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 firstname.lastname@example.org – see http://judeorlandoenjolras.wordpress.com/ for updates and extracts.
November 7, 2014 § 9 Comments
One of the most popular search terms to lead to this blog is one variant or other on ‘what do you do if you think you’re trans?’. I’ve been wondering for awhile if I should write something to order – useful steps to take, useful places to contact.
The thing is – there are already so many guides out there – for young people, for UK people, for the families of young people, for university students, for people who like videos. I don’t feel like there’s anything I can do better than the standard advice given: contact support groups, read up, be kind to yourself, explore your options, gather your support network, know your rights.
But there is one thing I haven’t seen anywhere, that I’d like to add.
For anyone who’s just starting out on the path of realising that they’re trans/transitioning – hell, for those of us who’ve been doing this for years – one very basic rule:
Find a space/activity which has nothing at all to do with being trans, and keep it sacred.
Not because being trans is a bad thing to escape from – but because no one can manage without at least a little respite from transphobia and cissexism.
Because there’s a bone deep despair and exhaustion that comes from battling against ignorance (at best) and oppression and outright abuse (at worst) all day, every day.
Because we all need a place where we can just be without having to defend our right to be.
Because we need to let our guard down sometimes.
Because it’s so, so easy to run yourself into the ground trying to right the wrongs of the world, and do your part to ease the collective pain of other trans people – but your resources are not limitless.
Because fuck it – we all need a space to forget about trangst, and forget about the pressures of how we’re read and – if we can – forget about our dysphoria – and remember that we are multi-faceted creatures.
For me it’s often music – and when that’s work, it’s cooking. Because browning onions has nothing to do with people asking me what surgeries I’ve had, and I can lose myself in the rhythm of chopping and stirring and not have to be aware of how other people are judging me. For other people it might be gaming, knitting, painting, walking, woodwork, gardening – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it brings you out of the self that has to deal with the world’s shit surrounding sex and gender – and brings you closer to the core of the self that’s free to exist without justification.
I know that this is a very simple thing – but, I think, something that we can too easily ignore. I know it’s something that I too often ignore. But it makes a big difference for me, when I don’t ignore it, and I hope it will do the same for you.
October 21, 2014 § 9 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?