Tag Archives: Transphobia

Cis allies versus transphobes – when and how to engage

This blog came out of a conversation with an ally about when and how to engage with anti-trans campaigners. Here are my top tips for how cis allies can be helpful in the fight against transphobic hate.

Do not boost the signal

Many transphobes do what they do in order to get attention and social media hits. Every time you hate share a transphobic article, the person who wrote it is winning, no matter how outraged you are. Do not assume that sharing an article and commenting how bad it is does damage to the writer.

If the writer or poster’s goal is simply to get good media coverage, there really is no such thing as bad publicity. Social media algorithms make being outrageous and controversial online lucrative. People piling in on them will only help raise their profile and make them look like a plucky hero to those who share their hateful views.

In addition, arguments gain traction the more they are heard, even if they are being refuted.

Example: the people who still believe climate change isn’t real have almost all heard good evidence that it is, but the controversial climate change sceptic arguments still have traction exactly because they are controversial, and therefore get a lot of attention in the media in the way a well thought out argument just will not. It doesn’t hurt that, like transphobia, the right-wing media likes to signal boost those arguments.

Another example of the success of being controversial is anti-vaxxers, who use an approach called fire-hosing. According to Lucky Tran in the Guardian:

“Firehosing inundates us with so many wild opinions that it becomes exhausting to continually disprove them. In this scenario, reality is reduced to positioning and who can sell their position best.”

Transphobes are particularly good at this tactic, and the allies and trans people quickly become exhausted by the process of continually providing evidence that refutes their claims. Because the media still uncritically shares false information about trans people, the propaganda gains a similar veneer of truth to climate change skepticism. It doesn’t matter that there is a near consensus about the genuineness of trans experiences and the importance of granting them safety and civil rights. It doesn’t matter that there is zero evidence that trans civil rights endanger cis women in any way. It only matters which voices get signal boosted, just as the climate skepticism angle has been signal boosted despite a near consensus from scientists about climate change.

When you share or comment on an anti-trans article, you are unfortunately helping signal boost that article. If you create discussion beneath an article a friend shares on Facebook, you are also signal boosting that article.

Just don’t, okay?

Consider the impact on your trans friends

Transphobes, and that includes self-styled “gender critical” feminists, terrify a lot of us. Many of us have been genuinely traumatised by the hatred and vitriol that these groups target us with. I personally experience PTSD symptoms whenever I witness the hate of gender critical feminists on or offline, due to previous, awful experiences that have accumulated over a couple of decades. When it is vicious and transparently hateful it is bad. When it is polite, clever and manipulative, with undertones of gaslighting and dog whistling, it is far worse.

There is nothing worse than an abuser who is attacking you in plain sight whilst others look on and do not realise you are being attacked. The most toxic are people who share quite “reasonable concerns” that are in fact clever and false arguments that undermine our civil rights and incite others to enact violence and abuse against us. The ones that play for sympathy towards the transphobe and paint the trans person asking for civil rights as an aggressor or worse, a predator. The ones that manage to convince others that they are being victimised even by us pointing out their transphobia.

Abusers are very good at getting people on their side by in turns being charming and playing the victim. They are even better at driving their victims up the wall until they break and lash out.

When our friends treat these individuals as reasonable and engage in debate with them they are offering social inclusion to transphobes in a way that is often unwittingly socially excluding towards us. Here is a space our friend may well be holding or curating, is certainly participating in, where whether or not I should have civil rights is seen as a suitable topic for debate, rather than a given. Things are being said there that may activate my PTSD symptoms, while the cis folk in that space have no concept of the impact of this discourse. If I dare to participate at all, it’s at the risk that I may become upset or rattled, and be told by my supposed ally that I am “not helping my cause” because I haven’t been sufficiently polite to the person who is enacting structural violence on me oh, so subtly but devastatingly.

Because there is a small but vocal left wing and feminist contingent of transphobes, we are much more likely to encounter these people during activism or amongst our friends. When cis allies tag us to draw us into a discussion, or comment on a public post that then appears in our timeline, or share their experiences or an article where we can see it, they contribute to our trauma. They may think that they are demonstrating their allyship, they may think that our input would be useful to counter what has been said, but in reality they may simply be adding to our distress whilst signal boosting hate.

Imposing sanctions

If arguing with transphobes is not helpful, what then can we do to counter hate? Well, one thing we can do is impose sanctions. Hold people to account for their behaviour. There is a reason why hate- mongers insist so often on their “right to free speech” – they want to be able to do what they like without consequences, and use the “free speech” argument to shut down anybody who tries to impose sanctions against them.

That’s because sanctions work.

No platforming, deleting comments from our timeline or groups, telling people we’re not prepared to stay in their presence if they continue with their hate, calling for somebody to be fired, banning them from their social media platform, unfriending them or blocking them for their views, asking people to boycott their event, are all actions that transphobes will complain very loudly about. That’s because they’re effective. Responses need to be proportionate, but often our responses take into account the heat that will fall on us for our actions more than the magnitude of the offence. Transphobes often get away with their behavior because they’re natural bullies and people are afraid to square up to them, remaining bystanders to their bullying behavior.

They will call the consequences of their actions censorship (it isn’t) and shout about an “all powerful trans lobby”, but nevertheless we must persist in making sure that people are materially and socially accountable for their actions. We should not be afraid of harnessing social power or gaining enough power to have an equal place in society. The only goal here is to gain civil rights and to shut down arguments that have been disproven over and over again to those who’ve bothered to do their homework. We have to make hate speech something that has consequences for the person making it rather than the people experiencing it.

When a friend says something transphobic, start by sending them a private message. Ask them if they knew that what they shared or said was transphobic and ask them to take it down. If they come back and disagree that it is transphobic, ask them if they would be willing to take part in an accountability process to explore this. Tell them that it is not for them to decide whether something is transphobic, that it is trans people who get to decide that. Remind them they are unlikely to know as much about trans peoples’ experiences and civil rights as trans people do. Remind them that there is a concerted anti-trans campaign going on at the moment and they might well have fallen victim to this campaign of misinformation, but the facts in favour of trans people’s civil rights are friendly.

If the person refuses to reconsider their actions, consider unfriending them and, if their hatred is entrenched and they are an active campaigner against trans civil rights, consider letting mutual friends know about the situation. When we publicly risk our own standing by siding with the bullied rather than the bully, it can be frightening, but it also signals to our fellow humans, who are, after all, pack animals, that maybe it’s time to stop the bullying.

Sanctions must be proportionate to the crime, but the impact of campaigning against trans rights and legitimacy should not be underestimated. Hate speech is the foundation of escalating violence against marginalised groups and needs a zero tolerance response.

Educate yourself and others, and speak up

Although trans-positive articles will never have the reach of those negative articles that get hate-shared everywhere, you can inform yourself and others by following and sharing the work of knowledgeable trans people on social media – random names off the top of my head include CN Lester, Munroe Bergdorf, Tavis Alabanza, Alok Vaid-Menon, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Ben Vincent, Ruth Pearce, Christine Burns, Natacha Kennedy, Kat Gupta, Paris Lees (me!!) . . .

Make sure you know a hell of a lot before wading in on an argument – gender critical feminists are wiley, and can have folks believing up is down. Poor arguments make the situation much, much worse. Maybe 9/10 times I see a cis person arguing with transphobes, they actually don’t know enough not to get badly tripped up.

Here are some stock phrases to help you out rather than getting tangled in an in-depth “debate”

“Trans lives, identities and civil rights should not be up for debate.”

“Trans civil rights hurt no-one, anyone who says differently is peddling misinformation”.

“The pervasive idea that trans women pose a threat to cis women is a fiction that de-centres the very real violence trans women experience.”

“De-legitimising trans experiences and undermining their civil rights is an act of structural violence”.

If you’re a cis man, and you’re arguing with a cis woman about women’s safety and feminism, please also consider that you might not be helping at all just by virtue of being a man. Engaging in an online argument only serves to reinforce the pretense of victimhood of transphobic women who claim that trans rights is some sort of trojan horse for men to impose themselves on women. It’s not, of course, but when it comes to the finer points of feminism and navigating feminists discourse, very few cis men know enough to do this well, and I do not want my trans-positive activism to come with a side-order of accidental misogyny or the optics of a cis dude brow-beating women and telling them what’s good for them. Just as the likes of Graham Lineham haven’t been overly helpful to the gender critical cause when he browbeats trans inclusive feminist women online and tells them how they should do feminism properly.

Better still, share positive, trans inclusive feminist articles (such as the ones I share on my Facebook Page) in spaces where they’ll have impact and simply delete any anti-trans comments. Don’t forget that if you block someone, they can no longer reply to a thread you started in a group, so consider blocking people who make hateful comments if you don’t have admin rights to delete their comments. Respond briefly and firmly, report them to admins, and block them.

Consider having a policy on your own groups and timeline that does not allow speech that opposes marginalised people’s civil rights, and learn why those toxic, pervasive but sometimes innocent-sounding “whatabouts” do just that. Learn about the links between supposedly feminist/leftist transphobes and the far right, and examine the ways in which their arguments overlap.

 

As long as whether or not trans people should have civil rights is still considered a matter for debate in polite, socially aware circles, trans people will continue to suffer and die under the weight of this structural violence. Dehumanising speech is the underpinning mechanism for the rise in hate crime and alarming suicide statistics. It needs to stop.

Creating a lie: How trans women are portrayed as predators

First of all, a quick apology to my readers – I’ve been out of the habit of blogging while working on my upcoming book, Person Centred Counselling for Trans and Gender Diverse People 

But today I was running a trans feminism workshop with a lovely group of Feminists over Fifty and it reminded me I’ve been neglecting this blog, so I think I might write a few quick blogs on trans feminist subjects, because there’s still so much misinformation out there that has a life of its own.

Today’s blog is about claims that keep surfacing online that trans women show “male patterns of violence” and how that trope has managed to be perpetuated without evidence, and has contributed to a hostile climate where reform to the Gender Recognition Act has stalled. I also look at the community in general and what we do or don’t know about trans offenders. Please be warned, there are some very upsetting contents ahead.

Content warning: discussion of violence, including sexual violence, transmisogyny, prisons, criminality, systemic oppression of trans people, marginalised groups in prison statistics

Telling a good story

When creating a lie the first ingredient is some good storytelling. So many TV and film murderers are trans-coded; gender non-conforming or outright trans representations, as in Insidious 2, Pretty Little Liars, Silence of the Lambs or Psycho. The portrayals are so frequent and run from blatant to subtle. Next time you watch a crime show, look out for little clues and hints at a trans narrative for the villain, especially if the crimes are sexual.

This means we are primed to believe that trans women are violent, predatory, often disturbed, and of course perverted, because we are told the story over and over until it becomes a trope we don’t even notice we are absorbing.

The offering up of trans (and queer) characters as villains is of course a deliberate ploy of the patriarchy – it distances perpetrating behaviour from cishet men, enabling the rape and violence culture that allows cishet men to get away with their crimes far too easily.

The idea of the deviant trans woman is also rooted in misogyny, in the idea that women are inferior sexual objects, so someone society sees as a man wanting to be a woman must have warped sexual motives. This has also led to some truly terrible and entirely debunked, inappropriately sexualised theorising about trans women from clinicians and transphobes alike that is much discussed elsewhere. No such equivalent theories exist for trans men, despite the huge similarity of trans men’s and trans women’s experience, because misogyny infects society’s view of trans women in some truly alarming ways.

Lies in the media

Ingredient 2 in creating the lie of “trans woman as perpetrator” is evidenced in the national presses’ ability to throw around a completely fabricated story that Soham murderer Ian Huntley is transgender (he’s not, never was, never said he was).

There have been a lot of these “anonymous source” stories about trans people recently. Often “anonymous source, terrified of powerful trans lobby, tells completely unsubstantiated and alarming tale of a Bad Thing a Trans Person Did”. In the case of Huntley, the anonymous source, a fellow prisoner, simply made up the story Huntley was trans and it was widely reported in the media, and taken up in the Twittersphere, particularly by high-profile writer Graham Lineham.

Because journalists protect their sources, unscrupulous media can use this route to publish pretty much any fiction they please without any accountability. There are no  repercussions for the source or the writer beyond the need to print a small print apology if the truth comes out. Proving something did not happen when it is an anonymous story about an unnamed trans person in an undisclosed location is even harder, and when we complain about such (common) stories being unsubstantiated gossip presented as fact, the complaints are not upheld.

Presumably, there is a financial incentive too to provide a juicy story that captures the “concerned about trans rights” zeitgeist.

It doesn’t really matter that the Huntley story has been retracted, because in 20 years there will still be transphobes repeating the story, some in good faith, some in bad – trust me, urban legends about Terrible Things A Trans Person Did never die, they just get more and more embellished.

There is no evidence, despite what some people might claim, that trans women (or trans men, for that matter) are in any way more dangerous than cis women, but it does not matter – people believe awful stories about trans people because they have been consistently groomed to do so.

Fake statistics

Ingredient 3 in the lie was a scandalously manipulative claim by Fair Play for Women (FPFW), a group campaigning against trans civil rights, that 41% (60 out of  a total of 125) of trans prisoners are sex offenders. The truth, as revealed here is that the figure was derived by entirely spurious means, but yet again it was widely, and uncritically, reported.

If FPFW’s figures were correct, they would signify that there are only 125 trans prisoners in the UK in total. That means that for a total trans population estimated to be between 200,000 – 500,000, trans prisoners would be a surprisingly small group comparative to the general prison population of 179 per 100,000.

Just to clear things up a little, that 60 sex offenders that sounds so alarmingly large as “41%” is 0.01% of the estimated trans population – one in ten thousand.

I would expect the trans prison population to be proportionately higher for complex sociological factors I explore in the next section, just as it is for other oppressed and marginalised groups. And yet if FPFW’s stats are right and that 60 sex offenders figure is indeed out of an 125 total trans prison population then that’s astonishingly low. Of course, if you read the BBC’s fact-check on the figure all becomes clear – most trans prisoners are not recorded and there is a reason why serious offenders are recorded as trans while minor offenders are not.

So FPFW and all the media outlets who shared it effectively lied about the proportion of trans sex offenders, stirring up people’s existing prejudices about trans people.

The truth, that there are 60 sex offenders out of a completely unknown but certainly much higher total is less impactful, though. There are of course sex offenders in every group of humans in existence – there are 64,000 registered female sex offenders in the UK according to the Guardian, for instance – that’s one in every 500 women. We do nothing to keep these sex offending women out of toilets and changing rooms.

I guess that if the government are as bad at recording stats for minor LGB offenders we could just as easily (god forbid) produce a similarly manipulative statistic for the proportion of recorded lesbian or gay sex offenders, and start a debate about LGB people being a danger. Which would be horrific.

And this is where the existing lies enable the new lie, and where social marginalisation plays its part too – if someone produced a statistic that 41% of middle class white men in prison were sex offenders, few would believe it and it wouldn’t be in the interests of our increasingly right wing media to share it.

So what would we expect the trans prison population to be?

If it was recorded, which it isn’t, there are many factors that might make trans people more likely to end up in jail. Members of many marginalised groups are over-represented in the prison population, not under-represented. Factors that might influence incarceration rates include high homelessness statistics (25% of trans people have been homeless) low income (60% of trans people earned under £20,000 in this UKgov survey) and high unemployment (35% of trans women and 43% of trans men were out of employment in the last year).

Mental health service users are vastly over-represented in the prison population. If you look at the Trans Mental Health Study 2012, 76% of trans people have taken antidepressants, 31% had accessed a community mental health team. Rates of mental health experienced were: Depression 88%, stress 80%, anxiety 75%. 36% scored as having major depression. We know from a landmark study published in The Lancet among others that poor trans mental health is directly linked to the appalling way society treats trans people.

Then, let’s remember that marginalised people who are the victims of violence are often themselves arrested for that violence.:

“Women marginalized by their identities, such as queers, immigrants, women of color, trans women, or even women who are perceived as loud or aggressive, often do not fit preconceived notions of abuse victims and are thus arrested.” (Source: Jacobin)

The government LGBT survey reported that in the last year 25% of trans people had experienced domestic violence, and the Trans Mental Health Study 2012, showed that, 38% experienced physical intimidation and threats for being trans, 19% had been beaten up for being trans, 14% had been harassed by the police.

The report Out of sight, out of mind? Transgender People’s Experiences of Domestic Abuse reports staggering stats for victimisation of trans people: Abuse from partner or ex – 80%; emotional and transphobic abuse – 73%; Controlling behaviour – 60%; physical abuse – 45%; sexual abuse 47%. In addition, 37% of respondents said that ‘someone had forced, or tried to force them to have sex when they were under the age of 16’ and 46% had experienced some other form of childhood sexual abuse.

This is not the subject at hand, but these statistics bear out the reason trans people desperately need to be included in safe spaces, refuges, services, hostels and other provision for victims.

All of these experiences of being victimised, marginalised and oppressed sadly make any marginalised group also more likely to be enmeshed in the prison system. One thing (white middle class) feminism does very badly is equating criminality or even violence with privilege, and looking for carceral solutions when in fact the causes of criminality and violence are complex. For example, recent reports show a rise in knife crime is associated with austerity

Of course, with minority groups and incarceration levels you also need to factor in the amount people are reported for crimes and the likelihood police will push for prosecution and a jury will convict. Given the extent of  society’s mistrust of trans people evidenced by the films, TV and headlines mentioned above, it’s safe to say that trans people do not experience the teflon-coated protection that the white middle class boys of this world receive when they do perpetrate.

That Swedish Study

Which brings us to ingredient #4 in creating the perfect storm of a lie about trans people. An oft-quoted (never been replicated) Swedish study claims trans women (and also trans men) show “male patterns of violence”. This is used by transphobes to “prove” that trans women have some innate “essence of maleness” that should exclude them from womanhood, whilst also pushing trans men conveniently outside of their circle of protection.

The study’s author came forward and protested transphobes misusing the study, saying:

“we were measuring and comparing the total number of convictions, not conviction type. We were not saying that cisgender males are convicted of crimes associated with marginalization and poverty. We didn’t control for that and we were certainly not saying that we found that trans women were a rape risk. What we were saying was that for the 1973 to 1988 cohort group and the cisgender male group, both experienced similar rates of convictions

. . .  claims about trans criminality, specifically rape likelihood, is misrepresenting the study findings. The study as a whole covers the period between 1973 and 2003. If one divides the cohort into two groups, 1973 to 1988 and 1989 to 2003, one observes that for the latter group (1989–2003), differences in mortality, suicide attempts and crime disappear. This means that for the 1989 to 2003 group, we did not find a male pattern of criminality.” (Source)

Leave aside the utter injustice the author used the term “male pattern of criminality” at all to describe offending numbers of trans women, when she could also have used the term “marginalised pattern of criminality” just as easily.

But, you apparently only need to worry about increased numbers of criminal trans people if you travel back in time to before 1988 anyway. All in all, this is surprising – given low socioeconomic status, repeat victimisation, poor housing, poor mental health and the number of trans people pushed into sex work, I would really expect our community to be more highly represented in the prison population than it apparently is.

The study’s author goes on to say that better treatment of trans people most likely led to the reduction in offending rates. Almost like making constant insinuations that we are dangerous and deviant has a material affect on our wellbeing and place in society.

In conclusion

These toxic lies about trans people, particularly women, leave them often excluded from people’s circle of care, treated as the “outsider” to be scared of instead of the vulnerable people to be scared for. In my work, I see the impact of this injustice every day. Truly vulnerable people constantly being subject to violence and abuse, excluded from services but more than that, excluded from people’s concern.

People don’t seem to realise this community is banging loudly on the door to be let in for a reason – not because we are difficult aggressive sociopaths demanding the unreasonable but because it’s scary and dangerous out here, particularly for trans women, and being included in the human pack and treated like a person in need of care and safety is a fundamental need.

It’s time to stop believing the lies.

 

How cis lesbians can challenge transphobia after London Pride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The protest sheds light on the issues”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But lesbians don’t like penis”

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

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

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

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

“But some trans people do bad things”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But women only spaces are at risk”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lesbian, not queer”

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

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

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

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

“What can we do, though?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

About John Barrowman . . .

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

Here, I discuss why Barrowman’s “transgender Tardis” comment was certain to bait the trans community: Read more 

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And a while back I wrote a piece about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments about trans women. Read more

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Trans, autistic and celebrating difference

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

I’m in an abusive relationship with Julie Bindel

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.