I shall hold you as an egg
admire the colours of your fragility
for eggs should only be broken
from the inside
I shall hold you as an egg
March 31 each year is TDOV: Transgender Day of Visibility. It presents a paradox to many: If I am visible, then am I noticeably trans, and is that what I want? If I am not visible, then is this not something I have attained, and why would I want to undo that? If I am visible, is that a bad thing (and for many it certainly can be), and if I am not visible, then do I owe it to trans people everywhere to show that being trans can be a strong thing, something ordinary and acceptable, even normal?
Transgender people of every kind have always existed. It is a function of human biology that we have: variation has always existed, as in every other human trait from height to hair colour. We have always been known about in ancient societies, and I suspect that it is only in later patriarchal cultures, especially those with patriarchal-theocratic religions, that we have been erased. Biology never did make male and female that clear. It made genitalia largely clear, but even there, it has always allowed a percentage of intersex ‘conditions’ at chromosomal, gene, and physiological levels, and of course at the level of gender identity too.
I consider that it has primarily been a function of fear, distaste and loathing of same-sex attraction that created the moralistic climate that became fixed in the same patriarchal monotheistic religions. I have written at length elsewhere how convoluted sexuality and gender can be for trans people. If your biggest fear is anything other than active heterosexuality, then every trans person stand accused of alternative sexuality at some stage of their lives. If you weren’t gay then you are lesbian, or you were always bisexual, and so on. What this has meant for LGBTQI people, is that what they are, has been considered to be behavioural. Hence the strongest driver in our western culture has been that trans people are morally wrong: sinful by claiming to be what they are so they can do what they do (whatever that is supposed to entail).
In 74 countries today, homosexuality is illegal. In 13 is carries a death penalty. In 17 countries, being visible is criminalised as propaganda. In many more, LGBTQ people are vulnerable to violence. Hundreds of trans people are murdered every year for being visibly trans.
In the USA today, we are seeing many battles over the so-called bathroom bills. This is legislation requiring trans people not to use toilet and changing facilities that are assigned contrary to the gender written on their birth certificates. Trans people have always existed, just as intersex people have. This presents stupidly obvious bad outcomes. Women who don’t look feminine enough are in danger. They have already been compromised. Men who look too feminine less so. Trans women who look truly feminine in proportion may remain invisible, but feel a terrible responsibility towards those who do not, and who, as a consequence will be in danger going into male facilities. After all, most sexual violence is perpetrated by males. Trans men, I believe, should make a very deliberate point of entering female facilities, with their testosterone, muscle and beards. And what of people who are naturally androgynous? The current Trump administration is already erasing LGBTQI identities by omitting gender and sexuality questions from census forms, and is endangering the welfare of LGBTQI people everywhere by removing protections from the very religious moralistic scruples that gave us this problem in the first place. As I write, a big orange bus is touring US states, after originating in Spain, plastered with it’s self-appointed right to free speech and declaring that boys are boys and girls are girls and that it’s plain biology. Its motivation is the same religious moralistic hubris, its message the same that disadvantages, erases, beats, imprisons, murders and executes trans people all over the world.
So who wants to be visible? I guess you can be discreetly LGBQ by keeping your relationship mainly indoors – but why on earth should you have to protect the screwed-up morals of a screwed-up patriarchy with a screwed-up religion? Sexuality is not a choice or simply a behaviour, so why should it be repressed? You hold religious beliefs, or inherit a culture that gave you the outcomes of that religion, and prefer to believe that sexuality is purely an ethical issue, and inherently wrong? This is the same rights issue as blowing carcinogenic tobacco smoke into the face of non-smokers.
So who wants to be visible? For very many trans people, we cannot hide what we are. Few of us have nothing to give ourselves away, whether a prominent larynx, a deep voice, hair loss, broad shoulders or big hands. We try hard to distract, to lift and train our voices just enough, dress to our shape. Many of us do, after a number of years, simply blend into our workplaces, our towns and perhaps our families, but without some interventions such as hormones and electrolysis for facial hair, and without documentation, this can be difficult. Visibility and appearance are not the same thing: being visible can simply mean ‘being known as’. And visibility has very serious downsides, from attitudes at work, employability, finding somewhere to live and someone to love. Some trans people are very out and proud, and I am glad they want to be. They, with their high visibility, prevent our erasure, but experience a lot more hassle than I do, keeping my head down. What we are is always a secret to gossip about; our bodies are never the private property that those of cis people enjoy. I would bet more people have hazarded a guess about my genitals, or what my vagina looks like, than about any of the cis people with whom I share this world. And that makes what I am, linked to sexual behaviour and preference, which links it to ‘what is right and proper’. It makes me dangerous to some, and in some circumstances.
I remember my ex-wife saying to me that we could continue together, if I could just ‘be a man’ at weekends. Visibility matters in how people treat you, and those who are associated with you.
Maybe you even feel a better employer, if you have increased your diversity quotient by having a visibly trans person on board who is not treated badly. I feel a whole lot better to have moved to a new job where the first premise is not ‘we have a new person joining who is trans; treat them with due respect’. I feel better for losing that initial baggage. I don’t mind people knowing, I just don’t want to be a protected species about whom people talk.
Social erasure is unequivocally bad for trans people. We have always existed, it is not a behaviour, and it cannot be suppressed or repressed. It exists as a state of being alive, at whatever age we finally take courage to face it. And we should not have to face this as a decision, as something that carries threat, danger, disapproval and rejection. Being invisible does not change society or help us. Being visible is still a risky, even dangerous, thing to do. Our lives do change, not just in the relief of being ourselves, but in the loss it almost inevitably brings.
Plenty of cultures and societies do not want trans people to exist, because we inconveniently raise issues of sexuality, of male dominance and privilege, of strength and danger. ‘Strong male’ is still default, the leading formula. A man apparently turning into a woman is intrusive, a potential predator. A woman apparently turning into a man is a betrayal, and never quite as good as the real thing.
Media stories that promote celebrity trans people, or the unusual by age, are not really the stories about ordinary trans lives. They are not our representatives, and can give the wrong kind of attention from unqualified and opinionated people who feel strongly or entitled, about their inherited and uninformed cultural norms.
And so this year, as TDOV came round, I asked myself whether putting a TDOV ‘frame’ around my Facebook picture was a good thing, a bad thing, or simply a matter-of-fact thing whereby I could simply say: it’s OK to be trans.
Not invisible, just here
Maybe the strongest feeling I ever have is against religious and derivative cultural motivations that debate our existence and validity in our absence, paint us as predatory, and seek the freedom to erase, ignore and ultimately harm us all. Too many cultures without (especially) Abrahamic roots have accommodated, even celebrated, non-binary gender identities, for it not to be obvious that trans visibility is a casualty of those roots. It still threatens trans people everywhere. I am lucky to be where I am. I choose not to be invisible.
And yet by not being very visible, I also show that it is perfectly normal to be who I am, ordinary, honest, safe, loving, straightforward, loyal, kind …
There have always been alternative facts. Sometimes we have called it deliberate mis-information, sometimes propaganda, sometimes doctrine or policy. It has always been used as a way of fixing opinion by those who can use it most effectively. Why are we so surprised at its growth in current political situations? We can either swallow it, live with it, or strive against it.
The trouble is, are the facts we are using, our propaganda, our beliefs, and are they subject to correction in the face of stronger arguments? The mark of reason is to be ready, when faced by robust counter-arguments, to re-test our assumptions and change our inner frameworks. There is nothing unreasonable in looking up at the sky, and watching the stars and planets, the galaxy spread across it – and assuming that it is all moving around us. The sun rises, arcs over us and sets. Our ground feels solid and unmoving. Surely we are the centre?
Well, in a complicated sort of way, it is a permissible relativism to all intents and purposes, it’s just that when you look at the detail rather than being impressed by the sheer number of stars, it’s much simpler to work on a heliocentric model, and in which even the sun traverses a cluster, in turn a galaxy, in turn in an expanding universe. Oh, and maybe we are one of an infinite number of multiverses.
Navigation needs some good understanding about the way things move, but we can simplify part of the picture and blot out the additional multiverse stuff, when sailing around the world. We might enjoy the mind-stretch, but even multiverse hypotheses aren’t in the realm of conspiracy theories and alternative facts (until misused, that is).
Similarly, wave-particle duality is not something we have to deal with daily, unless we are dealing seriously in our working lives with quantum physics. It doesn’t matter one jot to most of us, whether we know about it, understand it or calculate with it. And that is why we don’t debate it. The physicists aren’t getting one over on us, and honestly, you can listen to some fierce debates between them about stuff we can’t comprehend. The point is, particle and energy physicists can be heard saying that if their entire life’s work were to be erased by a better theory, it would be wonderful. Because they are always after a better explanation of the way things are.
The problem with people
Can the same be said of social sciences? One would hope so, but the amount of subjectivity that comes through qualitative research means that it is harder to model and less certain. Policies, politics, social structures, all tend to drive rather than reduce inequality, to create privilege and authority in the guise of leadership and organisation, to create stability and order in an advantageous way. However, the history of human civilisation is that we move through cycles of self-destruction and disorder, in a bid to remove what has become corrupted and find something better. In these times, free debate stumbles. Arguments become more acrimonious, the more it matters, and no-one wants to lose. If you’re hanging on at the bottom, you must not lose what little you have. Losing at the top means losing power, privilege and influence. Losing in the middle means losing safety and opportunity to gain privilege. Everyone is scared, so losing the debate is no casual affair. The idea of learning to change your preconceptions and assumptions gets shelved, indeed if you can get supremacy for your ideas, maybe you will be saved from falling into oblivion.
It’s scary to watch a world leader who is clearly incompetent of intellectual leadership of the remotest kind, setting the agenda, spouting indiscriminate and unevaluated nonsense gathered from channel TV news, and getting believed by millions simply because that’s the easiest thing to do.
The arguments in social media are moving now around whether to discuss this situation, fight it, or let it self destruct and try to stand clear before picking up the pieces. There is no straight answer to that.
Testing for legitimate argument
But is Trump the only example? Of course not. ‘Lesser’ regimes around the world have always done it, and all manner of other organisations too. Somehow we distinguish between repressive religious cults and mainstream religions with notorious histories – but why?
Always, groups, large and small, promote their passionately-held views. Some we call crazy, others we respect, providing they aren’t too disruptive. Well, normally; in these times simply being disruptive is lauded as a provocation against an establishment, even without a better replacement.
But we have to ask whether the predominance of any view should hurt any other’s. There are oppressive religious groups with extreme narrow and prescriptive views who would like the whole world to be like them. Yet at the other end, we hope that minority groups fighting for peace, or the banning of bee-killing pesticides, will succeed on our behalf, because we are supportive.
The big discriminator has to be the notion of testable truth: can this view be fully supported by investigation, research and be subject to constant examination? Nobody promoting a point of view, even in a pub of a Friday night, should be shy of this. And the investigation has itself to rely on layers of testable truths. So you can’t test whether LGBTQI rights matter against an argument of a religious faith-literature, unless you are prepared also test the validity of that faith-literature against history, society, contemporary purpose, its own evolution, the evolution of ideas, and scientific research.
I will never forget the awe in a expression I was given long ago when I was still professing christianity but studying its history and literature as a post-graduate: ‘Wow! Your faith must be so strong to ask that!’ In effect, not many believers would dare to ask a question that takes you close to the edge of invalidating the belief/doctrine/dogma. I departed religion very soon after.
Between trust and suspicion
We are most of us very poorly equipped to test truths. We do not have resources, time or scope to examine everything, when most of the time we have no need to. But if you solely read The Daily Mail, or Breitbart, or even the BBC or The Guardian, you are not going to arrive at truth. I just try to go places where there is a reasonable level of debate, where ideas are challenged.
Being ready to change your world view, opinions or beliefs in light of good and verifiable information, is a mark of mature humanity, but this concept divides the world. Somewhere between trust and suspicion, we must locate ourselves and ride the waves. At times like this, however, so many people fly to implicit trust or total scepticism, like reaching one bank or other of a river in spate.
We should have learned that at times like this, banks collapse.
Propaganda, heliocentricity, wave-particle duality, clutching at simplicity – what is this all about on my blog? I’m not a political animal. It isn’t just Trump, Brexit, Turkey, Da’esh, Syria … No. It’s the Church of England debating whether being LGBTQ (I sincerely hope the intersex ‘I’ is left out of the morality question) is a matter of morality and religious belief, or of genetics and the inherent human condition. It is whether hate-mongers against minorities should grace academic institutions, any more than climate change deniers should lecture on an equal footing with the 90+% of academics urging immediate and escalating action. It is whether Christian groups in the USA should move the new administration to permit religious discrimination as an exemption above the current law, at the expense of minorities or vulnerable people. It’s whether people in power should engender fear as a means of achieving their ends.
If only the first rule of being human were Hippocratic: first do no harm.
I look not only at the political right stirring up race hatred and xenophobia, but those who create and frame a cause that justifies the harming of others. From where I am, a vast number of people are on the brink of being harmed by the unchallenging of propaganda. Nothing new: except the scale in recent times.
LGBTQ are no longer up for debate
People like me (choose your aspect) are already in fear of very real consequences all over the world, it’s just that where it was getting better, it looks like getting a whole lot worse again. We are not up for debate, we are not any more ‘immoral’ for being LGBTQ. We simply are, like everyone else.
I wrote this blog weekly for years, not to explain with clinical facts of being transgender (though these are here too), but to be the evidence, in context of very ordinary living. I should not have to fight back, to justify or to explain. It’s tiring, it’s pointless and it doesn’t persuade. It maybe increases tolerance, but tolerance is not what I want. I may improve acceptance, but that isn’t what I want. Do you need either to justify your humanity? This isn’t a point of view, an opinion or a choice.
Enough has been done to test the truth underlying gender and sexual identity to show that we have always existed and always will, simply as part of the diversity of being a creature of planet earth. Ethics and morality are not a part of it, there is no debate.
We don’t need to debate heliocentricty in order to navigate. Those who create a debate about it are not helpful. Likewise it protects no-one in society to erase LGBTQ identities and forbid their expression, any more than to debate the legitimacy of red hair among those who don’t understand genetics. We all live, we all love and we are all equally human.
If we can grasp why we create ‘alternative facts’, propaganda, doctrine and dogma, then we have a chance of doing our best to find the real facts. But we must first be willing to learn – and change. And there’s the rub.
As a footnote, this week I began a new job. It is the first in which I have not been ‘protected’ by being announced on arrival as trans. Nevertheless, my LinkedIn profile, Facebook, this blog, my poetry all speak clearly and openly. Here, now, I have no need to fear a backlash. It isn’t being ‘stealth’, or discreet. It just isn’t important in order to navigate. It just isn’t up for debate. Anything else would be an alternative fact.
It was a bit like a bullet
whizzing through empty air
a moment in thought
Did you say ‘he’? No
I’m not asking, not really
I’m sure I misheard you
mustn’t be sensitive
If it was, there may be another
and now I am ready to duck
alert to your words’
I am pronoun selective
afraid of shooting myself
with your slip of the tongue
It’s not the word that wounds
but the mental image
the feeling: but-you’re-really-a
Why should I need to explain
why I think bullet
when you say he
and it won’t make any difference
What nobody knows, is that I was a trans child.
Correction: what nobody knew.
And yet, no correction: I doubt if anyone, even now, can imagine that I was a trans child. I was confused, troubled inside, private. I misinterpreted everything about myself, I misunderstood, and coming into puberty, came to hate a kernel of myself. Ah, but I was a child.
‘Children can be so confused. Phases. It takes time. Don‘t make it worse by telling children about sex, about gender, about emotions.’
This last week or two, there have been trans children in the news. Or rather, there have been the parents of trans children in the news. If I want to be scrupulously fair, there have been parents of children who have said they are trans, in the news. And in the news because the parents are accusing others of telling children that they can be trans, and therefore confusing them.
Experts? Who needs them? A refrain of our times, it seems. A lefty plot is undermining our values …
But at least these children are being made aware of their possibilities. Children are not harmed by allowing them to find an expression they find more in alignment. You cannot make a boy wear girl clothes in any way that will leave them compliant and happy, if they feel it is completely wrong. You cannot make a child trans any more than you can make them gay or lesbian. Trans is not a behaviour.
They will not, they cannot, be clinically harmed through this freedom, because at the very most they will be given hormone blockers to slow down puberty while they find their identity safely. The alternative, to grow breasts that must be compressed and later removed, or to drop a voice that can never be ‘unbroken’, and a skeleton that will proportion wrongly – is a cruelty far in excess of potential ridicule for perhaps having worn a dress for two years, then changing their mind. Gender queer is also OK. Gender denial, and binary enforcement, these are the attitudes that do the harm.
And we know from children surgically assigned a convenient gender from birth (accident – look up David Reimer, for example – or intersex), that nothing will change the felt gender of an individual. This is the true abuse of children in matters of gender and sex: to presume you know better than they could tell you about themselves.
I was a trans child
When I was growing up, a giraffe was a giraffe. In fact until this year, no-one realised that there are four species, which makes the surviving population of each much smaller. Most people still don’t know, but would believe you when presented with the scientific analysis. And yet transgender research? Why should that be different? I also remember the catch-you-out joke at school: ‘what was the world’ biggest continent before Australia was discovered?’
We could continue teaching the single-species giraffe in schools. We could ensure schools never talk about gender, that they never separate it from sex. We could go on ignoring that maybe as many as 2% of the population have an intersex condition. We could go on teaching that gender is just a personal preference, that it can be induced or socialised. But it just doesn’t work that way. To teach otherwise is to distort the facts. To not teach it at all, is to leave society to make its mind up, as if our existence were an opinion, or to be erased. To forbid teaching the true nature of gender would be to consciously damage the life chances of many thousands of children.
Nowadays, children can look up online how they feel about themselves. They can communicate with other children and come to understand themselves in context. They can even find that being non-binary, or queer, is a perfectly acceptable state of being, even if that, too, is tough to live in a binary world. Schools and teaching are not just about the trans kids, but all the others growing to make the next generation. Their understanding and acceptance matters just as much. They need not to be the haters and hiders of the future. We need honesty.
No-one was directly dishonest with me. I honestly think no-one around me knew anything at all. Girly boys were sissies, or worse, might be homosexual. Tomboy girls were just that, and joined in boys’ games more easily anyway. A girl could wear jeans, women wore trousers or ‘slacks’. Only a Scotsman could wear a kilt. Anything else was seen as a fetish or a perversion. In this context, no child (like me) was ever going to risk talking about the inseparable sex and gender.
This is how I was a trans child who was never seen as a trans child. I did not become trans because I discovered the diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Australia was there long before Captain Cook appropriated it. And there were always four species of giraffe, maybe more.
So whenever you read or hear about, or meet a transgender person, whether they are ‘out and proud’ or secretive, you are seeing a trans child grown up. Many will be able to express clearly that they knew from a very early age. Many will have made the transition much later in life. Most will have either lost the childhood they could have lived, or suffered and struggled for not fitting in. For most, parental understanding or not, will have played a major role. This means that you will find it hard to picture the trans adult as a child in their current gender.
My birth certificate says that I was born a girl.
I still think that most people will feel that this is not quite correct.
I was a girl, who played with Lego, Meccano, made radios, had a model railway. I had ‘Action Man’, but preferred the frogman and spaceman, and medic, to the guns. He married my sister’s Sindy doll, if I remember right.
I was a girl who had to wear grey shorts and school cap, envying the skirt and beret my sister had.
I was a girl who was sent to (achieved …!) a boys’ grammar school. Which thankfully later went co-ed and moved into the girls’ grammar school buildings.
I was a girl who wanted to spend break times with other girls, and who partnered another girl in chemistry practicals, and played French horn with another girl on piano. (Quite normal now, this was not how it generally was then.)
I was a girl who desperately needed the close company of other girls above boys, and others worried about this.
Knowing you’re not like other boys, is not good enough. Knowing you are not a boy (and that this is OK) is important – even if you eventually work out you are not a girl either.
Let me be that girl
Even now, I want you to understand that however you dressed me, addressed me, or thought about me, it was wrong. Not deliberately, back then, but still it was mistaken.
Un-knit your memories and allow me to fully own that girl.
I need better than two separated lives,
held in your perceptions.
I need to be Australia before Cook.
By your best endeavours, recognise that
I am not your discovery.
And when you read, hear or see about transgender children, please denounce the media who perpetuate their own distaste and hatred, and understand that many like me did not survive – because of course we all know there is only one giraffe. And we all need to know, share and teach this, properly.