On Tuesday this week, I had an appointment, to return to the hospital I left two months ago and review things. You know, those things. There is often a need to make minor adjustments, because as things heal and any swelling goes down, not everything may be quite as good as it can be – even peeing slightly sideways can be worth correcting – and sometimes a bit of cosmetic improvement is needed. I’ve been happy enough, from my mirror-and-feeling-around point of view, but there is always a chance that something might come up in the conversation to suggest a…
|tiller hand||on polished wood|
|imbued with salt||worked|
|a partnership||seaward or home|
|familiar||this practical bond|
|her hand||on my knee|
|a reassurance||leaning, home|
|familiar||this practical bond|
|a belonging||through journeys|
|familiar||this practical bond|
|tell her hand||on polished knee|
|salted by eyes||she steers|
|a journey||no harbour, no beach|
|familiar||this practical bond|
|because we are||many|
2014 © Andie Davidson
With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
I undertake to abstain from taking the not-given.
When we say ‘you’ll never understand’ we tend to forget that we too shall never understand. And this use of ‘understand’ can be used as our protection, both of what we feel helps identify us, and from what we feel might change us. And we all do it.
Before I start, this isn’t about religion, gender, race or any minority or majority – it’s about all of us. We all have things we want to be known as, and things we do not, and things that we feel diminish or erase our identity. I can’t presume what yours are, and you can’t presume mine. That is taking. We must speak, and clearly, and allow honest questions from those who want to understand. That is giving. Do I get it right always? You bet I don’t. And neither do you.
Limits to understanding
Probably the biggest tag in my wordcloud for as long as I’ve been blogging is ‘understanding’. It reflects my desire to be known and not blamed or othered, for being trans. I don’t know how much I’ve succeeded; a bit. But I still remember saying to one psychiatrist at the gender clinic, that even though they go to work every day, as specialists, to hear the like-for-like stories, hour by hour, of trans people, they will never know what it feels like to be transsexual. Of course they can’t. What I guess I really want is ‘enough’ understanding – and to be believed and validated.
I have friends who say very kindly-intended things, but which reinforce my feeling that they really don’t understand either, and equally I also know other people whose traumas, or simply differences from me, I will never know from experience either. But when I get bullied or rejected for not understanding, when all I have attempted is dialogue, or exchange, I start to wonder whether not being understood can also become a protection, a place where we can belong with others who share an experience, where we can also hang onto our difference because it’s something we can legitimately own, and in a way be unique.
It is customary in gender-variant circles to protest labels, or being over-defined restrictively. And yet non-trans people also object to ‘non-trans’ being termed ‘cis’ – a factual descriptor can become an emotive label. Some labels are used derogatively, such as ‘tranny’, often compared with the n-word. Labels leave sticky residues though, whatever they are, so when we try to describe as a way of understanding, we must be careful of limiting or reducing other people. Some say I cannot be lesbian, because I did not go through early socialisation as a girl. Some emphasise that I have known male privilege. Others that having white skin and European heritage means I can never understand racial prejudice. These are things I cannot change, any more than being born transsexual. And they are used to say ‘you can therefore never understand’ whilst at the same time being used to blame for not understanding.
So how are we ever, as social human beings, to understand each other? What kind of discourse can we possibly have? I have my boundaries, you have yours, and in places we overlap. How exclusive must I be to maintain my personal territory in order to feel safe? How far can you enter my territory before I feel you have disrespected me, or taken something away from me? How much am I, are you, an individual, and how much irretrievably part of a group to which I or you must always be confined or belong?
- I believe taking a photo steals part of my soul?
- wearing a First Nations American headdress erases the destruction of my culture?
- drag makes a parody of either my gender or a joke of my dysphoria?
- conspicuous wealth insults my misfortune?
- two heterosexual men get married for the wrong reasons (true, this week)?
Examples like these suggest to me that we are not naturally good at understanding and respecting each other. What are we to do? I think firstly there is a difference between deliberate persistence in disrespect in order to demonstrate disrespect, and naïve or unknowing treading on toes. Do both deserve the same backlash?
If someone shouts ‘tranny’ across the street I will react differently from correcting a friend’s mispronouning of another who has just come out as trans. So I have felt very hurt by very different recent instances of being personally slammed after very innocent writing (not here). And I have felt very hurt too after my own privacy was breached and then justified by others. Accident and deliberation can be very hard to distinguish, for us all.
Another word that goes around is appropriation. I wonder whether misappropriation is more correct. We live in a very mixed society where cultures, art, expression are very shared. We listen to and play each other’s music, eat each other’s food. And yet some things are not for sharing. Since prehistoric times, when people traded decorated pots there will have been tensions over stealing designs that had group or tribal meaning. I can trade it with you, but you cannot make one; didn’t you know that motif is symbolic? Or painting: when is something ‘in the style of’ (e.g. cubist) too much an imitation (e.g. after Picasso)? Does it need Picasso’s permission or blessing? Does it make a difference if Picasso dies penniless? Is it stolen? Copyright law is both recent and specific.
When is something so invested with meaning that it can never be used by someone else? When is a Cornish pasty mislabeled, and is Bakewell tart a commercially protected brand? Up the scale, dreadlocks, with a very ancient near-eastern history, can be highly emotive because of more recent ethnic association. Have they become so exclusive that on just anyone, they diminish their current social ownership? A Hilda Ogden-style hair-restraining turban is not the same as a male turban fashion accessory for a non-Sikh. That dilutes their prime significance to Sikhs, at least in that style and in this country. Native Americans may make and sell moccasins so we can walk in their shoes; but a cheap war bonnet made in China erases dignity. Or a cross worn because it’s a ‘Christian country’ rather than as a real faith designator? Time also erases history very selectively.
I wonder whether the feelings some of us identifying as transsexual feel about transvestites who overdo the glam, because tomorrow they can be ‘normal’ again, are similar. Is cross-dressing a misappropriation of something that threatens us? How can I defend myself against a radical feminist who says I can never be a real woman (appropriation), when all around are what appear to be men dressing as women? Is this why society in general finds gender dysphoria so difficult to handle? And where does gender queer or dual-gender or non-binary fit in my comfort zone? Whose sensitivities hold primacy?
Is this all about what is given (and by whom, and who has a say) and what is not? Is it about who has a right to belong in a social space, and who can arbitrate? Or is it mainly about exclusivity of membership and safety? Sometimes we hang on tight to our rights for the wrong reasons, and find we have created a tension by doing so. Anger works exceptionally well in achieving this. It might be because of something that can’t be undone, like history – or that can be undone like my story (that I keep telling myself as the only one). Sometimes a knot cannot be undone without releasing both ends …
Again, it is all down to giving respect: both ways. But I still maintain that respect requires a mutual willingness to communicate, an appreciation of where things come from, where ownership is and is not shared. If I am too strident about being transsexual in a very non-trans world forgive me. But if I tread innocently on your toes over some other innocent remark or question, please don’t chase me down the street shouting, for being so rude and ignorant for not understanding. We all deserve better than that, however angry and frustrated we feel about the way our society can treat us.
We all enter and leave this world as individuals, not as groups, yet in between we live and strive and fight as groups. I just want to be taken as me, here, now, learning, hoping to understand better each day.
Please give generously.
Now that the gender dysphoria bit is over, I am walking over some old ground, just picking up stones, those things that hurt the feet of people following after me. You see, I remember walking down Fulham Palace Road to the gender identity clinic the first time, knowing every step of the way had been trodden by so many like me, and quite a few with familiar names …
Well, in recent months, maybe this past year, there have been more and more sensible and informative media events about trans people. Some more competent than others, some quite personal and individual, others more documentary style and explanatory. But overall, quite a lot is being said that reveals us as pretty ordinary folk, living ordinary lives. The trans celebs who are noticed more are just saying the same as us as well, which brings us all down to a level, a commonality.
Suddenly if feels just OK to be trans, and here am I fussing over my privacy being broken at work! I transitioned before I got my current job, and it still felt like I was the peculiar one, so much so that I welcomed my work colleagues being warned in advance that a transsexual employee was on her way – so behave! And now I don’t want anyone to be told, whilst at the same time posting my photo on Twitter under #WhatTransLooksLike, which turns out to be terribly (confusingly) ordinary.
And yet all of this ordinariness and growing acceptance (at least in general, and from a very poor start) underlines something extremely sad and tragic. And it is that for the majority of us it has been a mixture of terrifying struggle, self harm, self hatred, self doubt, despair, loss, depression and suicidal intent.
I want you to think: how much do you talk (or hear) about how society ‘tolerates’ trans people? Or about an increasing ‘acceptance’? At work, it seems people have been ‘accommodating’ of my being trans among them. Are these feelings you have, as a way of saying things are getting better? How do you think it would make you feel, if something about you meant that you as a person needed tolerance, acceptance or accommodation? Or knowing this, would you willingly place yourself in a position where this would even need to be so?
In a world that really accepted that some people are born trans, things would be completely different. Imagine, if you will, for a moment, that every child growing up was free to express their male-female-both-neither selves freely and without criticism. Imagine every adult simply knew this was the way things are. Imagine no penis-adult minded a penis-child wearing vagina-child clothes, and no vagina-adult minded a vagina-child avoiding vagina-child toys. How comfortable those children would be that the other children knew this from their parents too. Each could find their sexuality as they developed, and learn the differences between love for reproduction and love for friendship and love for life. It isn’t that families would cease to exist, or that adults settled in their gender would not pair up to have children. But just maybe, everyone would be a bit more comfortable doing what comes naturally. Fewer spouses would turn away from their beloved partners because it was all a mistake, had they known before. Maybe it would help break the sexism that pervades society, if it were not odd to find a woman with oily hands, power tools and an executive job, paired with a man in feminine clothes working as a childminder and organising dance events.
People on the trans spectrum may be one in a hundred, but that doesn’t make us rare, it just means most are invisible because they are suppressed.
I do wonder what proportion of trans people would be happy to be the woman with a penis or a man with a vagina, if nobody else minded either. Not all of us, because gender dysphoria runs much more deeply than this, and there is a level of inateness that predates any social expectation. But for some whose gender identity sits uncomfortably in the gender binary based on genital expectation, maybe, just maybe, there would be peace in growing up and living a normal life freely as they feel themselves to be.
Where are we with acceptance now? This is how it has largely been for people like me: if you feel you don’t belong with other penis-children-called-boys, you belong nowhere. You do not fit and you cannot explain it. Somehow people, especially parents and teachers, don’t want to know, because you screw up the way things are, and you make things awkward. You add something that has to be catered for and coped with. You are a nuisance to them and to yourself. If you are a vagina-child who doesn’t belong with other vagina-children-called-girls, people don’t notice quite so much at first. But underneath the tomboy is a place grown-ups don’t want to go.
Somehow there is an undercurrent to this view of you that is linked with a moral or ethical dimension. These are the rules that seem to come from nowhere, and just ‘are’ because they get repeated. What you feel is not quite right about you, in terms of likeness with others, becomes something wrong. People don’t like it because they think you are being deliberately different, that you have a choice. Some will say that it (the way you feel about yourself) isn’t natural. Others will say that their god says it’s bad, and bad that you should dare to even think it might be OK. That you must therefore change, and put all these feelings about yourself away forever. Hence the prevalent self hate, self harm and self destruct, mental and physical that trans people experience.
Worst of all, gender and sex have long been so confused a distinction that being trans has been viewed a sexual perversion, a bizarre psychological pathology. And if sex is naughty or dirty or bad (my upbringing taught me this), then being trans is doubly so.
Because the adults think this, their children, your friends and classmates think this too. You get bullied, or at best left out and seen by some as not to be included. This combines with your sense of not belonging. There is no way out, because no-one is talking about it, leastways not so as to allow that it’s natural or normal or permissible.
This, as I grew up (and is widely still the case), was an inescapable truth about myself: there was something bad and wrong about me, deep inside. Trans people simply knew there was nothing they could do to get rid of the disconnect between being a penis-child and a vagina-brain. Cis people, generally speaking, thought they could and should. And now this is changing, bit by bit.
What will it take?
If you are not sure whether this move or drift towards trans-as-normal is comfortable for you, think what it does to trans people growing up, and the legacy it has left to those of us rather older. I’m not seeking pity – far from it, only saying please understand, when you think you are being kind for letting us live and look differently, that your attitudes and reactions, if anything short of full acceptance as equal and normal, are creating inner traumas still.
I fully recognise that I did not grow up recognising diversity, that I too felt uncomfortable with everything LGBT because it is what I was taught to think and feel. What this means is that the denial I lived with, and above all the guilt, must have been there as I brought up my own children. My son thankfully was trans-aware probably before I was. And my daughter’s current inability to be associated with me in any way must in part be down to what I brought her up to think. I wonder what she will teach her children one day when they ask about their missing grandfather …
The words you choose shape the way we all think
- Society is very tolerant these days of people with red hair.
- I think we are becoming much more accepting of left-handed people.
- I’m glad to say that nowadays we accommodate lesbians in the workplace a lot better.
Does anything strike you about these statements? If this is how we bring up our children, and how we speak to each other about red-haired people, left-handed people and lesbian people, they will intuitively understand that these three ‘conditions’ are suspect and not quite right, that these are people to be wary of, who are not quite what they seem (Wait until she takes her hat off! Did you see when he started writing? I went to her mum’s house once and she lives with a woman!).
This is exactly the inference we exchange amongst ourselves about transgender people. This is why it took me 55 years to realise that my self-hatred, my sense of guilt and shame, my constant self-destruction inside was completely unfounded and unnecessary.
Can you begin to understand this stone in the grass that I’ve picked up? Don’t leave it for someone else, above all someone else’s child, to cripple themselves on.
I can at last love myself, and indeed, I love my ‘new’ body for the first time. Shame about the five decades.
Never tolerate me. Never accept me. Never accommodate me.
I am. We are.
Just like you.