I have a lasting memory of black and gold religious icons of a revered madonna. Mysterious, impassive, unjoyous. And I have abiding memories from my religious experiences of feeling that something about me was deeply wicked and unspeakable. Somehow there was a connection, and patriarchy and male enforcement was common ground. This is deeply feminist, but I do not mean to offend anyone. However, largely as a result of religious views, I had no voice; I could not speak. I was illegitimate. Icons are part of our culture still, if not religious. But they are co-opted, made by and for…
We have evolved and survived – we being every living creature on this planet – through expert pattern recognition of things that matter most. For a bacterium, perhaps a chemical signature, for a bat an auditory echo, for an antelope, stripes moving the wrong way in tall grass, for a human, maybe a facial expression or the face itself. In fact our senses are all designed for pattern recognition, to know food from poison, welcome from warning, friend from foe, mate from challenger.
But for us as humans it has become incredibly complex. An actor is not really threatening you; their terrifying violence will become beans on toast as soon as the camera stops or the curtains close. And we thrive on novelty and invention, so the challenge of the unfamiliar is always with us. Sometimes we lose and a real danger is not spotted: insecticide toxins, environmental disaster, over-confidence is a dangerous place, early experiments with radioactive substances. Sometimes we win, and a new invention raises our game, an unexpected relationship becomes love, a crowded room of strangers becomes a welcome.
Military technology that deflects radar enquiry (stealth) removes pattern from the response. Signals are absorbed, scattered and confused. You don’t get back a clear picture, or any meaningful picture or signature at all. It’s better than being ‘under the radar’. Its purpose is to confuse, to be invisible, so that an infiltrating mission, aggressive or surveillance, can go undetected.
As a borrowed term, I am very uncomfortable with adopting it for living as a transsexual woman. I am not intending to deceive anyone, but neither do I want to stand out. I want to adopt normality, not invisibility, and as trans* people do gain more acceptability in society, the fear factor will reduce. Being ‘found out’ is not something I want to happen. I want the conversation always to be:
‘You’re trans, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
In other words, my pattern has been noticed but it means I am friend not foe.
But this is a very difficult one indeed, because being trans* is not like being gay or lesbian or bi. I do not need another trans* person in order to have a relationship that is normal to me, whereas being gay or lesbian does. So I may need to be openly lesbian whilst not openly trans*. Being trans* is a diagnosis that has treatment to make you as un-trans* as possible. I used to think I had to live as if I was a man, because of my physiology and social expectation, but that is history. It is over; done; finished.
My male features, some of which I can do nothing about, like hand size, large big toes, a broader ribcage, will always make me noticeable. So I really do understand the grief a younger person feels, that correcting their genitals and torso, even their face, may still not be enough to assert without explanation, their own gender. If it didn’t matter to anyone else, it wouldn’t matter at all. But can I really ever be the object of desire to another? A frightening thought.
We present patterns to those around us, and they recognise and respond. I cannot make my big toes slender, but you can let it be completely OK. I don’t need stealth, you need to adjust your pattern recognition response. Being trans* is normal, not disconcerting or repulsive. The trouble is, I am in charge of myself, but I cannot change society around me except by slow, if vocal, influence. I am living now, today; tomorrow will not do for social acceptance.
Under the radar?
We do live with pattern recognition, and society assuredly has not adjusted. Most of the time I am just flying under the radar. I get on with life, I make myself look as normal as possible, whilst expressing my personality and individuality. I do a good job at work, I meet lots of people in many different settings. Being transsexual is not an issue. Until …
‘There’s that man in drag!’
As I left my flat a few evenings ago, a young man (isn’t it always?) in a car, announced this loudly to his friend. He was announcing his insecurity. His pattern recognition (maybe he has been around since I moved in, and remembers the earlier days) still says: ‘I know what to do with man, and I know what to do with a woman. This person confuses me. They are only in my book of shapes as a man in drag, and I have no better understanding. I feel safer by alerting my friends to something I don’t understand, rather than saying nothing because it doesn’t matter.’
As always, this young man spoke about himself, not me, but yes, I did find it offensive. And disappointing. Why was I being mis-identified at all?
I have no need to avoid this person in future, because the problem on one level isn’t mine at all. But if I could wave a magic wand, and become an attractive woman, would I? Well, maybe I would, just to avoid the hassle. But being stealth-configured to avoid hassle, risks the accusation of deceit, and frankly, I should not need to hide anything.
A lot of popular software applications, from this blog to games, offer alternative ‘skins’. The same thing underneath, no change in functionality or rules, just pink instead of green, flowers instead of camouflage. As an alternative to stealth, adopting a different skin, is perhaps feasible. I am what you see, and I want you to recognise that this is only a skin, and that yes, we have all chosen these presentations: I, as a transsexual woman with my style, and you, as a cis-person with your style. Or as a lesbian with your dyke style, another with a femme style, and so on.
So instead of stealth, in place of acting, and renouncing fear, throwing away the pattern-recognition manual for gender, I want you to know that inside I am exactly what I say I am. And that my skin is my familiar garb, not for you to question, but to understand why I wear it.
My ribcage does not make me a man. My dress is not drag. Ask me and I will be straight with you, and explain as best I can. But I will not hide just to assuage your prejudices. I did not choose this, just as you did not choose your gender – or your shoe size.
Well, this is what I would like. I am horribly aware that even for me, there are those I counted even as friends who ‘don’t know how to relate to me’. Even my wife and daughter don’t know, so have distanced themselves to a safe place for them. Yes, me, a threat to their normality: you can’t be my dad so you can’t be my parent. You can’t be my man, so you can’t be my partner or lover. Pattern recognition has destroyed my family, and there is no stealth imaginable there. If anything, living before realisation was stealth, and I have renounced it.
All around the world, every month, trans* people are murdered for being unfamiliar to the pattern-recognition handbook. Stealth would present a constant fear of being discovered, the radar points too low, the unwillingness of society to learn new patterns is not there. They are hated for being different. I am lucky. Very lucky.
Out in my skin
I can’t get out of my skin, I own it. But this is the bit I also choose. I choose for taste, but also for acceptability, not to hide, but to present. Some have a problem with it, but I don’t. Stealth? No. Discretion? Maybe. I am confident in my skin. But see me beyond it, because that’s where recognition really lies.
Related poem for reflection and fun: Patterns
I swear my printer says ‘rhubarb, rhubarb’
as it swings its head and spits politely on the page,
writes my words with rainbows.
It’s why I know you across a crowded bar
and have said hello to strangers by mistake
to colour with apologies in red.
It’s why there are trees on my winter glass
and Virgin Marys sanctify burnt toast
for the blessed mistaken in brown.
And clouds are far countries where peace
reigns despite the castles melting into hills,
or that chimeras rear their fleeced heads.
The rain drips random from roof to sill
lulls my sleep, while a strict tap tortures me
in Chinese: tacked and tock-sick to the second.
And clocks with pendulums synchronise
when left in a room alone, like nuns whose
months listen to each other, ignore the moon.
It’s why molecules love each other or repel
in blind recognition of affinity for how
everything falls together, or falls apart.
Make patterns and everything fits. Life
tessellates, minds made whole; vacuums
are shapeless; we hate them to death.
So we invent patterns as comforts, patchwork
hexagons mimicking bees to leave no space
and fill them with sweet nothings.
Comb our recognitions and reassurances,
find the illusions and pretence. Fillers for those
things we need to learn and now shall not.
Computers work so hard at what we do
without thinking; pattern recognition makes
automation easy as the mistaken friend.
Then Mary says ‘rhubarb’ across a crowded bar,
writing trees on the window and tapping your name.
Your pendulum swings to hers and you’re safe.
2011 © Andie Davidson
My weekend schedule is screwed. My Tesco weekly is deferred by two days, and I shall probably need to work half of Sunday too. That means a late walk on my own somewhere, then back to work. Why?
After my Chakradance workshop I worked out that Five Rhythms dance was a similar opportunity for me to do what I was already doing in my own space. But once more, down in Brighton the group was on Wednesday night, a popular night for everything, including band practices. I booked up a couple of other events in the autumn, again, not far removed from what I do. However, I then got invited over to Lewes Five Rhythms, and last night turned up to a new experience in dance. Well, almost everything is a new experience for me in dance. I sat out for 40 years at almost every disco, did the Gay Gordons when a reception demanded it, the odd skip at a Ceilidh, and even a few short weeks learning Lindy Hop. The one memorable event I have is when a girlfriend and I choreographed and performed a small dance when working at a community centre in Devon. That was a wonderful experience for me. None of those other forms are for me though, any more than I shall spend my time carefully crafting sonnets or sestinas. I write free verse and I dance free dance.
So for two solid hours, I and 30 others danced continuously, thoughtfully, mindfully, expressively. And sweated. I was in my element. After all these years, here was a room full of people who took my new self-discovery for granted. I think it did me a lot of good, so dance has to be part of my life now. Well, I’m not going to be invited to any parties any time soon, so I shall go and find dance. What can I do with it? Where can it take me? I don’t know, but it feels as essential as music and writing to me.
As I walked up the hill to the car afterwards, thankful for a warm night in my wet things, I was thinking how I got here. At 56 I was discovering things about myself that must have been latent all my life. At junior (primary) school, where we went in at doors engraved ‘boys’ and ‘girls’, I remember ‘being a tree’ or a butterfly or … Well, it was called music and movement, and I didn’t know I was dancing. After that I was plain awkward, and soon realised that I just didn’t do ‘bloke dancing’ at discos. But now? I was dancing, and wondering why I hadn’t been doing it all my life.
The feeling is one of release. First, no-one to ask permission if it was alright to skip Tesco and go off 20 miles to do some New Age thing with strangers. Second, no permission to get it wrong. What if I turned up and it was alien? But third, the freedom to discover myself and to set loose things that have been suppressed for all my life. No, it isn’t too late. The funny thing is, I never felt like I was the kid ‘trapped in the wrong body’, but I have lived all my adult life not expressing some innate and very deep aspects of self. This is release. This is the unspeakably awesome turning point of my life. This is a whole cage-full of white doves sent up into a blue sky and sunlight.
When the clapper-board of life comes down, and the action stops, and those you have been acting with retire to separate trailers and you are standing alone, you don’t expect it to come down again for ‘take two!’. I have been embedded in all I have lost, in terms of relationships, from family to friends who have simply withdrawn, and those who just don’t want me to get too close. And yet everywhere I go now, I find new acceptance, new welcome, and the most amazing inclusion in new things. Maybe, just maybe, someone will dare to get close, really close, and that first white dove will land and coo again.
I last wrote about the connectedness of all life, the lack of real boundaries between things, and a sense of belonging in the universe. This was brought close to me beautifully last week, when I went to learn about and do chakra dancing. That isn’t my subject this week, but suffice it to say that I found a belonging and inclusiveness that understood me, and that I understood. The dance itself was so much what I do already, but with structure and context. The mindset was familiar and the welcome not unbelievable but deeply reassuring.
It’s time I read a couple of books I have on and by David Bohm, to explore more the way he presents how everything hangs together, but behind his thinking is the idea that things are not actually separate and that boundaries are impossible to define. In my unread thoughts, then, take a subatomic particle that happens to statistically ‘belong’ with a carbon atom, that belongs in a molecule, that is part of a cell wall in your skin. Then take another identical subatomic particle that happens statistically to ‘belong’ with a carbon atom, that is part of a carbon dioxide molecule in the air in contact with your skin. Now widen your scope and become aware of the whole of your skin-air boundary: do ‘you’ really end where the air begins? In the sum of things, what keeps the two ‘belongings’ distinct? Is it in fact distinct at all? Those subatomic particles do not belong anywhere fixed at all, and move around at distances immeasurable greater from each other than their own ‘dimensions’. Like a whirlpool in a river, we are identifiable but inseparable and lacking definable boundaries.
However, we are very particular about our sense of self. We check it against other people, societal expectations, religious beliefs, internal philosophies, dependencies and so on, all the time. We preserve this sense of individuality against all manner of pressures, but go with those pressures when we feel we would be made ‘other’ or non-included – which I guess throws us in the opposite direction. We are all happiest being individual providing we still belong. Maybe we are not so different from the subatomic particle that might statistically belong with a carbon dioxide molecule in the air one instant or an organic skin molecule the next. It too has to belong, because subatomic particles don’t wander round looking for friends, or find themselves alone. They can’t.
And then we have an equal sense of the otherness of others, especially when their differences might change us. We can never be another, or become another, so why do we fear the influence of others? Is it partly because in realising others are in fact unknowable, we do not fully know ourselves? And that this is in fact a fragile state of affairs? And so we preserve our sense of self and belonging by over-defining our boundaries and sticking to those others who are most similar. At the same time we exclude the less-alike because they might change our fragile sense of self or contaminate the in-group we feel we belong with.
Do we ever really belong as a result of what we are? Or of what we think, say and present as what we think we are? Or is it just a tacit human agreement that similarity is safety, so be similar? How many of us risk standing out as individuals at the expense of belonging, of being included? It’s really noticeable when someone does.
As someone who has stood out very deliberately as a matter of survival, and who has been excluded by a number of people, I am confronted by what it means to be fully aware of self, and how close or known another can ever be. I thought love was a kind of merging of minds or souls into a deep or inseparable bond, until rudely awoken to the fact that even the love of family was accommodatory. At the same time, it has been said to me how damaging codependency is, and at its mildest, this means making one’s own needs subordinate to another, not out of altruism, but in an unbalanced relationship of unequal power. I don’t think I was there, however desperate I was not to lose the love I had.
In the end, I had to choose between my sense of self and the love of another, knowing that being more real would lose their love for me. (Is that a choice anyone should have to make?)
‘Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.’
Iris Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics. Writings on Philosophy and Literature
Now isn’t that a powerful thought? I am real. I can know that (cogito, ergo sum?) – but can I know that another is real, and not a projection of myself, or illusory? Well, let’s agree at least for now that we are always ‘with’ ourselves, but never actually ‘with’ another. We can be proximate, even with intimately entwined bodies – but we are never part of another, and they can always go away, as we never can from ourselves. So how does our sense of our own reality compare with our knowledge that another is real?
When we come to realise that another is as real as we are, then an awareness of complete equality arises. Only then can love find its truest form. And if two people both understand this of each other, there is a bond that is, I believe, extremely rare. I wish I had this experience! I want it! But it demands something of me before something of the other. With the complete equality comes the truth that the separation of the self and the other as truly autonomous is also illusory.
And this is an extremely difficult realisation.
Philosophy is fine, and I am a constant thinker, but I am also that ‘other’ to you, and I feel loneliness. I am alone for approximately 50 per cent of my life now. That means the other half is spent in the company of others. For me a sense of loneliness is partly a function of the loss of all intimacy, all real closeness, almost all physical contact with another, after many years (almost all my adult life). It is also bewildering. On one level I understand it well: I became ‘different’ by finding out who I was and how I was. That placed me outside the zone of inclusiveness felt by others. I mean, ‘I was a man and I became a woman’, didn’t I? What else should I expect?
However, on another level I am completely at a loss as to why my continuous sense of self-reality should hit such a disconjunction. If another loved me, then surely they would realise that my reality has not changed at all – how could it? Do they think theirs could?
I feel loneliness keenly, because my sense of belonging has been completely undermined. My sense of being ‘known’ at all, has been shaken to its foundations. Suddenly there is nobody other who recognises, truly, that I am as real as they. I don’t mean they can’t see, hear and touch me (though they don’t do the latter very much) but that I can be easily disconnected as ‘not being what I was’, and therefore be illegitimised from certain roles and places of belonging.
That brings me back to my inner belief of belonging in the universe. I feel strongly that I am one with something much greater and all-inclusive, and that gives me hope that I can gain that crucial understanding of another as being real. That I can understand love, and that perhaps I might find another who is in the same place.
At this distance, I know that I have never experienced this yet.
And at the same time I know that if I do find intimate companionship ever again, it will be with someone non-religious but deeply spiritually aware, and also with a sincere sensuality, who understands what I am saying here. Their gender? I think that is quite secondary.