, people fell over themselves to give Trump a platform, claiming that enabling his hate would expose him. The policy failed not just because those that gave Trump an enormous media platform enabled his voice to be heard over others, but also by platforming it they endorsed it. Putting someone on a platform is not just permission to speak, it is validation of what they have to say. It is giving power to someone.
Trump dominated and people allowed him to. Almost as if people are scared of bullies and suck up to them.
Bindel herself argued for Trump to be given a platform.
Meanwhile, Trump showed such fragility, or such superb victim game, whichever you care to see it as, that he could weaponise any dissent as a good excuse to escalate. This is what abusers do; they create a pattern of coercive control which you either go along with, thus enabling them, or resist, which they use as an excuse to “retaliate”. You are trapped either way because they have the power. The whole point about abuse is the victim has less power.
Bindel is no different. She has such a strong media platform in a world that generally hates feminists exactly because she reinforces this abusive idea that it’s a fair world and if someone has power over you they deserve it. Bindel constantly manipulates in order to gain a greater platform, hurting bi and trans people, sex workers and PoC to consolidate her own position. People who give Bindel a platform are endorsing her, and they are also removing that opportunity from many other speakers who do not hurt people to get their own needs met.
With power, you control the narrative
Bindel also uses gaslighting techniques highly effectively. Telling us our lifelong deeply held experiences of self are illegitimate against the casual appraisal of strangers. Telling us that a mountain of medical and historic evidence are nothing compared to her feeling that trans people can’t be real.
Gaslighting works only when you have control of a situation. Bindel has an army of men and women who will jump at any opportunity to bash trans identities, diagnosing us as crazy, pathologising us as dangerous, legitimising any level of attack on us based on the lie Bindel herself espouses: we are a threat that must be ended at all costs. In this post truth world there doesn’t have to be any evidence of this, it just needs to feel true.
Of course if we are dangerous our fighting back against this hate takes on quite a different appearance. Somehow instead of being this tiny, marginalised community that meets daily abuse and disrespect, and is subject to disproportionate amounts of violence and trauma, we are the ultimate agents of patriachy/ satan and have all of the power behind us. Lies about our level of power and threat legitimise any level of attack against us. Dismissal of the impact of these behaviours makes the actors entirely unaccountable.
Just as Donald Trump could talk about women however he liked because he had a chorus of people denying, minimising and blaming on his behalf, Bindel is enabled to be as disrespectful and hateful as she likes toward my community, and in particular trans women.
Power always has accomplices
This cycle will continue as long as people give Bindel a platform, give her power. Once that happens, she has already won because both ignoring or attacking from the trans community will enable her. Cancel the event, she gets to play the victim and she gains more support and more power. Let her speak and she gains an audience (one inclined to be on her side) – more power again. There is no winning here.
Two years ago I made a commitment to myself I try (and sometimes fail) to keep. Recognising I was becoming increasingly traumatised by Bindel and her ilk I started to ignore them as much as possible, and bring people together to do positive work. From that decision a huge amount of supportive community organising has come about. But I’m by no means over the profound negative psychological impact that gender critical feminism has had on me, and it’s impossible to protect myself fully from it. Their tendrils are everywhere, influencing my cis friends, influencing policy, weighting the media discussion about us and generally making life miserable for trans people in multiple ways. I blogged about how much I had internalised their hateful doctrine here.
We are powerless and we are vulnerable; perhaps a natural state that should be embraced more by human beings, but never more true than if you are an outlier on the bell curve of humanity.
As long as people give power to bullies they will have power. And a platform is power. It’s not a right, to be elevated over others. It’s not an entitlement, although some seem to act like it is, have a sense of entitlement that is once again the characteristic of an abuser. It’s not free speech to have a newspaper column or a speaking engagement. It’s power. And using it to subjugate a minority and advocate the removal of their rights is abuse of that power.
Like Trump and Yiannopoulos, Bindel finds in these frightening days an opportunity to become powerful and wealthy and be surrounded by enablers. That she is representing a notion of “working class” at this latest event is the ultimate irony. Whatever her origins, Bindel is elite, dangerous and bad for the health of working class LGBT+ folk everywhere. Particularly trans people, bi people, PoC and sex workers, but her ideas are calamitous to all of us as they render us powerless to say “stop” when we are being abused, because “stop” and “no” are apparently censorship of her freedom to come at us relentlessly.
And, to be clear, I want to holler Stop! and No! I want to beg and plead – just leave me and my friends alone and find another special interest, please Julie. Your behaviour is intolerable and real people are profoundly affected by it, people who matter every bit as much as you.
But if I holler, just watch how many people will clap their hands over my mouth and tell me I “won’t help my cause” that way. These silencers – they’re enablers too, telling me if I acted just the right way the abuse would stop. That’s a lie, too.
I know as long as hurting me gives her power and wealth she will never stop, so ultimately, it’s her enablers who need to look at what they’ve created. Just as rape is enabled by rape culture, so this relentless abuse is enabled by our obsession with seeing gladiator-style opinion-fests based on ignorance and entitlement.
There is no solution to abuse as long as people are creating a culture that enables it. In the face of this abuse we must stay safe as best we can and look after the inevitable impact events like this have on the mental health of our community. My love goes to all my trans siblings who are in pain right now from this. My respect to you however you are dealing with it; whether you’re keeping your head down or struggling to make your voice heard. I know you are doing your best and this is not in any way your fault.
Meanwhile we must do all we can to raise up the voices of people who empower and support others rather than clawing their own way to personal power and wealth through the propagation of hate and division.
*after a threat of libel action my editor made the following addition, something I think should already be clear but apparently needs spelling out: “An abusive relationship in the multi-media world of the 21st Century does not need to have romantic or sexual connotations.” Clearly I am using “relationship” in the sense of connectedness. Bindel’s actions have a profound impact on my life, in that way we are in a relationship with each other whether I like it or not.
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.
From what I’ve seen, the Anarchist Federation are generally pretty right on, including when it comes to trans inclusion, but sometimes people get things drastically wrong and then you get a sticker like this, which is kinda hate speech:
I turned up at a meeting recently and saw a pile of these in a space I generally feel safe. A space that signed up to the Safer Space Guidelines our local trans community drew up. Seeing this really threw me, especially amongst other stickers I could totally get behind. It reminded me of how far we still have to go.
People asked me what was up and I could not articulate it, afraid that without a shared understanding of the issues, I would come across as an apologist for misogyny. I’m writing this to try and make the issues clear.
First of all, though as a pacifist I’m not fond of the image, it isn’t that I find problematic. Women having violent revenge fantasies about overpowering men in the context of male oppression are just that – fantasies. The image is symbolic, I get that. If the text had said “smash patriarchy” I would be fine. Even though I know some whiny person who doesn’t understand about structural inequality will come along and talk about “misandry” or “reverse sexism”, I’m not about to censor or tone police women’s anger. It’s just a picture showing the depths of women’s justifiable rage.
But the text calls for people to “abolish gender” and that’s the hate-speechy bit. Because let’s be clear, gender is many, many things and only one of those is an axis of oppression.
Gender is Two-spirit people, Bakla, Hijiras, and the many hundreds of ways cultures all over the world explore and express the complexity of gender, in defiance of binary, colonialist narratives. Abolishing Two-spirit people isn’t ending oppression, it is oppression. And it’s colonisation, as Lola Phoenix explains here*.
Gender is also butches, femmes, demigirls, genderqueer & genderfluid folk, trans men, trans women, non-binary people, people who are agender, bigender, pangender, transgender. . .
In other words, there is a rich diversity of how people enact and experience gender across the globe and to abolish it would be to abolish us.
This is a particularly violent threat in the context of most gender abolitionists’ insistence on maintaining the legal and social categories “men and women”, which if you haven’t read my previous blogs, is still gender but gender abolitionists don’t always see it as such.
So, to recap, “abolish gender”, one tenet of second wave radical feminism, seeks to abolish diverse cultural identities and communities while remaining silent on sex assignment. Sex assignment is a non-consensual process. In it children are forced, without their permission and with physical violence in the case of many intersex children, into a legal and social category, according to the shape of their genitalia. These categories are not neutral, they are classed – one oppresses the other. This process of sex assignment gives birth to the existence of gender as class.
Abolish gender as a class structure by all means, although the only way I can see to do that is to abolish sex assignment. But there is a huge difference between ending a non-consensual practice committed against children and forcing adults to end their own cultural, consensual and autonomous practices around gender.
I do not want to be abolished. Yes, I wish I had not been assigned female at birth. Yes, I understand that assignment has massively altered my experience of gender. Yes, I understand that both my female assignment and my male socialisation have been subject to the influence of gender inequality. But I do not believe that there is anything remotely wrong with being transgender and I believe even in a utopia aspects of gender would still manifest, even if differently than in this dystopic world.
Yes, I want to smash patriarchy, but please don’t smash me in the process.
To explore this subject in greater depth, I have set up a workshop in Nottingham on 20th August
*ETA: This is a nice accessible piece on the subject, but there’s much more out there. The workshop seeks to collate the words of POC, which are not always given platforms. A good place to start if you’re up for a longer read is decolonizing trans/gender 101 by b. binaohan
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.
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:
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:
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.