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Calling names and name-calling: gender terminology

  • Posted on February 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm

It’s a funny thing, but I still remember from 1986, the class roll-call. Every morning and afternoon, the Register. Alty, Anderson, Bird, Burkinshaw, Catton, Cookson – then me. Names stick. And somewhere down that list, O’Donovan will remember the half dozen names before his. They weren’t our real names of course. Budgie, Bugs, Pod were who we were. It didn’t matter what teachers called us, we identified each other differently; we knew each other, and if Bugs got his name for his front teeth, nobody minded.

One year, someone decided that Cookie should become Shirley. Now that was different. Were we all going to get girls’ names, and what did it mean? I felt very uncomfortable with what name I might get. It lasted a week or too, and it was a bad idea, so by consensus we dropped it. It was a boys’ school, you knew what to do to survive with minimal hassle, so for a while he was Copperknob instead (red hair!).

Naming ambiguity has been in the media, blogs and TV a lot in recent times. They always will be I guess. I remember discovering that in Australia Durex was something different, and much later, when doing my MBA, going into the fraught world of international brands. ‘Marathon’ chocolate bars sounded pretty robust, while the renamed ‘Snickers’ still sounds more like knickers to me, or a cheap snigger. Even that last word sounds dodgy these days.

Gender terminology

Despite the global vocabulary brought by the Internet, terms for gender and sexuality remain difficult. In one country or continent, the connotations (like pants) can be quite different. What we define in the UK as cross-dressing, as transgender, as gender-queer (again, ‘queer’ used to mean something else) and as transsexual, might be clearer than ever – but not everyone agrees. And terms almost become names, especially when someone is telling you what they think you are. The grammar is as tedious as school: what is the correct pronoun, when is a term only an adjective, not an adjectival noun? When is an abbreviation reserved (only a tranny can call a tranny a tranny) such that outsiders using it becomes offensive?

Any social group with commonalities will want to define, as we did at school, what the names mean. But the teachers weren’t wrong. We went and changed names mid-term – now that could be confusing! So it is with gender labels. There is a definite role for academia here, an academia that understands from the inside, not that makes it up from observation alone (remember quantum effects: the observer alters the state of the observed? It holds true for some social research too). And I think we should allow it, and if necessary bend to it, simply to achieve a reliable vocabulary that we can share with a bemused world.

The gender vocabulary needs to broad but clear, and allow for respect of many states. This week I have read comments online by lads who think gender-diversity means ‘weirdos’ who should (not could) be made fun of. And I have read as much from ‘lads’ who think banter about rape is OK, presumably because women are not equal as people to them. Worse, I have read hateful comments by trans people about other trans people who don’t fit their idea of sufficient authenticity, where one state of trans life and identity is real and another is mere pretence and deceit. Radical feminists can be truly hateful too about trans people not being ‘real’.

Naming middle genders

We need to describe the middle – the third states of gender – better, and trans people need to find their own place of comfort and true belonging without feeling someone else’s concept of gender authenticity must be their goal. Me? I don’t need to be a woman. I never really can be, and however much I risk my well-being to gain my dream breasts, or a better jaw or remodel my genitals, my bones were sculpted by testosterone, and I lived as a man for half a century. That has left an indelible mark. But before you shout at me because you need or needed maximal reassignment: I respect your choices and needs. I know without shadow of doubt that at one end of the spectrum, physical identity is absolute, and gender positivity places you in a traditionally binary place. Maybe one day it will for me too. But meanwhile for all the two-spirits, dual-gendered, female husbands, gender-queers, androgynes or whatever – there needs to be validation.

If you find you are on an unexpected journey (and unless your ticket is a lot clearer than mine), you really cannot know your destination. Knowing it probably won’t make it any easier, other than having some kind of end in sight. Gender dysphoria has degrees, and you don’t have to place yourself on the Benjamin scale or whatever right now if you don’t want. It might be useful later; maybe it will have changed later.

For now, I call myself transgender; I am crossing boundaries and I don’t know where it will end. At one level I have no choice, and at another I do have choices I can make. Finding my place, though, does mean I need a reliable description of where I am. Apparently, according to some comments I’ve had, I am just a man in a dress, assigned to fetishistic sidelines where frankly, I have never belonged – because their definition of transgender is terribly narrow and they own it!

I agree with Grrl Alex that it is quite legitimate to redefine by asserting individuality: you don’t have to do what anyone else does. You haven’t become another stereotype just because your gender discomfort has caught up with you.

We shall all remember the roll-call of gender terms, and hopefully definitions will become authoritative, but what we call ourselves does need to match (the more informed) academic study, and have clear meanings in the media playground and the world at large. Cookson? Cookie? Copperknob? Shirley? If you read this you’ll appreciate I was a friend, whatever; and Shirley was a bad idea at the time.

Of friends and vulnerability

  • Posted on February 19, 2012 at 6:01 pm

I don’t believe anyone trans comes out with complete confidence, ready-made, knowing all the best replies, happy to learn what you got wrong when someone ‘reads’ you and is rude (‘Hey! Thanks! That’s really useful! I’ll remember that next time.’), and shrugging off all the uncertainties of living in a new space. But it is one thing to learn to walk in heels, lift your voice naturally and believe in it, and quite another not to walk among strangers in the street, but face your best friend and tell them the news.

I have been extraordinarily comforted by friends who have asked about the nail polish, or the lengthening hair, and have listened to the short version of my story, and not just embraced something quite novel to their experience, but congratulated me on my honesty and courage, and wished me well. I have no problem talking to anyone who wants to know, even if in the end neither of us would say we quite understand! And so far, touch wood, no-one outside my family has criticised, doubted or scorned. OK, I don’t know what they say when I’ve gone, but on the whole the gossip grape-vine has remained quiet. Is it just that all along I’ve been a jolly nice person, a helpful go-out-of-my way sort of person? That I get involved, that I care? Maybe. And now I hope I just go on being all that, rather than getting angry, hurt, distrustful and self-protecting about being different.

Instead, I am in some ways being deliberately vulnerable. I don’t want to get locked inside a thick skin that changes my shape just so I don’t get hurt. I shall get hurt, of that I have no doubt, and some will call me naïve. But there’s a bit of me that says if I get seen to stand up for myself without getting bitter, it might help someone else do the same. If trans people are seen to be damaged, hurt and grouchy, they will never just be normal to everyone else. I’m OK with being trans. Even though it might cost pretty much everything I hold dear.

But telling your best friend? Ah.

Telling your wife and family is sort of inevitable, and kind as you are, however helpful in explaining, sharing books, talking it through, you know you have changed something pretty fundamental. (Have I broken a contract? For richer, for poorer … for maler or femaler?) Whatever I want, they have choices too, and they might break my heart. And there is nothing much I can do about that, because they have to know, in every detail, and forecast where I might be going before I even know myself.

Best friends are different. How much I say and when is up to me. We all say that friends who walk away are not really friends at all, but we know the ones we really don’t want to lose – because friends are our support network, the place we go when even things at home aren’t so hot. Independent advice, outside perspective and all that. And some friends are good for one thing, some for another. Best friends are those we expose our vulnerabilities to – and coming out as transgender is an extremely vulnerable time. If I tell a particular friend, it could make me feel a lot worse, a lot less supported, and lose me a key point in my network of a friend who can explain and support me to other friends.

I got to a point where a number of friends knew, among a lot of others who share my social space that did not. And the worst thing would be for a best friend, a close friend, to find out in the wrong way and feel I hadn’t trusted them. I did – but that didn’t stop me feeling scared to lose them or make them more distant. After all, I do appreciate that a lot of us, when challenged about being associated with something unusual, can suddenly lose commitment to avoid criticism. And being transgender is still like infecting or contaminating other people’s lives.

So for a long time I knew I had to bite the bullet with a particular friend: possibly change a friendship forever, with a history of deep sharing in difficult times over a number of years. And I did lose sleep over it, and I did put it off, and several times I nearly said what I had to say, only to duck at the last moment. I couldn’t ask for an urgent meeting because that would set a scare agenda; I just had to decide to make it the next available slot together.

Here’s some useful advice if you’re in the same place: tell a few other people that this is what you intend to do. Tell them your fears, and cut your escape route, knowing that at least there might be a bit of sympathy if it all goes wrong, because they are going to ask you how it went.

I told my best friend over coffee a few days ago. I said she hadn’t said anything about my nails, hair, bracelets, rings … the day she turned up in my garden, and my trousers and t-shirt weren’t quite male enough, and my toes were pink. ‘Oh!’ she said ‘I didn’t think I needed to say anything. I thought you were just expressing your feminine side. I’ve always known that was strong in you.’

For her, I am just the same person, illuminated a bit more starkly perhaps, but my happiness is part of the friendship, and now I know I have another pillar in my life for when things don’t go quite so well. The transgender experience is one of vulnerability, and sometime you can feel like the butterfly at the end of summer, but it’s the colours that keep you going, hopping flowers on the breeze instead of chewing leaves. And my friend has made some things suddenly seem a lot easier. I thank her from the bottom of my heart.

Are you a man?!

  • Posted on February 11, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Hey! Mister Transvestite!
Are you a man?!

The small white car, the window wound,
the girlfriend to impress, observance
in the absence of sight or sense – all
wound into the tightness of a mind
so glazed it couldn’t see out of itself.

Not spoken, not enquired,
but shouted – all up the wide unpeopled
traffic-busy street, wounding open summer
windows – while my mind is unconcerned
to even air such self-evidential things.
His, too small to enclose the size of a reply.

The street received his words – so good
at collecting litter, dust, detritus – I thought
to turn and answer; but who? The girl –
does he always behave like this? The man –
yes, I suppose I am a man (if I’m a transvestite)
but a nice one; and you?

The T-word is not a word I like to use – reserved
for self-assurance over a glass, regretted afterwards
because it was said in expectation, in place of
a better term, more understanding, more
politically correct, accepting and descriptive –
but I shall use it. He was a twat.

And if anything hung there in my thoughts,
it was the girl, who saw me at the crossroads
looked again and told ‘her man’. I hoped
she saw two people as themselves: me and him –
saw one with quiet confidence, and another
with his certainties insultingly plain.

The small white car, its windows wound,
diminished having made no mark, except
inside. Two people were slightly changed
that sunny afternoon, after the jokes, the self-
congratulatory jibes, and the transvestite who
made their day – walked away, and defined a man.

2011 © Andie Davidson

From the new collection Realisations published by Bramley Press.

It’s your problem, not mine

  • Posted on February 11, 2012 at 6:12 pm

When I pull up the meditation cushions and feel myself in every detail resting on the earth, hands in my lap, eyes at rest, focusing on my breathing and being present, being in the now, I find peace. I don’t need any approval, I don’t need any definition or description, and I genuinely can cultivate loving-kindness within myself.

I am at peace with myself and the world: everything flows and belongs, and I know I can deal with anything in a spirit of wholeness. It’s real – not an illusion or separation from the world; I just know that I belong, that I need no approval or permission to be what or who I am. I leave my gender behind too, except that strangely I know I am female in this state. I lose awareness of all my male parts and feel the presence of female parts, and it is comforting, though not essential.

My fears dissipate too, as if I simply know that there is no harm ultimate enough to destroy my being, and that hurts faced well are not enduring harms. But no, I can’t yet live like this nearly enough of the time, and I don’t pull up my cushions often enough to improve things. But it does help.

A while ago I settled on this thought:

There is no hurt except that which we take to ourselves.

I still think it is true, and remember early days out in female trans mode, when perhaps I hadn’t developed finesse so well, or drew attention by being too self-aware. I did get some abuse, and one incident is memorable. A young ‘man’ with girlfriend beside him in his car, wound down his window as he launched out across a dual carriage way, and shouted up the street:

‘Are you a man?!’

‘Hey! Mister Transvestite! Are you a man?!’

Maybe there was more, but it was more a case of a duck’s back than an elephant’s hide. If he had not been in such a vulnerable position halfway across streams of traffic, I had every intention of walking back and responding with something like ‘Yes, I suppose I am to you, but I am a nice one. Are you a man? And (in the direction of his girlfriend perhaps) a nice one?’

I don’t mind explaining to anyone that I am transgender and what it means. Maybe it helps when others like me can’t handle being challenged. But the main thought was that this person had a problem, not me. He had some deep-seated need to impress his girlfriend with his bold manliness – to show he was the real man around here, that he was the clever, observant one who had ‘spotted the tranny’ (I hope she was more embarrassed than impressed, but maybe not). Why was it not just unusual to him to see me? Why was it not enough to just comment to his girlfriend that he thought he’d seen a trans person (like: Goodness, I’ve just seen a yellow pillarbox!) Why did he need to seek to expose and embarrass another person in public? Why did he need to impress?

I don’t have a problem, I’m just transgender. But him? Sadly I had to leave him with his problem.

And that takes me to recent Twitterings, comments left on news media online, Facebook trails etc., where an aggressive, loud and highly abusive ‘lad’ culture has repeatedly overstepped the bounds of not just politeness, common decency and tolerance, but has been illegal and menacing, representing rape as acceptable, all women as worthless except for use in aggressive sex, and loud young men as setting every agenda with no possibility of being challenged. And Tweets to transgender sites to say that all trans people should be killed. All blatantly homophobic, transphobic or misogynist.

Do we have a problem? Clearly they do, but whilst I could have been just nice back to the sad person in the car, what damage is this culture likely to do to wider society? In the case of the Unilad magazine online that carried the endorsements to rape (in reader comments), it was stopped. It was clearly illegal, and with astute screen captures of the online conversation as it went on, incontrovertible. It wasn’t argued with, it was dealt with. But reading a follow-up article by a university student in The Guardian decrying the culture, lo and behold the same laddish culture streamed out below the piece, protesting that this kind of abusive talk was just a joke – ‘Can’t you see the funny side?!’ And what I found just as disturbing was girls who agreed: ‘We trash boys in our humour too!’ So it’s just quid pro quo and the world goes on. I (we, society) have no need to worry, because they don’t have a problem. Karma is balanced.

Is it?

I was sorry that I didn’t speak with the young ‘man᾿ in the car and his girlfriend, because someone else would get his rudeness and he would not have moved on personally either. I am sorry that some girls share the laddish culture, because I think it does affect their sense of self-worth and self-esteem and right to take a lead. Why do they need to take the hurt by being hurtful? It is not acceptable! So why engage with the problems that these ‘lads’ have? I want them all to be better than this: to discover what it is to be a whole person, to be loving and to be kind.

So whilst it isn’t my problem, I shall draw theirs into my meditation so I am always well-prepared to respond when their culture overlaps mine, not to accept any hurt, and to address their problem with kindness and show it as it is, unacceptable, but just not necessary.

I am transgender, and I am kind and loving. What are you?

 

Hands

  • Posted on February 9, 2012 at 10:28 pm

This is your lover’s hand –
fingers in hair teasing out your day
or disentangling dreams.

It is broad as your memories,
strong as the love you ever felt,
gentle as on a sleeping child.

This is your lover’s hand –
light on smooth breasts, loving
them, that announce you woman –

still adoring the swell and curve –
a hand that sees with night vision
and treads so lightly on your skin.

This is your lover’s hand
and, if not quite the hand of a man
or of a woman – how is its touch?

When these lover’s fingers
part you, probe you, decide
which thigh to walk before the other,

travel, and return with gifts
of touch and tenderness to
speak to you only about love –

which part inside of you,
head, heart or belly, reads:
‘this is my lover’s hand’?

Speak to this hand –
tell these fingers at your face that
you have a lover’s hands too.

*

This is your hand – let it love
where once it found coarse hair
and is pressed – on absent breasts,

on your lover’s lace and silk – inviting
an attention you never imagined
when welcoming their hand on yours.

This is your hand – let it inform
your heart, your head, your belly –
not your sex, your gender, parts –

no, not those necessary parts,
those instructions to your eyes
that reassure your nature.

Just let this hand in giving
share with the hand that loves
and simply touch, uniquely.

As lovers do.

From the new collection Realisations published by Bramley Press.

See also: The truth can sting for thoughts on choice, love and emerging as transgender.
2012 © Andie Davidson