February 17, 2015 § 9 Comments
You can learn a lot about masculinity when you’re consistently told that your own is invalid.
Mainstream media shows no sign of stopping its love affair with the ‘masculinity in crisis’ storyline. It’s the apparent reason behind Gamergate, and rape culture, and the abuse of women online, and the baffling appeal of Christian Grey. In a world that’s become too feminist (if only), the easiest way for men and boys to prove their masculinity is to lash out at everything perceived as feminine or womanly. That’s the hypothesis, anyway. The usual solution offered is a return to ‘traditional values’ – and a limiting of feminist options.
I might not be a man – but I would put myself under the broader banner of trans masculine. More than that, I’ve learnt so much about masculinity and maleness – what they mean in practice, the questions around them, the nebulous idea of social categorisation* – from the trans men in my life, and from the trans people who would sometimes, always or occasionally inhabit a space broadly recognisable as ‘masculine’.
I think the idea that ‘too much feminism’ is causing a crisis in masculinity is bullshit.
But – something you do realise, when you have to fight the world for the right to be seen as yourself – is that this space of ‘masculinity’ is surrounded by barriers and tests meant to force you into proving yourself a ‘real man’. Mainstream societal masculinity puts itself in a crisis state: to protect itself, to reject calls for gender reform and justice, to make itself seem valuable and desirable. It creates a narrative of being under attack, and asks to be defended. It paints itself as being rare – and asks that its challenges be met before entry to the club can be granted.
And then it does something else – something seductive, and so easy to fall into. It gives you cheats codes. Society doesn’t just provide them – it pressures you into using them, to show that you’re ‘just one of the guys’. The temptation can be overwhelming, when you’re being undermined at every turn – I’ve certainly succumbed in the past – but what I’ve learnt from the trans people I admire most is that there’s another way.
You don’t have to be trans to have learnt that. Not every trans person will, or will want to – because it keeps them safer, or makes life easier, or because those stereotypes and cheat codes match the way they think of the world and themselves. Trans men/trans masculine people are not a magical subset of people graced with an innate superiority to cis men. Some of them are just as misogynistic, just as oppressive, as any cis guy. But when you have to fight to be heard, to be believed – when the world around you has treated you like a girl and/or a woman as its default setting** – then I think it gives you the opportunity to broaden your mind, and think about what it really means to be a man, to be masculine.***
I wish more cis men – and mainstream society in general – could learn just three things:
1. It’s not about your body
As a response to: It’s ALL about your body. And particularly about your cock.
Cheat codes: mocking guys who are fatter/thinner/different from you, using the size/type/presence of someone’s cock as an insult/weapon, policing and abusing women and other feminine people’s bodies to make you feel better
So, the world at large still believes that man=penis, woman=absence of penis – phallocentric, transmisogynistic, transphobic – and incredibly limiting. That’s not an area I’m enormously dysphoric about, and, still, I’ve felt a huge amount of pressure to ‘make up’ for the fact that I don’t have a cisnormative cock – by being more muscular, more typically attractive, more typically masculine. I feel weird about admitting this now, because I’m worried that some people will judge me as less trans, and less masculine. In a broader bodily sense, I used to worry about transitioning – in part because I was worried that I would never live up to a standard of masculine attractiveness. It felt like it would be better to be perceived as an attractive woman, rather than ‘fail’ at being masculine in the eyes of the world.
One of the things I found incredible, transformative, when I started exploring the trans community, are the people (of all genders) who allow their bodies to be reflections of who they are - not the other way around. Most pertinent here are the men, trans masculine people, who follow their own internal dictates as to how their bodies should be. That what kind of cock you have, and whether you have one at all, should be for you to decide – not the government, not the media. That you get to decide how your body and your gender entwine. That dysphoria varies from person to person – and we all need to find a personal solution to what makes us feel most like us.
What would the world look like, if we didn’t automatically assume that genitals indicated gender, that a penis is somehow better than anything else (on a man), and that a cisnormative penis is the only one worth having? How much kinder would it be, if self-worth wasn’t predicated on how many inches you have in your pants, whether those inches can conform to an incredibly narrow standard of appearance and performance? How much safer would the world be, if we didn’t suppose that one kind of body is ‘strong’ and another ‘weak’ – and that to prove that the strong kind is really worthy it must be hardened as much as possible? With no care, no tenderness, no regard for health – and no regard for the care, health and safety of others?
2. Male privilege is real
And making it worse to prove yourself is a shit move
As a response to: Actually, men are the most oppressed now
Cheat codes: Capitalising on your privilege to make yourself feel bigger, stronger, safer, better – objectification, catcalling, belittling – sexist shit towards people of other genders
One incredible aspect of trans experience that has yet to be fully mined is the knowledge gleaned from experiencing different treatment at the hands of those around us, based on the gender they perceive or assume.
If anyone is still wondering if male privilege is actually a thing (I hope you’re not), then the experiences of neurobiologist Ben Barres provide essential reading. Remaining in the same line of work, post-transition, he’s noticed an incredible difference in the way he’s treated by fellow scientists – his work is considered better, more legitimate, his views more respected. It’s an experience I’ve heard anecdotally from so many of the people I know. Being read as male doesn’t negate the other ways in which people face discrimination – this piece from Kai M. Green on the intersection of racial profiling and oppression with gendered ideas of being in the world is essential – but, for many people, in different ways, it confers an advantage.
And if you’re being forced to prove which ‘side’ you’re on? To prove that you’re not really a girl? That you’re deserving of the privilege of being male? Even five-year-olds know how this one goes: you make the girls cry to earn your place in the boys’ treehouse. Maybe it’s not as bad as deliberately making them cry – maybe it’s making a show of ogling a woman in front of your friends, or talking crap about them while in all male company. Maybe they’ve serve the dual function of proving you belong in an gay all male environment – insulting bodies read as female or feminine. What that does – turning women and feminine people into props and accessories used to reinforce masculinity, regardless of their feelings, or how much it hurts them – is unacceptable. I’m not going to repeat the ‘real men don’t’ line – it’s not a question of being a ‘real man’ – it’s being a decent human being. There are millions of men in the world who don’t place harmful notions of proving themselves over the foundational aspect of being basically decent.
And if trans men, trans masculine people, who are forced to prove themselves over and over again, with the threat of prejudice, abuse and violence hanging over their heads – if they, if we can do that without resorting to sexism, then cis men can do it too.
3. Life’s too precious to let cultural expectations hold you back from your own truth
As a response to: That’s just how men are, and how they’ve always been
Cheat codes: Denigrating anyone who tries to be themselves, or challenge an aspect of the world around them, hiding in cynicism and apathy because it’s easier, becoming numb to world around you because it’s too hard to challenge
Again – it’s not like trans masculine people, trans men, have the monopoly here. But the struggles we face, just to be ourselves – it really brings it home. If we’re able, we can learn so much about who we are, who we can be, the price of that, and also the value.
There are plenty of cis guys who know this already – and plenty who have to play by some of the rules, at least, to be safe.
But for the cis men who are safe, who’ve never had to fight for it, who go along with a status quo and don’t ask themselves why they do it, or how it came to be: why?
Why bow down to a legacy not of your making, rather than remaking yourself as you might be?
So, what if the traditional model of masculinity is in crisis? What if it has been destroyed by a greater awareness of gendered inequality and oppression, a shift towards gendered justice? If a category that encompassed all kinds of harmful behaviour is being stretched, twisted, subverted, remodelled?
We’re still here.
So why don’t we get our hands dirty, and build something better?
* Yes, I’m still genderqueer – also very fond of questions
** Just to be very clear that being a girl/woman is not a bad thing – and that trans masculine people/trans men do not transition in order to ‘escape womanhood’ for something ‘better’.
*** I get that this is an ‘all about teh menz’ post. But I think one of the best things guys could do for feminism is to interrogate the way men, masculine people, are supposed to be, to behave, and find better ways of being in the world.
January 10, 2015 § 4 Comments
This Sunday, 8pm GMT – I’m performing a free live-streamed gig at
Why tune in? Three reasons:
- This is what the critics have to say:“The music was faultless. Mesmerising, beautiful, emotional and raw.” – DIVA
“…a powerful combination of intensely personal lyrics, CN’s skill at the piano and an ethereal voice. The musical arrangements are moving and immersive, the words deeply poetic – elusive and allusive – offering something new on each occasion; it is rare to find lyrics of this depth and quality. Aether is an album from an artist who is not only an incredibly talented singer and pianist but also someone aware of the power and subtlety of language.” – Polari magazine
“When it comes to describing CN Lester’s music, there aren’t enough adjectives synonymous with ‘gorgeous’. We’re only resisting that much maligned phrase ‘achingly beautiful’ by sitting on our hands.” – For Folk’s Sake
- This is what my fans have to say:
“Heart-wrenchingly beautiful songs from a phenomenally talented singer. If you can listen to this without tearing up at least a little then you’re made of sterner stuff than me.”
“Beautiful, stunning, disarming.”
“Deeply moving, imaginative, transformative”
- If you’re a reader of this blog, then I think you might well like my music – not just like it, but maybe want to support it. I like to make songs that you can think over, think with – and those kinds of songs – particularly from a trans singer – need all the word of mouth help they can get. I can make you a deal: I have the music – give me 45 minutes of your time. I promise I’ll make it worth your while.
January 6, 2015 § 16 Comments
It’s far enough into January that most of us have had time to break the usual New Year’s resolutions, if we bother to make them at all. But for all the cis (non-trans) people reading this, I have a challenge for you – one that would actually make a real difference.
Do you genuinely believe that trans people are as authentic, as real, as you are?
Maybe that seems like an odd question to ask. I’m not the first trans person to say that 2014 felt like a transformative year for trans rights: greater public awareness, more mainstream support, a broader understanding of what it is to be trans, and of why it’s wrong to discriminate against us. Laverne Cox was all the rage, Janet Mock’s debut book achieved critical and commercial success, and here in the UK our most prominent children’s channel broadcast a programme made by trans kids, aimed at kids, explaining trans issues.
With that, I was going to write this as a somewhat academic essay – looking at the inroads we’ve made versus a lack of basic understanding – the assumptions that still hamper a full acceptance of trans people’s realities. But then the past week and a half happened.
Leelah Alcorn’s suicide. Eylül Cansın’s suicide. The brutal attack on Samantha Hulsey and her partner – and the subsequent refusal of the police to investigate that attack under hate crime legislation.
They are not the only trans people who’ve died, been attacked, been treated as less than fully human in this time frame – but these are the stories I’ve seen shared and shared and shared, in grief and in outrage, by trans people that I know. And what I wanted to say changed – into this:
Despite the progress that’s been made, there still feels like there’s a crucial lack of understanding, of support, when it comes to broader questions of trans acceptance – and that lack feels like gap between the unquestioned authenticity of a cis person, and the often-debated, often-disbelieved authenticity of a trans person.
Authenticity – the unwavering acceptance that someone’s life, someone’s self, is the real thing. That the basic facts and details of someone’s existence are true.
We have passive support from those who accept trans rights as part of a general liberal mindset – the ‘I may not agree or understand, but it’s their right to do as they see fit’. We might well have well-meaning support from those who care about human rights, who don’t want others to suffer – the ‘I can’t imagine how hard it must be, and it’s just not kind to discriminate’.
But both of those approaches lack the foundational, unswerving belief that trans people are truly the equal in veracity to cis people. Far, far too often, even with those who putatively support trans people, there is an acceptance that our lives are up for debate. These debates are not usually framed as being about our existence, naturally – but make no mistake: a debate about whether it’s valid to support trans people, about whether it’s valid to believe that we’re sinful, about whether trans people are really the genders/sexes we say that we are is a debate about our existence.
Don’t get me wrong – we need open, considered, diverse debates about gender and sex. What is gender? What is sex? How do they come about? How and why do beliefs about them change? How has society arrived at its various beliefs, and why? How can we change things to make for a more just future? All of this is vital.
What’s not needed are debates that delegitimize, insult and disbelieve trans people. We do not need cis people eager to play devil’s advocate and indulge in such harmful ‘debates’ when real trans people are suffering and dying.
It’s not up for debate that it was wrong for Leelah Alcorn’s parents to privilege their woefully ignorant theoretical beliefs about trans existence over the life of their actual trans daughter.
It’s not up for debate that the constant disbelief, hostility and undermining of trans legitimacy that runs rampant thoughout contemporary society created the world described thus by Eylül Cansın: “I couldn’t because people did not let me. I couldn’t work, I wanted to do stuff, I couldn’t… You get me? They impeded with me many times; they made me suffer a lot.”
It’s not up for debate that the idea that trans women are not really women (and trans men are not really men, other trans people are just making it up) led to Samantha Hulsey’s would-be-killer claiming that she had ‘defrauded’ him simply by existing.
Maybe a trans person’s truth is not your truth. Maybe their way of knowing who they are is not the same as yours (although it might well be). Maybe this one particular trans person over here is radically different from you – though this other trans person over here might prove remarkably similar. What, at the end of the day, does it matter?
Truth is not a finite resource. Neither is empathy.
We need concrete action, going forward: an end to ‘conversion therapy’, proper support for trans victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, proper care for homeless trans people, a joined-up activism that understands and acts on the many other oppressions trans people face.
But, to achieve that, we need a change in attitudes. Some people are already there. Some people are changing. But until full and total belief in trans people’s lived truth is a popular position, we need to keep asking:
Do you really believe that a trans person is as authentically human, as truthful about themselves, as deserving of belief, protection and respect as you are?
And if not – what are you going to do to get to that place of belief?
December 22, 2014 § 89 Comments
We need a better way to talk about trans children.
Christmas is the hardest time of the year for me. Not for the reasons why it’s so hard for so many trans people – their reasons first, and then mine.
This time of year brings it home – in mundane, everyday little ways – that trans people are so often people without families. Or, rather, without families of origin – by necessity, we’ve become adept at building our families of choice. A facebook status asking for a donation to help homeless trans teenagers, or a recommendation for a trans-friendly shelter for victims of domestic violence – overwhelming numbers of empathetic responses rooted in experience. Invitations to alternative festive events, on days when most people are expected to find themselves with parents, grandparents, the in-laws. Survival guide blog posts for those trying to face their family of origin – knowing that it will mean misgendering and confusion at best – confrontation and abuse at worst. All of that with the same message spouted by festive adverts and TV specials playing in the background, that Christmas is the time for family, for understanding and compassion – just not for certain types of people.
For me, it has nothing to do with being trans. Seven years ago, my brother Jonathan – my best and closest friend – died on Christmas night, after two and a half years of constant treatment for brain cancer. He was twenty years old.
I admit that, initially, there seems little point in bringing together these two tragedies: one so personal, yet affecting so many people across the world – and another born of systemic, cultural cruelty towards a misunderstood minority, not common enough to be regularly reported on. And yet the two come together in my mind because of a turn of phrase so often used by parents of trans children – in the mainstream media and reported back in conversations.
“It felt like my child had died.” And worse, words either hurled or spat out in anger – or delivered calmly with practical procedure: “you’re dead to me”.
My family is in the fairly unusual position of having had one child transition, and one child die – and with that, I can and must say that the two events are not comparable. More than that – we shouldn’t continue to treat them as though they were comparable – not personally, not socially.
The second, I’m sure, most people would agree is unacceptable – but I know, already, the reasons given for allowing the first. It might be hyperbole, yes, but surely that’s allowed for someone who’s had a shock? Who’s found out something new and different about their child? Who’s mourning the loss of their dreams and expectations? All change brings its own form of grief – and finding out that a child is trans can (in some cases – not all) be change on all kinds of fronts.
Of course it’s true that grief is a necessary part of change – but change is not bereavement. This isn’t a pedantic or semantic argument, but something at the core of our misunderstandings about what it is to be trans. Death is the end of possibility – transition is its opposite.
It matters that we continue to allow and expect those words. Not only because it’s an inaccurate and harmful way of talking about trans people in general, though it is that: normal up to a point and then BAM – announcement, transition, different person. But more – when using those phrases in the context of relationships, families, parents and children – it feeds into a culture where young trans lives are not only theoretically devalued, but are genuinely more at risk.
PACE and Scottish Transgender Alliance have the numbers, and they’re shocking. Young trans people are nearly twice as likely to attempt suicide as their cis (non-trans) peers. Suicide and self-harm are often complicated, and rarely have one cause – young people with loving and supportive families still die from suicide – but isolation, rejection and family abuse are powerful contributing factors in the deaths of many trans people.
Hopefully, most parents who use those words don’t mean them literally – although it’s important to remember that some do. Still, when trans people are told, openly and by implication, that they are less valid, less ‘real’, less valued, less loveable – then those words do not exist in a vacuum. They come from somewhere – they ripple out and cause change. It can feel like we’re worth more as a memorialized, idealized, supposedly ‘cis’ child than we are as living trans people of all ages. When a child telling the truth is comparable to a dead child, what does that say about the truth of who they are?
And so hearing those words – hearing them when you know the impact those words have had, knowing that so many trans people will die from suicide – knowing people in our community who’ve died from suicide – they matter. And it makes me want to grab the parents that say those words, in public and in private, and say to them:
A trans child is not trying to cram lifetime’s worth of ‘I love yous’ into the last few weeks you have left – or never having the chance to say ‘goodbye’ at all. Not keeping watch over the body of what used to be your loved one until the undertakers arrive, and not picking out a coffin, writing a funeral service, making sure the death certificate’s in order. Not – after all the ceremonies surrounding death have been completed – facing that constant, gnawing absence that can never be filled, and trying to make a life with half your heart gone.
The arms that hold you might be more or less muscular than they were, and the voice higher or lower – but they are there. The life your child is living might be different from how you imagined it – it might, in fact, be similar in all but outward appearance – but it is a life. Children confound and challenge their parents, and trans children are no different. But that’s the point – we’re no different. Being trans is not some category apart, some terrible thing that severs people from each other – it’s just another variety of being human. All children grow up to be their own people – that’s all. It’s not a death sentence, let alone a death.
I’m not so hopelessly optimistic that I think that a short think piece like this would change the minds of the kinds of people who abuse their trans children, emotionally blackmail them into pretending not to be themselves, turn them out of home, cut them off practically, financially and emotionally. But if you’re reading this and have a suspicion that your child might be trans – or are having difficulties accepting a trans child, the practicalities, even the idea – please reach out. Reach out to the amazing groups like Mermaids and Gendered Intelligence who help families with trans kids. Reach out and fill your brain with the writing, the art, being made by young trans people – the communities we’re creating for our families and friends. Most of all, reach for the possibility that the narrative you’ve been sold about trans lives is reductive, limiting bullshit – the actuality of who we are and can be is so much more than that.
Transition is not death – it is the embracing of life. So many trans people – even trans children – can only find the words to name themselves to another when they’ve reached the limit of what they can endure. To take that step, to trust someone enough to share that with, in the hope of building a better future – that’s the opposite of a dead child. It’s a child full of possibility. We owe it to them to repay that trust and help them to live.
This post was written after many long conversations with my mother, Rosemarie. I am so, so thankful to have her in my life.
December 10, 2014 § 10 Comments
The game is afoot.
Or, rather, it’s now officially afoot. If you’ve been following my music for a while, you’ll already know that I have a bit of a thing about how ideas around gender – and gender discrimination – work in the musical world. So, from January, I’m taking that thing and turning it into a performance doctorate at the Centre for the Study of Music, Gender and Identity (MuGI) at University of Huddersfield.
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I hope it’ll pique the interest of some of you reading now. Why does one type of person end up symbolising ‘the composer’ or ‘the artist’, to the exclusion of others? Why do some pieces of music enter the canon and not others? What do audiences hear, when what they see is interpreted along culturally conditioned gender lines? How does the gender (actual or perceived) of the performer enter into this? How are we going to make things better?
I’ll be charting my doctoral studies online – blogging, livestreaming, discussions, surveys, audio, new manuscript editions – so do please watch this space for new links and content.
And before that?
This Friday (December 12th) I’ll be hosting a talk/discussion on gender and music at the London Feminist Library. Entry is free, the wine will be plentiful, and I’ll do my best to bring cookies. 7:30pm start time – bring your opinions, come join a lovely informal debate.
I’m following the theoretical with the practical – Saturday (December 13th) is a performance of Baroque music written by the often neglected, often maligned Barbara Strozzi. A poet, vocalist, composer – as well as a single mother, illegitimate child, unmarried woman – it’s fascinating/depressing to realise how so many sexist tropes leveled against working women today were leveled against Strozzi then. Her music is witty, moving, catchy, inventive gold – if you haven’t heard her before, you’re in for something special. 7:30pm start at St Peter’s Vauxhall - tickets £10/7 on the door – and 2-for-1 entry for those who came to the Friday debate.
When I was at school, I was told there were no women composers. When I was at university, I was told that there were no women composers worth bothering about, and that trans people of all kinds didn’t have a place in music. I’m really excited to get to do something that challenges those lies.
December 4, 2014 § 7 Comments
Because I didn’t know that people like me existed.
I’ve been wanting to write this piece for a long time – and have been scared of writing it for just as long. And now The Toast have published it, and I’d love to know what you think.
December 1, 2014 § Leave a comment
Unless you’re one of the lucky people, like myself, who got a review copy- or one of the savvy ones who snapped up a hardback – you definitely won’t have read Poems for the Queer Revolution yet. But trust me on this – get in line for the paperback release. This international, intersectional collection of poems, essays and musical prose is a necessary and timely addition to the queer anthology catalogue.
The collaborative nature of this book goes back to its beginnings – main author and editor Jude Orlando Enjolras started the project after positive feedback on Twitter, and the production has been made possible by crowdfunding. For me, this is Queer Revolution‘s greatest strength – its constant reference to and reliance on solidarity, community and multiplicity. To steal one of the author’s phrases, this volume contains “dissent within dissent” – but there is companionship to be found within that. The multiple voices, multiple viewpoints presented here complicate and call out to each other, presenting a web of relationships built through acknowledgment of difference and the wonder of connection, rather than a supposed unity built upon imaginary/enforced sameness.
Grouped into themes, this is a long work, and I would advise a gradual reading, dipping in and out. Not all of pieces appealed to me in style, but that in itself is a valuable point in Queer Revolution‘s favour – the unique voice of each contributor is not smoothed over, but allowed to stand for itself.
By and large, the subject matter and themes are not easy or light – these are poems about struggle, survival and the costs of each. And, yet, as contributor Hel Gurney says: “I would turn a prison into a playground”. For me, that is one of the most vital elements contained within the word ‘queer’ – an irreverent yet sincere defiance rooted in love, mockery and a giddy awareness of the limitations of rule and order. Poems for the Queer Revolution has that feeling in abundance.
Jude Orlando Enjolras’ poetry, making up around half of this collection, reads (to me) very much as a dialogue with the audience. This is not poetry that ends at the page, but an elastic give and take with the person reading. Poetry here is not some separate thing but a foundational form of communication, parsing thought between thinkers. That slippage between a ‘high art’ form and ‘ordinary’ speech is just one set of dichotomies the poet works with: the stage vs. everyday life, the mundane vs. the extraordinary, dreams vs. waking – all are subject to confusion and cross-contamination. There is a sense of brimming over, a flooding of vitality, of richness, of passionate defiance – hard and tender at the same time.
I must admit my bias – I have worked with several of the writers presented here, and respect their poetry. But it isn’t because of that foreknowledge that I recommend this book – it’s because of the breadth and necessity of talent presented here. It’s not just the way in which these messages are conveyed – as beautifully as they are conveyed, in many cases – it’s because these are messages that must be heard. These are people who, so often told that they are nothing, relegated to a place of nothingness, have created entire worlds. It is a gift to be invited to share them.
Good for: queer libraries of all kinds, people looking to understand intersectional womanist, feminist, and/or trans and queer movements, a life raft.
Bad for: Reading all at once, people who don’t want to leave their comfort zone.
Goes with: Late nights high on coffee, working on your own revolution.
You can pre-order a copy of Poems for the Queer Revolution by emailing email@example.com – see http://judeorlandoenjolras.wordpress.com/ for updates and extracts.