October 21, 2014 § 7 Comments
You may not have heard from me before but fret not – I’ve heard from you. Messages on social media, and comments on essays I’ve written for other websites – but, mostly, comments you leave here. You’ll have noticed that I don’t let them through which, I imagine, is the reaction you expect when you leave them. Talk of ‘echo chambers’ and the like.
Admittedly, I don’t want my readers to have to deal with that level of hatred but, mostly, I just don’t see the point of clicking ‘approve’ – not when the comments you leave can be found just about everywhere on the Internet wherever trans people are mentioned.
Because this is the thing – regardless of what I write about, the actual thrust of the piece, there are only ever three comments that you leave (I paraphrase for length, not content):
1. Trans people are sick in the head, and you’re a man in a dress. You all need to stop pretending/see a doctor/cease to exist. You disgust me.
2. Trans people are sick in the head and a threat to real women-born-women. You’re a man in a dress, and you all need to stop pretending/see a doctor/stop coming into women’s spaces/cease to exist. You disgust me.
3. Trans people are sick in the head and a threat to real women-born-women. You’re a confused woman, and you all you all need to stop pretending/see a doctor/stop coming into women’s spaces/cease to exist. You disgust me, but I pity you.
What’s with that? The stock responses – responses that remain the same regardless of whether you’re ‘replying’ to a piece on language, or relationships, or (most often) a comment on a comment lost somewhere way down in the archives. You seem to have taken the time to browse this blog – at length – and yet it all seems to trigger exactly the same set of sentiments in you. I take the time to write something that I hope has at least a little original value (though, obviously, hugely influenced by every theorist/activist I’ve ever read or worked with) – but nothing seems to make a difference to the comment that you leave.
And so, given that, the question I wanted to ask you is this: are you simply incapable of forming an individual response to the existence of trans people, or is it that you’re plain unwilling?
I guess there’s not much that can be done with the former, but the latter – why? Do you know? Do you want to know? Why would you not want to know? Does it actually make sense? Where did it come from?
And does it actually make your life, anyone’s life, any better? What are you so afraid of?
October 8, 2014 § 11 Comments
For a fair while I was pessimistic – running the gamut of ‘cis people confronted by trans object of desire’ will do that for you. The two main relationships of my life so far had broken down, in part, because the cis people I was with couldn’t hack the fact that their trans partner was, as stated before we even began dating, trans. I’d had chasers of all genders and orientations try it on, and a lot of ‘I’ve never been attracted to a [slur redacted] before, but you’re DIFFERENT’. And the inevitable ‘ask you out when they’re drunk, pretend it never happened when they’re sober’. I was sick and tired of it, and, while it saddened me to think of prejudging people, I could understand why some trans people decide to only date other trans people.
Fast forward a year and, as a few of you know, I find myself bashfully and unexpectedly happy with a wonderful person – who is, as it turns out, cis (for background on my use of cis and trans, please read). When it comes to sex, gender, sexuality, we’re reading from the same page – but the public perception of what our relationship must be is anything but egalitarian and empathetic. There only seem to be 5 boxes we could fit into, and we don’t fit into a single one. It’s okay though, because nobody fits into them – they’re just bullshit. To wit:
1. Straight cis man is with a straight trans woman because she ‘probably’ still has a penis and, therefore, ‘he’s probably actually gay’.
2. Straight cis man is with a straight trans woman AND HE IS DECEIVED.
3. Straight cis woman stays with her transitioning partner, is to be pitied.
4. Straight cis woman is with a straight trans man AND WHERE IS THE PENIS, WE MUST ASK WHERE THE PENIS IS, CAN YOU FIND IT FOR US?
5. Gay cis woman is with a straight trans man, and that’s okay, because we all knew that ‘he’ was actually a lesbian woman all along.
Even from supposedly alternative or progressive media sources, the message is often grim – trans people are some kind of homogenous other to be treated as a fetish by cis people. “I’m not objectifying you”, the cis writer of such pieces inevitably states – whilst painting their attraction to trans people (all trans people?) as an attraction to a specific subset of humans with supposedly specific bodies, supposed personality traits.
And yet – in trans circles, in activists circles, amongst my friendship groups – there are so many glorious relationships between people who are cis and trans – relationships that have pitfalls and problems, some specific, some general – but not the tropetastic ones the mainstream and indie media seem obsessed with.
It bothers me, that there’s not enough information – that there’s too much ignorance – that cis people are allowed to get away with being ignorant and rude, invasive and fetishistic – and that they can claim that ‘that’s just the way it is’. It’s not the way it is, not for many people – and it’s not the way it has to be.
SO. I asked several cis people who are partnered to trans people (my partner Sam included) if they’d care to talk about what it’s like for them, to be with a trans person in a transphobic society – and I’m very grateful that they agreed. Questions first – bios after. Fingers crossed this helps.
September 8, 2014 § 6 Comments
Or: what do you say to a genderqueer bisexual? What do you say to their bisexual partner?
I knew you’d go back to men
Because I’m assumed to be a woman, and must be heterosexual.
Bi now, gay later!
If I am assumed to be a man, along with my partner.
You were just experimenting
When he’s ‘informed’ that I’m ‘actually’ a woman
Watch the incredible tropetastic magic trick – they each negate the other, simply by both existing!
I’m not as queer as I should be, because I could ‘make the choice’ to be with women – and that I’ve somehow negated my trans status by being with a guy but not explicitly being a gay guy myself. But it’s okay, because I’m ‘the best of both worlds’, which must be a comfort to my equally bisexual partner.
You only get one deviant card, right? Otherwise you’ll use all the diversity up.
The thing you – you already know all of this. I can substitute any two – or three, or four – categories that take a person away from the “universal” white, straight, cis, currently able bodied, preferably male, certain type of job, certain type of religion, certain type of background archetype – and, suddenly, they undermine each other, and undermine the person described – you can’t have more than more category. How can you sit in more than one box?
I could talk about being trans and having mental health issues, to take another example from my life. I bet people reading this could add plenty more – being lesbian and being Muslim, being disabled and being a sex worker, being this and the supposedly diametrically opposed that.
This desire, to think of people as objects, to police the boundaries of nouns – turn the words someone uses to describe themselves into solid, immovable, immutable objects, and you can stereotype them as one thing or the other, but not have to admit of their whole selves.
And when I see people do this is supposedly progressive communities? People who are supposedly working to make things better? I don’t know why they’re trying to replicate what was done to them. I don’t know why they’re trying to continue the work that a frequently fucked-up mainstream does so very well. It only works if we’re different from something – something ‘normal’, something ‘standard’ – something that doesn’t need categorization, because it’s the baseline we’ve deviated from.
And this could be dismissed as a linguistic issue, or something frivolous that gets in the way of the serious work – who cares about ‘harmless’ stereotyping and jokes when there’s real work to be getting on with? But how do we get on with that real work, when we limit our vision of the people included in that work, because we start to believe the little digs, and asides, and tropes – when we get a fixed mental image we bring to mind with the words ‘trans’ or ‘queer’ or ‘feminist’?
What happens when we believe that there’s a limited number of adjectives a person could describe themselves with?
It’s amazing how many people you can make invisible, when you insist that the richness of who they are collapses in on itself into nothing.
And who does that serve, in the end?
September 1, 2014 § 8 Comments
Despite my long – and sometimes interesting – history of mental health conditions, there have only been a small handful of times where I’ve been actively afraid of suicide.
Funnily enough, the worst of those times was when I was ten years old.
I remember that my parents were out to dinner – I was in their bedroom, cradling their phone – the rest of my family were downstairs. I’d been trying to get through to Childline, having seen their number in the back of one of those trashy magazines popular with kids wishing they were teenagers – the number was engaged. I can’t remember if I was crying – I can’t remember what had pushed me over the edge that evening – but I do remember the absolute certainty that I felt – not a passionate feeling or a flashy one, but a dull, everyday realization – the knowledge that I didn’t deserve to be alive.
Someone picked up the call on my third try – and I can’t really remember what happened then. I think we talked, or I tried to – but I was too choked. She said something comforting, my brother called me away. At some point during the next few months I told my parents about the bullying at school – that no one had talked to me in half a year, except to call me fat, and ugly, and a freak, and a bitch, and a cow. Nothing really out of the ordinary – and, of course, the school did nothing when my parents complained, because ‘that’s how girls are’.
The school did nothing further down the line, throughout my teens, because then it wasn’t just the other pupils – it was also the deputy head. I was too masculine, too queer, too clever, and too strange – I know, because they told me – and, for this particular teacher, too…? I struggle to understand, as someone who now teaches. I don’t know how an adult justifies their actions towards a young person. But she had a line in excluding me from classes and sitting me in her office, accusing me of unnamed offenses until I broke down begging for her to let me know what it was I’d done, telling her how sorry I was, over and over again, as she told me ‘sorry’s not good enough’. When I was older, and set up Queer Youth Network and a gay/straight alliance, she threatened to sue me for bringing the school into disrepute – and then settled for humiliating me in public, and me in private. She was the teacher in charge of the sickroom – I made the mistake, only a couple of times, of assuming that she would have to follow my doctor’s instructions in allowing me pain medication for ongoing chronic conditions – she refused. There have been very few people in the world I’ve been afraid of – but I was afraid of her.
I’ve been wrestling with myself, writing this piece. Being bullied, on a daily basis, between the ages of nine and eighteen, has left a deep mark on me. I had to train myself to be able to walk into a room and not hate everyone present immediately, in a desperate desire to protect myself before they attacked. I suspect that there are obvious, and not so obvious links between the OCD that sent me into a breakdown at thirteen, and the bullies who told me I was worthless, pathetic, repugnant. The nightmares have never stopped.
And, yet – not only is this kind of experience normal for a huge percentage of young people, it’s positively mild compared to kind of things many, many children and teenagers go through. One of the groups it’s particularly ‘normal’ for is the group I belonged to – that of young LGBT – particularly T – people. Why bother writing at all, when it’s so pervasive? I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m not expecting to surprise anyone.
Maybe it’s just been the effect of the years away from it, or the impact of curating Transpose - or the gradual things you learn, being a songwriter who writes such personal lyrics. Talking after gigs to person after person after person who’s been subjected to all kinds of vile abuse – in public, in private – for simply being themselves. The emails that come my way. Becoming part of an LGBT community where nearly everyone has been bullied in school, spat at in the street, harassed and insulted by people they should be able to trust. The daily cost we pay for being different in a society that insists upon uniformity – the shit we wade through, trying to hold our heads up high.
Music has always been my salvation – I mean that with no hyperbole – without it I wouldn’t be here. It’s how I’ve reached other people, and how I’ve reached myself, and kept myself safe. Ironic, really, as my musical ability was one of the main things my bullies hated about me – my unusually deep voice, my love of piano – performing gave me panic attacks until my early twenties because of how it had been used against me. For all of those reasons, when it finally felt like the right time to deal with this publicly, it had to be through music. I wrote a song, about the beauty of the audiences who privilege me with their attention – as a thank you to the people who have also been told, so many of them, that they don’t deserve to live – and yet kept giving back to an often hostile world. That song is called ‘You’, and I mean every word of it.
And then we made a video – myself, my partner, Positive Change Arts, Apollo, and a group of tremendous friends – a video about what it means to be bullied – to be denied the chance to express who you are, because you’ve already been labelled with a slur by the people around you. And what it means to deny that slur, and to insist on truth instead.
So that – clumsily, I’m afraid – is why I decided that this was the right time to talk about my experiences. Because we’re launching a video, and I wanted to be honest about why it was made, and how much it means to me. Because I don’t want this to be taboo. Because I know that there are people reading this, and listening to my music, who are being bullied at school, at university, at home, at work, in the streets.
It is unacceptable that, in 2014, the majority of trans children have been bullied in school by both pupils and teachers. That we learn to suppress the truth about ourselves because we know ourselves to be unacceptable. That trans people are at such high risk of suicide, drug and alcohol misuse, self harm. That more than half of young LGBT people in the UK experience bullying at school.
This is only a small stand, against all of that hatred – but I believe in the power of small stands, counted together. No one deserves to believe that they don’t deserve to live. Bullying is not a fact of life to be accepted.
We deserve better than the messages that have been bullied into us.
This is for you.
August 30, 2014 § 9 Comments
What happened, who was there, and where we go from here.
That done? Onwards…
A summation of the meeting
So, today, August 30th 2014, Stonewall – the UK’s largest and most influential LGB group – met with a group of trans activists to consult on plans to open up their remit to include LGB and T.
I’ve literally just made it home now – so haven’t had time to really process what happened, let alone write something sophisticated/witty/stylish about it all. But I think that it’s important that everyone is kept up to speed with what’s happening – so:
Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall, was joined by Caroline (I’m afraid I didn’t catch her last name) as facilitator, and a member of the charitable board – they were the only three cis people in the room – a deliberate move, to show Stonewall’s willingness to take a back seat on the discussion.
After a general run through of rules for the day’s consultation (not talking over anyone, not quoting anyone without permission), Ruth started by tackling the elephant in the room – Stonewall’s past failings towards trans people and trans issues. Personally, I was impressed. She didn’t make excuses, or pretend that Stonewall hadn’t cocked up – she went through, point by point, areas in which Stonewall has let trans people down, explained their side of the story, apologised, and explained what they’re planning on doing to make things better. The word ‘tranny’ has been removed from the Fit educational video. Nominees for Stonewall awards are now scrutinised for any transphobic behaviour. They admitted that they haven’t done enough for bisexual people. Again, the point was stressed that they were not interested in trying to dictate to trans people what should happen – but to ask trans people if we wanted Stonewall on side.
That done, we moved on to the meat of the day’s work – to debate the pros and cons of three proposed approaches to Stonewall’s engagement with trans activism, taking as foundational that, in the future, they will be supportive allies to trans causes. The three proposed plans:
1. That Stonewall become a full LGBT organisation.
2. That Stonewall helps set up a sibling organisation to tackle trans issues – raising initial funds, sharing expensive resources and helping with training. This organisation would then become an autonomous, though linked, entity.
3. That Stonewall remain an LGB organisation, but provide grants to existing trans organisations.
After much debate, the majority feeling in the room was that option 3 would prove unworkable due to bureaucratic niceties around charitable donations/how grants work in the UK, promote infighting, and overall seemed rather paternalistic and patronising.
Many people favoured an approach that took the best parts of option 1 and option 2 and combined them – allowing trans activists to utilize the tools necessary for national campaigns and parliamentary lobbying, whilst also retaining the ability to function autonomously/semi-autonomously. It was felt by many that this would mean a more joined-up approach to trans rights, and provide trans activists with a shield of support to fall back on.
It was stressed that Stonewall would not be able to proceed without taking trans activists on board – a point that Ruth agreed with without argument. Much was made of the fact that there is not one trans community, but many diverse trans communities – and that Stonewall should not, and could not, try to proceed along homogenizing lines.
The group I was part of came up with three final points, which I’d like to summarize here. I believe that there is a big enough groundswell of support that Stonewall is going to become an LGBT organisation, though not all trans people are going to be on board with that – but, regardless of the exact process, these are the points we felt they needed to take away with them:
1. That they have current campaigns that could be made trans inclusive quickly and easily, with fantastic gains – the ‘No Bystanders’ campaign is already trans inclusive, and the ‘Some people are gay’ campaign would be an ideal continuation point.
2. That there are trans specific issues that need addressing in this country, and any campaigns to address these need to be lead by trans people, to be fully and properly inclusive.
3. That any action taken needs to be sustainable – both financially, and also in terms of the human cost.
I was surprised, in the best possible way, by how supportive and inclusive the day was of trans people of all genders – not just those that fell under a traditional binary. There was a firm promise to continue to include all trans people, and an acknowledgement that, even when using simple language and a ‘softly, softly’ approach, genderqueer, androgynous, bigender, genderfluid etc. people wouldn’t be excluded.
Every other aspect of diversity. Of the fifty people there, only four were people of colour. While there were many people with non-visible disabilities, there was not a broad (or even moderately wide) spectrum of disabled trans activists. Attendees were overwhelmingly middle class (including myself) and middle aged.
This was brought up several times within the meeting, and Stonewall stressed that this was the first of many, many meetings during its consultation process. It is currently organising meetings focused on TPoC activists, trans disability activists, intersex activists etc. and they have asked that anyone wanting to give their opinion – negative or positive – contact them at email@example.com . For people who would find a group meeting difficult or impossible, they’re happy to set up a one-to-one meeting. I think they should have worked a lot harder to make this first meeting more diverse, but I’m hoping that they are genuine in wanting to reach as many different trans people as possible, though whether they actually will be is not for me to say.
Obviously, there are many trans activists who won’t want to be involved with Stonewall – for reasons of history, for their work with the government, for their frequent focus on a narrow segment of white Gl(b) people, for their work with corporations. For myself, I remain ambivalent about them because of those reasons. I think there will be argument and backlash, and I’m not particularly looking forward to it.
However, again, personally – I believe that Stonewall is clearly going to be moving in the direction of becoming LGBT – and I can’t help but be excited about anything that helps address transphobic bullying in schools, that spreads awareness of trans lives, and which might lead to changes in the law and in the health service that make all trans lives easier. Not because I agree with all of what they do, or because of being blinkered – but because I think it could genuinely help to combat some of the injustice and oppression suffered by too many trans people. Not all of it. Not perfectly. But some.
To re-iterate – Ruth Hunt has asked that any trans person with an opinion on this contact her – whether disagreeing, or agreeing, or a combination – and I think it’s vital that we do. Whatever your opinion of Stonewall, let them know it – don’t let them go forward in ignorance: firstname.lastname@example.org
I don’t know what will happen – but my fingers are crossed.
My brain is buzzing and I forgot to include the timescale. Stonewall will be seeking consultation on this until January, when they’ll put forward a proposal. This proposal will then go through a consultation process – the impression I got was that this would be both internal and external – and a decision on going forward (and the going forward itself) will begin around April 2015.
August 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
The last one, the next one, and some general information
I realise that, though I managed to remember to update all the other social media, I’ve been remiss in reporting the result of the London Pride edition of Transpose. So, if you haven’t heard the good news – we had a fucking fabulous time and raised £450 – THANK YOU! We were originally going to be donating that amount to the Horizons Foundation, supporting LGBT refugees (linked to the documentary Born This Way). Sadly, both groups seem to no longer be functioning – so we were advised instead to donate to Out and Proud Diamond Group – an amazing cause – please do read about their work and share their information.
Next Transpose will be another Hallowe’en edition – an Inappropriately Sexy Hallowe’en Edition, to be precise. You know how costume manufacturers are always trying to make a ‘sexy’ version of every normal costume? Well, I think we can take it to the next level. I’m going to be ‘sexy’ Freud – it’s going to be intense.
More importantly, two acts have already confirmed, and I’m already excited about seeing them perform – Elaine O’Neil and Bethany Black – Transpose’s first stand-up comedy night. More information to follow – but, for the moment, Thursday October 30th at the Hackney Attic is what you need to write in your diaries.
I started Transpose three years ago, with the intention of raising funds for a friend and making some noise with fellow trans artist. I’m somewhat astounded, but incredible touched, by what it’s turned into – again, thank you. Transpose nights are some of my happiest memories – a chance to be with like-minded people, and share a lot of difficult, but important emotions – and a lot of laughter.
If you haven’t come along before, it would be wonderful to see you in October. Transpose has only two rules:
- Don’t make assumptions
- Don’t be a dick
All people are welcome, so long as they abide by those. I can’t promise that it’s a safe space – I don’t think it’s possible for one event to be safe for all people – but it is a respectful one, for artists as well as performers.
I hope you’re as excited about the next one as I am.
August 19, 2014 § 8 Comments
I can’t say it’s a particular favourite of mine, anymore than ‘trans’ is – after all, I’m not a fan of labels or dichotomies in general. But, with reservations, and in certain contexts, I do use those words, and find them helpful – and these are the reasons why.
There’s always a place of confusion, of divergence, whenever we begin talking about words that categorize and describe our genders/sexes. Are we talking about identities, or about structural categories? What does ‘identity’ mean in this context – the life lived, personal beliefs, actions, or a category freely chosen? What happens when the structural category one inhabits is at odds with what one feels about the self?
When I first found the word ‘transgender’, and knew that it could be applied to me, I didn’t ‘identify’ as it. That’s a question I get asked all the time: ‘when did you realise that you were trans?’. But it misses the reality of what happened. For years before I knew that there was that word, I knew that my body felt wrong – that I wanted to change it, that I was at odds with my external self, that I was at odds with the category I’d been placed in. It was only gradually, and with a lot of research, that I found that there was a word society gave to people like me – and that that word was ‘transgender’. It was liberating, in a way – but also a trap, and a label that came from outside myself, to try to reclaim.
In addition, it was coming to understand what the world around me meant by gender – how many things it meant by gender – and realising that I despised the enforced, hierarchical gender binary so much of the Western world seemed invested in propping up, and was determined to do my part in undermining it, challenging it.
That second point, that refusal to validate kyriarchal gender standards – is it transgender, or is it just a reasonable position for everyone to adopt? If it is inherently ‘trans’ then does ‘cis’ only apply to people who are happy to go along with sexist, limited ideas of gender? Does that turn ‘cis’ into a slur?
This is always where I feel that our ways of demarcating ‘trans’ fall down. We so often talk about ‘trans’ as though it refers to an essential part of a person – that it’s a noun that means a person (the way some newspapers use it: ‘a transgendered’). I much prefer the way that Leslie Feinberg uses it – that it can be a description of behaviours and ideas that transgress or queer oppressive notions of gender, or it can be a broad umbrella under which people can shelter, should they desire to – and there can be slippage between the two. You don’t have to prove that you’re ‘trans enough’. But neither would you have to use that word to describe yourself, even if what you do and believe challenges and transforms what we mean by sex/gender. Maybe it applies in some situations and not others. It’s a tool to be used.
So what is the point of the word ‘cis’ within this framework? I can see why some people would prefer not to use it, or have it used to describe them – they don’t go along with patriarchal sex/gender rules – but also don’t feel an affinity to the word ‘trans’. Certainly, all of the cis people dear to me could be counted here – emotionally and intellectually we are in the same position when it comes to gender, but they don’t feel comfortable calling themselves ‘trans’. But there is a reason why they do use the word cis to describe themselves, and it’s the reason I think we still need it.
To have the word ‘cis’ in usage is an acknowledgment of the fact that ‘trans’ is as much an oppressive category meted out by a binary society as it is a reclaimed term of pride. There are lines in the sand drawn all around gendered behaviours and bodies – and at different points in the crossing of those lines we are told that we are ‘trans’ for doing so. In an ideal world, my treatment of my body and my expression of myself would be unique and sacred to me – but that’s not even close to the world we live in. My experiences are demarcated from ‘the norm’ with that word – ‘trans’ – I am othered away – and in this structure it is vital that I have a word to describe the other side of this equation. Not to be petty, and not in a desire to label and limit where I am labelled and limited – but to truly illustrate the dichotomy at work.
Having the word ‘cis’ to use stops the situation from being presented as a broad band of ‘normal’ expression, and a small group of extremists who need a particular word to designate them as different. It highlights the absurdity of that system – how on earth can we accurately label everyone’s personal, detailed, changing experiences of sex/gender into two exclusionary boxes? And, yet, that is what society tries so often to do. To use the words ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ in public and political contexts is not to create that system – nor, hopefully, to sustain it – but to know the enemy and to fight it.
Transphobia is real – a daily occurrence for so many trans people. And we need a word to describe the fact that transphobia is not a natural and logical extension of that transness – something terrible, but the kind of thing that happens to minority groups. Bigotry is not natural or excusable. That term, ‘cis privilege’, which so many people seem to take umbrage at – it’s no more than an admission of transphobia, but turned around so as to highlight the injustice of its existence (as so many others writers have already said when talking about the term ‘privilege’ in similar contexts). It asks ‘why are some people spared this bigotry, and not others’? Why is it that you can be recognised by the state, participate in equal marriage, use a public bathroom safely, and I can’t? Why is it that my partner and I, having such a similar understanding of sex and gender, have such different public experiences of prejudice when it comes to gendered expression of ourselves?
These words, ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ – they’re blunt instruments. They can’t illuminate the majority, let alone the totality, of what a person is. But they can help us fight for a place where people are not assumed to be so easy to label – and to punish. If that word, ‘cis’, makes you angry – then please, direct that anger at the system which positioned you so in the first place. Don’t waste that rage at the people who pointed that system out – they’re the ones fighting too.
* Unless, of course, you don’t like the word ‘cis’ because you think that everyone who isn’t trans is just ‘normal’, and why should you have to have a word to describe you? For those people reading this – I don’t think you’re going to get much out of it. But you could try. That would be nice.