Tag Archives: Trauma

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.

Sarah Ditum – not “gender critical” enough

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

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

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

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

1. The header image

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

2. The subtitle

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

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

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

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

3. The threat

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

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

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

4. What explains us?

Ditum lays out four possibilities for what makes gender identity.

a) Gender is hardwired in the brain.

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

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

b) A sexual fetish, ie. autogynephilia

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

c) Faulty thinking due to autism.

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

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

d) A response to trauma

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

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

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

5. Trans children must be stopped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Ergo we don’t exist

“arguably non-existent gender identity”

“In the absence of compelling evidence for brainsex”

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

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

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

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

8. Trans is a narrow option

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

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

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

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

9. Cis people know better

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

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

10. It’s dangerous to give us rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Trans people are criminals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Trans feminists aren’t proper feminists

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

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

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

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

12. Save us from this false ideology!

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Not critical enough

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

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

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

Cue my favourite training slide:

not biology

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

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

No way that could go wrong, is there?

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

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

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

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

Post-script- added 20/5/16

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

ditum

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden disability and its losses

When I look at the way disabled people are being persecuted to their deaths in my own exceptionally wealthy country, I wonder if disability is getting left out of our discussions on social justice. When we reel off our well rehearsed lists of intersecting oppressions, disability is often missing. This has led me to reflect on the impact of my own disability, and how much I discount it (and hide it).

Here’s my list, which feels pretty scary to put out there – ME/CFS, depression, autism, ADD, attachment disorder, PTSD, dissociation. Some of these have been medically diagnosed, and some realised through non-diagnostic psychological therapy. I may disagree with the construction of some of these labels, I certainly oppose any label with “disorder” in it, but I still feel their weight.

Photo0475I often spend time reflecting how lucky I am. I think it’s important, reflecting on privilege, being aware of your advantages. I grew up middle class, well educated. I was white. But home was not remotely safe, and school was where I was bullied for being different – traumatised, aspie/ADD, trans, and poorer, more neglected and scruffier than the other kids in my posh school.

Life continued with its benefits and losses. Family trauma led to me leaving home at 17 and becoming homeless, living on the breadline well into my 20s and becoming dependent on substances to cope. My good education meant that I was eventually able to get myself to university as a mature student, where I learned a lot and had access to free therapy. My poor health meant I was unable to complete the degree, and to this day (nearly 2 decades later) have never earned enough to start paying back my student loans. But having been to university still broadened my horizons.

I have ended up with a complicated relationship with privilege, where I have often discounted my own struggles because there are always people much worse off. I’m sort-of posh and sort-of university educated, but my mental and physical health has weighed pretty heavily in counterbalance to those privileges. It has created a wealth gap that we all just take for granted. We expect disabled people to have to struggle financially.

Hidden disability is ignored and dismissed and often I’ve struggled to get people to believe it’s there. Because it is inextricably bound up with trauma, it’s also too easy for people to say it’s “all in the mind”. Well, some of it really is neurological, but saying “all in the mind” makes it sound like a choice, and then people don’t have to take it into account. People are often quick to assume you’re shirking or lazy or melodramatic or manipulative, because they simply cannot see the pain or difficulty you’re having, and they require a proof that does not exist.

It doesn’t help that like most army brats, I was raised to be a brave little soldier, and showing my vulnerability is no easy task.

I have rarely been able to work full time, or managed to continue in employment without chunks of time off to recuperate. I’m in one of those off-times just now. Being on the cusp of disability, I’ve been able to claim sickness benefits for short periods, but always under duress to get back on my feet. The walking wounded, I always feel thankful for how relatively unscathed I am, but at the same time sometimes I just want someone to let me ride on the stretcher for a bit.

The underlying problem, I am beginning to realise, is that our current culture trains us to see ourselves, and our problems, in competition with each other. Some folks take the “my problem is bigger” approach: “Why should I care about your broken ankle when I have a broken leg?” “I bet it’s not broken really, it’s just twisted” . . . “and anyway, mine was a really, really bad break”. But as a counsellor, I actually see far more of the flipside of this – people discounting even the most horrendous of their own problems because there is always, inevitably, somebody worse off. This is what I tend to be guilty of. In doing this, people are often avoiding the discomfort of being vulnerable. It’s called not dealing with your own shit, and it isn’t as virtuous as it appears. But it’s entirely understandable – we believe somehow we can make a bargain with our minds to minimise our pain through a process of denial, as if “positivity” is all about pretending.

[Image: quotation reading "That quote, 'the only disability in life is a bad attitude', the reason that's bullshit is ... No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille. Stella Young on how 'inspiration porn' gets it wrong"

So, here’s the thing. I am a very lucky person, and I know that. I grew up with enough to eat, with the enormous benefit of being white. With praise for my “masculine” qualities, with intelligence, and the ability to articulate myself, and the benefit of a good education. I am disabled but I am also brimming with able privilege compared to many.

But I increasingly suspect that in order to live in a compassionate world, we need to learn to give due consideration to every stubbed toe – we should learn to stop measuring other’s distress against our own and be able to wholeheartedly empathise with how it feels to suffer migraines and bad backs and brain fog and depression and eczema and IBS and asthma and ingrown toenails and griefs and traumas both large and small. I will support you to grieve for your broken iPhone and not compare that to my lost family, because no two problems are ever comparable, and all feelings matter. Being able to tune in to each others differing experiences is never wasted.

I am slowly learning not to dismiss my own pain and trauma in the face of the overwhelming suffering and oppression I see around me. It makes me a more compassionate person when I learn to offer myself that same compassion. Lately, my physical health and depression have been so bad there have been lots of days when I have wondered if I can carry on working or even functioning. There are days when I have cried out for a carer, knowing full well there really is nobody out there better off who can swoop down and lift my burden off me. I tell myself I have to be strong, but the reality is being strong is exactly what gets us into this pickle.

We are none of us strong, we are all of us vulnerable, and often there are difficulties we don’t see in the faces of those who we set up as “the lucky ones”. I will continue to own my privilege, as we all must, but I also need to learn to own my vulnerabilities, and I am increasingly realising the importance of that. Compassion is not a commodity, it isn’t in short supply, or more valuable if we ration it. Capitalist, austerity-based models of caring do not fit our hearts. We can afford to be as generous as we possibly can be towards our own, and each other’s, suffering.

Catch 22

Life is full of catch-22s when you’re trans.

Here’s one – act like the gender you most identify with and you’re “aping stereotypes”, act in the slightest way non-stereotypically and you fall under instant suspicion, as if you’re revealing all your “true colours” in one gesture.

But for me, the most insidious of all the catch-22s is the madness trap.

[image: a pebbled beach with some pebbles arranged to form a question mark]The original novel Catch-22 tells of a war pilot who couldn’t get himself grounded for being mad because not wanting to fly in war is the very definition of sanity. Trans people are faced with the very opposite conundrum – trying to prove we’re in sound mind when gender dysphoria is still considered a psychiatric diagnosis.

But the catch-22s keep on coming – because if we look happy about being trans, why then we’re frivolous and selfish, putting our own needs and desires before the common good. If we look unhappy, well that’s proof it’s all a big mistake.

If the stress of stigma and oppression make us mentally ill, this feeds into the notion that being trans is in itself a mental illness – society can bully us and then point at the results of its bullying and go “look how damaged you are, why should we listen to someone like you?”

Generally, I try to brazen it out – I don’t want to let the world in on my internal struggle, the difficult road that brought me to the decision that transitioning would be the best thing for me. If I show any pain and conflict, I know well enough it can be used to undermine me and make me doubt myself. So I only share my doubts, my fears and my turmoil in very safe places.

As a consequence, I’m sometimes shocked by the people around me who think that I am easy and confident about my transition – I’m clearly putting on a good front.

The question that plagues me most is, “Am I being selfish?” I ask myself that all the time – some days the feeling is so strong I wonder if the world would prefer not to have people like me in it, so it can go about its business as usual. The internalised, hateful narrative I go into is completely erasing of who I am.

It took me a long time to realise that I had been subject to a form of “conversion therapy”. Conversion therapy is a form of therapy that seeks to brainwash the recipient into having negative associations whenever they think of being gay or trans, until they reach a point where being gay or trans is so painful to think about it no longer is viable. Not long ago, I had a moment of clarity – conversion therapy was exactly what was happening to me, because I was being foolish enough to listen to the toxic words of people who don’t want folks like me to exist.

I have now stopped listening. I considered their point of view very carefully, and for many years. I utterly reject it. I don’t need to keep hearing it.

Yes, I am a threat to the status quo, and if that’s terrifying for me, no doubt it’s also threatening for all those people who want to be able to divide the human race into 2 neat, unchangeable, segregated and non-overlapping groups, for whatever their reasons.

So coming out as transgender, then, could be seen as a little crazy – so much to lose, so much respect, potential employment, social support, lost through the process of admitting you cannot endure the process of sex assignment inflicted on you at birth.

This is perhaps why, since coming out, I have encountered people like me who conceal their trans nature. Some take hormones or have surgery in secret, some live only part-time as who they really are. Others simply manage their gender incongruence as best they can, fearful that “coming out” would put extra psychological pressure on them, that the gains would not be worth the losses.

I was one of these people – feeling like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the male person in female spaces. The psychological pressure of that alone was pretty unendurable, but I cannot judge which is the hardest route to take.

In the end, I think we owe it to the world to find a place in our lives where we can resolve our psychological conflicts as best we can. I don’t think coming out, being open to the world is the only way of doing this. I don’t believe deciding to transition is inherently better or worse than deciding not to. But I do think the knowledge that diverse narratives and paths are legitimate is essential to everybody’s psychological wellbeing, so the more we strike out for our own truth, the more others are liberated by our example. Living as a masculine women is just as valid for some as living as a trans man is valid for others, as non-binary identities are valid for others still. I celebrate a world in which all are possible, and accepted.

I do know coming out is risky. Exposing a trans nature leaves us open to so much undermining and social judgement. So it does take a certain amount of psychological strength to come out. For some people, coming out is a matter of choice, but for others there is no choice at all, they could not survive in the position they were allocated, or they could not survive in their body as it is.

I am not sure whether I did have a choice. Could I have endured as I was, or were my efforts to hide my transness ultimately doomed? I am aware that society, with its either/ors, to some extent limits my choices. If I could be understood in ways as both a man and a woman, a trans man and a lesbian, then I would be entirely happy.

And that’s the ultimate catch-22, the trap of a society that disallows the possibility of multiple, overlapping and sometimes paradoxical stories about our lives and identities.

An act of conscience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Careless talk costs

The hardest thing to do as a therapist is help people learn that although they are not responsible for the horrors that have befallen them, they are ultimately responsible for themselves and their own behaviour. It is particularly hard to help a traumatised, hypervigilent person to see that they have a choice in how they are acting. I know this only too well, having also been on the other side of the therapeutic relationship; I spent a long time in trauma counselling trying to re-learn trusting, relationship-based interactions with people and unlearn fear-focused, control-based patterns of relating.

I’m sure, if I’m honest, that I still have a lot to learn.

The trouble with the internet, is we can self-publish our own words without any kind of moderating process, meaning highly triggered and triggering responses can go out into the ether unchecked. Careless words leave opponents feeling blamed and shamed and unlikely to listen, more likely to spew back yet more triggered and triggering material. Careless words also tap into the trauma and hypervigilance of like-minded people, fueling their sense of entitlement to their own rage, and often sparking the kind of mindless mob that becomes too much of a blunt weapon to make any kind of breakthrough. It ends up not being about who is right or wrong, who is the most oppressed or entitled to their angry feelings; it becomes about people being in too high a state of fear arousal to really listen to anything at all, rendering the entire interaction utterly pointless other than to provide the fuel for further drama.

I tend to think of anger as a good thing to be in touch with, but I also think it is dangerous for any of us to have a sense of entitlement to our anger – anger is just a feeling; it is information, it is not a right. Feeling angry does not legitimise any ensuing behaviour; the strength of our trauma response does not necessarily hold the triggering person responsible for all our feelings. We are responsible for our feelings, and for our triggers. Other people are only responsible for their own behaviour.

I do not go into situations as a blank slate with no previous baggage, my trauma responses are far more deep rooted than anything that is happening in the here and now, so much as I would love to blame TERFs or MRAs for all my bad days (and they would like to blame me for theirs), this would be rather disingenuous. Even without my trauma history, living life as a gender variant child and adult exerts huge psychological pressure in a world that bullies and excludes us. We are social beings, and if we are different, the social structures supporting us are far less reliable, leaving us vulnerable to victimisation, abuse and trauma, and ultimately to poor mental health.

I am not responsible for the way the world treats a queer kid, but I have to be responsible for the person that I am in this world, and that means owning my fear, lack of trust, hypervigilance and fury at any form of oppression, marginalisation or injustice. My well-examined and thought-through anger is a splendid tool in my activism, but only when I am fully self-aware. When I screw my anger up and throw it without any pause or self-reflection, which I do more often than I would like, I add to the burden of aggression, tension, drama and even abuse that exists in this world. I fuel the fear. I know that so much of my activism has gone astray because I just didn’t have a proper hold of myself, and that all those misfires are wasted energy that undermines where I and others are trying to get to.

None of us is completely insignificant, especially those of us with a voice on the internet. Feeling entitled to our rage can be dangerous, and feeling completely powerless even more so, especially if it gives us permission to “let rip” at our opponents, or allies who have got it wrong. Others pile in, and soon we have that old fashioned angry mob with the cyber equivalent of waving pitchforks. Mobs have power, even mobs of relatively powerless individuals. I have seen lesbian mobs, feminist mobs, trans mobs, TERF mobs, and every other kind of mob you can think of. The mob always looks much friendlier when it isn’t after you, but from an outsider perspective all mobs are as ugly as each other.

I am trying to learn to ask questions before I speak out, collectively or unilaterally: When we’re organising for our rights, are we leaving time and space for each of us to reflect on our own behaviour? Do we think about the power we have or the power our actions might manifest? Are we whipping others up with triggering stories that override their ability to reflect? I keep trying to be non-violent in my approach to activism, not just because I’m a dreamy hippy, but because non-violent communication builds bridges and creates change.

Trouble is, when I’m full of fear I knock down as many bridges as I build.