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The problem with activists

  • Posted on January 20, 2018 at 10:37 pm

In 2004 I walked into local council offices for a conversation with local officials and advisers. Somehow I had come to speak on behalf of local residents about a concerning issue. It was the first time that I realised that to show concern and act on it turned you from being ‘a concerned person’ into ‘an activist’.

‘Activists’ always sounded like a nuisance, a busy-body, an intrusive person who disturbs the peace. I didn’t like it.

But I was an activist nonetheless for five years until the argument (which I still stand by) had been made so many times against such powerful interests, that I realised I had no more to contribute. I am not an activist in this area any more. In some ways I feel I betrayed the cause by falling silent; after all I had been analytical, measured, informed and articulate. What I really wanted to do was proper research, to follow a thread that I felt was intriguing and possibly important.

Benefits of being an activist

Being an activist brought me to meet and know a wide variety of people I would not otherwise have met. A hugely diverse crowd from a number of countries, we had a shared concern, and supported each other. Sometimes it was a bit of a bubble, but even the bubble had rainbow colours, and I learned a lot, and to widen my view.

Maybe this is why, three years after that came to a close for me, and I knew I had to respond to understanding myself as transgender, I decided to be very open, honest and proactive about the whole business of being trans, transitioning, observing being trans in the world (my strap line to this blog is still this), and how the world responds. And yet I am not an activist – am I? I don’t take days off to go to London marches, I don’t join trans pride committees, and six years on, I don’t deliberately associate with trans groups. In a recent post here, I discussed choosing how visible to be, Should I make it a point, so that I increase the number of people who knowingly know a trans person, and find them ordinary? Or does it stop me being ordinary by declaring my transness?

Problems of being an activist

Just as I recoiled from being referred to as an activist in 2004, when all I was trying to do was help people find a voice, so trans people find it difficult today. We speak up for ourselves, and sometimes we need to do it robustly, because no-one else does. But as soon as we do, there are those who say we are a ‘trans lobby’, that we have an insidious ‘trans agenda’, and that we are all ‘trans activists’ – simply because, like me back then, we have very pressing and legitimate concerns.

In 2004-5, I, with a few others, was knocking on lots of doors, talking, performing a well-structured survey and getting some meaningful analysis on it. My work was cited in Hansard for my pains. I took my concerns to council meetings, public meetings, judicial review, around the country, to Scotland, to Germany, corresponded with international scientists, joined a government agency committee, and considerably outside my original comfort zone, I tried to do what I could for a fair hearing. I feel I didn’t do much; many did so much more. But I learned a lot, and I hope I pushed conversations wider. I didn’t just learn; I opened up my whole scope of understanding.

And I was a nuisance. I felt the power of money, how justice could be bought, and how public consultation is so often a lie. I felt just how powerful corporates can be.

Reluctant activist

Transitioning inherently takes you out of your comfort zone. In fact you leave it entirely in order to remake a new one. Along the way, like a lizard changing its skin, you feel incredibly vulnerable, your new skin very soft and thin. And you do get attacked, and accidentally trodden on. To be robust, you have to stand up for what it means to be trans, you find yourself associating with people very different to yourself, people you may not otherwise choose to be friends with, people you disagree with, or even not like as people.

If you explain yourself, you are an activist.
If you defend yourself, you are an activist.
If you fight back you are an activist.
If you suddenly start standing up for trans rights, you are an activist.
If you refuse to accept transphobic humour and slurs, you are an activist.

Am I an activist because I am transgender? Is it inevitable? The quieter I become, the less activist I feel – until the conversation is public, until there is antagonism in the media, until I hear people taking us down, until I don’t hear ordinary people joining in against discrimination, bigotry and bias.

Right here, in the middle of #metoo, the real atmosphere is #notme. LGBTQI inequality and discrimination has nothing to do with me because either I am not personally affected by it, or I am not LGBTQI so it’s none of my concern. And this is writ large when it comes to trans equality.

#notme and the GRA

As I write, amendments to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (it was an important year!) are under discussion, It’s all about depathologising gender. Did I really need a psychiatrist – or four – to tell me I am trans, not mentally ill? Did I really have to undergo gender confirmation surgery in order to know my own gender? Did I really have to go it alone for two years ‘trying out’ my true gender before I could have even hormone treatment? And get sworn legal documents, gather a large wad of proofs that I had been ‘living as’ a woman, and pay a fee, so that I could be ‘certified’ legally in my gender? Surely you do know your gender when you wake up in the morning, and no-one else can tell you … That’s why the Act needs updating.

And this is why there is a strong backlash (mainly feminists of a particular kind, and conservative religious bodies) who say that the size and appearance of genitalia at birth can only and forever mean you are decisively in one of only two categories. And consequently that trans does not exist, only confused men and women.

And of course, to them, that means trans women are potentially dangerous men. These people will insist that trans men use women’s loos. (And that vulnerable trans women use men’s.) Because falsely (and more easily?) claiming that you are trans in order to legitimise perpetrating violence is a thing? Yes, really. Here in the UK, we are as vulnerable to inadequate law as ever. In the USA it is far, far worse and potentially retreating decades. Stonewall currently has a campaign Come out for Trans Equality that illustrates the harms done in all aspects of life to large proportions of trans people. This is real. Transition, claiming your gender, is not easy, even if you make no effort to legalise your position (and many object to the demeaning process).

Am I sounding like an activist? Because there are powerful groups who have a view that we are simply delusional, aggressive, dangerous and undermining society? What else should I say?

What I do want to say, is that leaving this nonsensical ‘debate’ about gender identity to trans people, when such deep-seated bigotry is seeking resonance with religious cultural roots in society and calling on ignorance rather than learning – is a betrayal of our humanity. We need you, dear ordinary cis (non-trans) and thinking reader, to be more than just kindly towards us. We need your voice, we need your concern, we need you to call out the transphobic humour when you hear it. We need you to express our equal humanity with yours, because we are not the dangerous ones.

Going Out: Eastern Germany 2017

  • Posted on January 1, 2018 at 1:22 pm

She doesn’t quite catch my hand
it falls—shatters on the ground.

You never quite know.

Windows down the empty way,
nostalgia with suspicion —
a Trabi sits on the lot, a tiny
sufficient reminder
that trust is fragile, still.

I look down at my hand
the pieces silently explain
why I had danced apart last night
to rock, metal and stones, a
wrong fear of anyone too right.

They pointed at us.
They looked disgusted.
You just didn’t see.
At the fruit blossom fest last year,
—and I recall.

The pieces of my hand reluctantly
rearrange themselves, reoccupy
my glove, find my pocket;
join every love darkened by fear
es tut mir leid.

Yes, and knowing
that this is not how change happens.

 

2017 © Andie Davidson

Orlando

  • Posted on June 14, 2016 at 11:17 pm

It is for God to punish
says his father, and a mother
in another country says she hates
the woman her daughter
must hide in a closet
when her uncles come.

My partner wriggles her hand
free from mine, unsure
because this isn’t Brighton;
they stand at passport control
separately, just in case,
and the sun beats down.

I was lucky, he says, I did
gymnastics with the girls,
kept a low profile and learned
which way to walk home, funny
how so many I know now
were bullied at school.

A man cries in a crowd
in another language, as
thousands, and thousands of miles
apart, are together tonight
showing recognition, naming
a shared sorrow and fear.

A father leans forward
in a theatre, speaks his
objection to two girls kissing,
thinking of his daughters
the infection, not the
affection without fear.

A mother lives in fear, her
daughter’s lover shut,
a father lives in fear because
he was taught a god, and taught
his son, who beat himself, down,
Pulse racing to shoot.

People who don’t pray, pray
for the souls wrapped
around bullets, and people who do
try to forget who god punishes,
pray for mothers, not lovers;
my lover loosens her hand.

We never quite forget, as you can,
that the fear is ours, that
a touch, a kiss, is twisted out and
into disgust, our loves denied,
existence erased, or laughed off
with taught lines, from sacred places.

We are people you can make
laws about, lies about, forget
that this was another Target
entitling one breath to close
a toilet door, a cupboard, another
to extol faith, text, gun, a good son.

 

Notes:

  • Living with my lesbian partner where it’s illegal to be gay (Iran)
  • On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American-born Afghan Muslim, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a shooting inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. He was by all accounts himself gay.
  • Target is the second largest discount retailer in the US, which drew (largely Republican Christian) transphobic attention by disregarding state ‘bathroom bills’ requiring transgender people to only use toilets matching the gender on their birth certificates.

2016 © Andie Davidson

It’s not what you remember, but how

  • Posted on December 1, 2015 at 10:35 pm

A friend of mine has been writing what we hope to be a book, with some contributions from me, interleaving experience and reflection with research. It’s not about being anything, but the meaning there is in it, as it is. In some ways it’s a challenge. ‘How about a chapter on your experience of gender dysphoria?’ Sounds innocent enough; we both know that it isn’t a generalisation but a personal experience, just my narrative and my interpretation of it.

I had a go. By the end of a day of hard writing and thinking, I wasn’t particularly satisfied. How many different ways could I have told the story as a chapter (not a whole big boring book)? Rather a lot of trans people have written their own books, and some are really good, and helped me. I have also seen some that are not so good, and are a reflection that many of us want just to tell our story, though we are not all writers. I guess if I were asked to tell my story to several people with very different backgrounds, I would tell it differently each time. So what matters most to me?

The more I think back, the more my story connects up, as I remember little things, the circumstances of the times, the pressures not to speak of certain things, the need to conform, and even the lack of sufficient understanding to think that I might not have been what everyone told me I was. On one level my story is a happy life. On another it is life characterised by a constant fear. On one reading it is very singularly my own, on another terribly familiar. But the reason that I have this story at all has an absolutely common thread, understood by every transgender person.

I am looking forward to seeing the file ‘The Danish Girl’, and have seen the trailer, and a few interviews with the key actor playing Lili Elbe, Eddie Redmayne. If the trailer made me cry, I’m sure I won’t make it through the film. The big trigger, I expect, will be that first unavoidable confession of knowing your gender is different. The way I phrased the feeling of falling into that realisation, was ‘it just feels perfect’.

The trouble with revisiting the story after several years, is that having settled very perfectly, you can still remember that there was real happiness in your life before too. I don’t want to lose that, but neither is it easy to embrace. If I look at photos of my daughter’s wedding a few months ago, or of my ex-wife looking really happy, giving the wedding speech, her being there and not me … or remember too vividly past Christmases … or holidays, or at pictures of happy homes we made and shared … and … and … Then I remember that but for one thing about me, everything was good.

The story of Lili Elbe, and of many other people who have transitioned, is one of devotion. Love somehow survives the hurt and carries on. Here, there will be pain and loss too, but something mattered too much to let it go. And this is where too much reflection and retelling the story doesn’t help. I was one of the majority who lost their marriage and family, and my deepest regret is that it was for no other reason than my gender. I still recall saying: ‘I can’t walk away from this. You can. Please don’t.’

Rage spoils memories

I was trying to remember something I said when writing the chapter, and from searching around, came across a few pages I wrote at the beginning of transition, when I knew it was all over with my wife and family. It was rage in black and white. Rage that I was not allowed to be angry, that I had to be the one who must understand how difficult this all was for everyone else. It was rage that this one thing that made me feel perfect at last made everything else fall apart. That I could come to a clear understanding, and that in doing so I was no longer wanted as a partner, companion, parent, even though I was still me, crawling out from under a blanket of fear where I had stayed for the sake of everyone else.

And behind that rage was a whole lifetime of tender loving memories that felt completely betrayed. Yes, I had to understand how difficult this was, how impossible for those closest to me to sustain. So every time I hear of love enduring through transition, I remember. Memories of rage? Memories of betrayal? Memories of happiness? Memories of love?

Just as I could think after writing my chapter, of all the ways I could have told the story, so there are many ways of remembering. And it is hard to remember how I had to walk away, not from my own love but from a door closed by others. I think it takes a lot longer than I had thought, to wipe the soot and dust off good memories, so that they don’t simply hurt, but become treasures. I struggle sometimes with talking about a good life that I had, as if by confessing their goodness I want them back. I don’t, because they are long past, and they were all a shared possession, not just mine. And I don’t ever want to live with fear again, least of all fear of my authentic self being a reason not to be loved or wanted. So somehow I need to become able to see photographs, read things and remember, in a different way, where the ending isn’t part of every moment. I will get there, but it has been a reminder to me that just as you can tell your story to other people in many ways, so you can to yourself. Mine is not a sad story, just a brilliant chapter with a very sad ending.

I really don’t want to live with any resentment or anger, and largely it has gone. I simply want to feel gratitude for everything good that has happened in my life. Right now it is good, I am grateful for the love that I share, for the life my partner and I are building together, and for all the new experiences we bring to each other. Life is all about learning, all the way, beginning to end, and after so much telling over the past few years, now I still need to learn how to remember well and safely, because the story continues.

Dealing with disappointment

  • Posted on May 11, 2015 at 9:17 pm

I am not a political animal.

Now there’s a statement that is always followed by ‘but’! I’m not, really. I don’t feel informed, educated, well-read enough to stand on any platform. This morning, however, I have read through a number of articles and blogs that echo the sentiments and feelings I was left with on Friday, following the UK General Election. I shared some on Facebook, and despite knowing some Conservative supporters, I have as yet not seen any blogs celebrating or supporting the outcome, with any arguments for why we are in for a very good five years ahead. The outcome was unexpected, to say the least. Only one in four UK voters marked their ballot papers for a Conservative MP, and yet we have a (slim) majority government. That means between half and three-quarters of UK voters actively do not want this political party in government. And so the petitions are starting: do not abolish the Human Rights Act, do not further privatise the NHS, do not pass TTIP on corporate-protected transatlantic trade. Graphs and tables of who has fared worst from Tory policies over the past five years, and who has gained most. Who has slipped deeper into disadvantage, and who has become richer; why so many food banks now, and why so many working poor are branded as scroungers.

I seem to remember from my university degree days that the old testament prophets shared a common theme: justice and righteousness, against self-serving rulers and free market forces. And I am not religious either.

But. When I see how we are persuaded (and follow) so easily into comforts and convenience, and social decision-making handed to us while we sleep, I see that we have lost attention on society protecting the vulnerable. We are offered ‘the good life’ for being ‘hard-working families’, and yet fail to analyse what is really being said here. Who defines a good life, and in what currency? Who defines hard-working, and is it in terms of brain-power, slavish compliance with a corporate-market consumerist idea of being human together? Is it in terms of hours worked, how tired you feel at the end of every day? How do we define not just deservedness of great wealth, but deservedness of security and of decent food?

So yes; unpoltical and unreligious as I am, I fear for the direction in which we are being steered by this government, for the sake of those without security, or robustness of mental well-being, or in disadvantaging circumstances of health, location or age. Every minority group and every vulnerable group in the UK is now a bit more uncertain of how life is going to be in another five years time. Fear and uncertainty about those responsible for all our social well-being, those un-voted for and not representing them in any direct or chosen way.

It’s not fair. It’s not right.

What? Life? No. Nobody ever said it was.

Yesterday I should have triumphantly hobbled over the line after 26.5 miles for a charity walk. It was even perfect weather. My partner and I had done practice walks, bought new walking shoes and socks, Nordic poles, even and a windproof no-sweat jacket. We got sponsors for the charity running the event, planned, travelled, camped and prepared with colleagues. We walked maybe five miles together the afternoon before, and 100 metres from camp, I slipped on a grassy bank and heard a crack in my ankle. It’s only a tendon or ligament, and it will mend, but within moments I knew I wasn’t going to walk a marathon the next day. It isn’t about the pain. I can do that. It very much is about the disappointment. I couldn’t drive, I could hardly walk at all, and the day would be long. With extraordinary generosity, my partner decided not to pick the walk up half way, so as to not leave me alone. We made good of the afternoon, but we both cried, because we had really wanted to do this walk.

My first comment is not to reflect that many who suffer under our current political regime, and a strong western money-value society, suffer as a result of lesser an accident of circumstances – though that is often true. I was in a hard-walking group and living a good life when in a fraction of a second I was neither.

No; it was about my reaction, our reaction, and where it left us, not altogether different from how many will have felt as the election result materialised. Cursing and shouting and enumerating all the possible consequences, will not help. Initially my little secure world collapsed. My fragility was for all to see. And yes, I got practical: protect, rest, ice, compression and elevation (the PRICE first aid rule). That evening we made basic decisions so that the effects on the whole group were limited. The next day at the midway point we met up, and made further decisions. Not what we wanted at all, but there was space for real kindness. And by the end of the day we were looking at alternative walks for when my ankle is healed. We will do justice to those who sponsored us, and we will find our achievements and challenges in another way. I can’t dance for a few weeks: shall we commit to swimming instead? Can I get to work? Who can I ask? Today I feel more robust; uncomfortable and disappointed still, but feeling a bit more in charge.

A similar theme has marked social media about the election. We don’t have to sit by and watch things pushed out of our control. We don’t have to let the agenda be owned by people who do not represent us. We can act in small but coordinated ways. If we talk to each other, share ideas and motivations, assert our right to be heard, stick to the validity of ourselves as people, we can change the game. It isn’t going to just happen for us though, and it may never be as we expect or prefer. Life isn’t about the lily-pads being where we want. It’s about them being there with a route to hop across the water, even if circuitous.

I hope I have begun to learn this. My motto of ‘why not?’ persists. Gender transition is not an easy thing to do, and you need real courage to face up to the process and persist with it. It’s no good bemoaning that lily-pads have been swept away, or that you can only see one ahead. It’s no good dwelling on your inevitable losses. Yes, I’m preaching to myself. Life is what you create it to be.

And it can be very unexpected.