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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.

Idol thoughts

  • Posted on March 7, 2015 at 10:40 pm

This week, bulldozers were running over 3,000 year-old treasured remains of the ancient city of Nimrud. I remember it from my university studies and visits to the British Museum, as containing very powerful symbols of a civilisation that dominated the region that is now Iraq. I always found it quite absorbing imagining the people who actually made the statues, built the temples, walls and gates, used the artifacts in their daily lives but also in their rituals. 3,000 years in one way is relatively recent, but in another is really ancient. The same artifacts that I could recall, then appeared this week being pounded under sledgehammers by men from the so-called Islamic State or ISIL.

It isn’t new though. Throughout history, histories have been obliterated, and religious extremists of all kinds have destroyed things precious in our eyes for secular reasons. In the Reformation in England, iconoclasm, or the removal of religious symbolism, was every bit as destructive. In 2001 the Taliban destroyed the 1,700 year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan because they were considered idols. In Nimrud, the destruction was again because significance was perceived to exist in objects we might just see as art. The same has now happened in Hatra. So what is an idol, that deserves such treatment?

We don’t have them much around here – do we?

An idol, even in biblical times, was an object invested with power. It doesn’t mean that the stone or wood, once chiselled and shaped, actually had any power, only that it was believed to have such, and therefore influenced people’s behaviours in relation to it. At the extremes, of course, such objects can become fetishes, and through suggestion are seen as being very powerful supernatural objects. Believe in the magic, or power, juju or voodoo, and real things do happen; charms, enchantments and curses really can affect people. But if you or I were innocently to find such an object, it would just be at most a sinister-looking piece of handcraft.

It is peculiar how as humans in societies, we create these things out of nothing, and then fear them, curse and bless with them, and render them dangerous enough to destroy again. And it’s all in the human mind. Religion, in this sense, still intrigues me. How is it that we can construct the edifices of a very wide variety of supernatural and superstitious beliefs, which necessarily must be limited by contemporary awareness and understanding and context, and then invest them with such infallibility that they become immutable doctrines, dogmas, rules, beliefs and faiths?
Essential to this activity is that the ‘knowledge’ has come from beyond, not from within, despite all evidence to the contrary.

That every divine being elucidated in literature has chosen to communicate with mankind through chosen individuals and mysterious beings, ending up being written down and susceptible to mistranslation and misunderstanding, may seem suspicious. (Is there really no better or more certain and secure way?) Even more so when this divine knowledge is expressed in temporally-bound terms. And yet here we are, in a world flooded with religions purporting to free us, whilst drowning us in guilt, self-destruction, rigid principles, and immune to improving knowledge and understanding. Copernicus and Galileo are stark reminders, but have we really moved on?

I had a slightly testy conversation recently over social media, that had been evoked by religious influence in a legal case. A judge had expressed his opinion about same-sex parenting, in court, and had been reprimanded, and a petition had been raised by Christian people to reinstate him. I objected to personal faith in a courtroom, but also to the underlying assumption that I was now unworthy of being a parent simply by virtue of being transsexual and also lesbian. Love, it seems, is not the same thing in a family with me as parent, as it would previously have been. Out trotted the usual mantra: ‘God made man and woman and marriage for the procreation and stable upbringing of children and this is the only natural way.’

Well, I went back with them over the definitions and current state of scientific understanding of the origins and meaning of sex and sexuality, explaining that you can either believe the man/woman binary system in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can see that in fact it isn’t quite as simplistic as that at all. And if the man/woman binary thing is unsafe, and you stop believing in it in the face of the facts, where does that leave you with concepts of marriage and parenting, families and households? The trouble with religions is that you can’t let them out of the bottle. So am I unfairly hitting back at religion, because it is so prevalent in the misunderstanding and bigotry against LGBTQI people? I began with a religious situation destroying the secular, in the belief that it was not secular but idolatrous. And now I am saying that religions easily make their own beliefs iconic and protected from secular understanding. Is it just that religion of any kind gets into a muddle, because it is not based on knowledge, and an understanding what knowledge actually is?

Having ranted and explained, I then came across a vlogger patiently going through some very interesting material on how presupposition affects perception (example: generally, we think male babies are bigger and stronger than female babies, not because of what we observe, but simply because we have been told a particular baby is male or female.) There are many researched examples that demonstrate our perception is skewed easily. Interview a person with your hands round a warm drink, and you will feel better towards them than if you hold a cold drink. Yes, that basic. So if you have a set of strongly-held beliefs or opinions, of course the world is a different place, and you actually think things are different. You have a faith? Then in your hands it has a supernatural power and changes the way the world is, around you. Even if you have an iconoclastic faith, your faith itself is an icon.

But this vlogger was even more interesting, because she vlogs as an atheist, experiencing atheist transphobia (a small percentage of transphobes whose attitudes cannot be attributed to religious cultural conditioning). Her conclusion was that the atheism itself had become a faith, and that the problem of the transphobes is that they have closed their understanding to new knowledge, to learning, and new ways of looking at things.

It all makes you wonder what ‘faith’ is. Is it just the ability to think without thinking about thinking?

Evolution and entropy: the fear of falling apart

  • Posted on December 26, 2014 at 8:37 pm

This blog is more an emergence from cloud than an incisive argument. I feel many thoughts converging, which may or may not cross in the middle, or perhaps only obliquely. But I like ‘thinking the opposite and seeing what happens’. I like ideas thrown into the air, where everyone seems to know how they fall – and then they don’t.

I am interested in why we are so afraid of our lives, why we make plans expecting them to work, why we are disappointed so often, and why we even think we have to measure up to some constructed ideal in order to feel life is correct or successful. Why did I live in fear, for example, for so many years, afraid of losing the only love that life would ever have to offer? I never thought of myself as possessive until now.

In the beginning

We think of life as starting with simplicity and innocence, followed by the accrual of many skills, emotions and abilities, by growth and strength, maturing to a point of complex fulfilment. I wonder whether it is really the other way round, like entropy, tending to maximum disorder, to basic simplicity.

The baby begins with great certainty, rooted entirely in fixed instincts, with few structured points of awareness, no muddled concepts in their head, no mistakes, nothing mis-structured, just aware of being alive and needing to be alive in every sense. Everything is connected to what it needs, in order to get life right. It’s like Lego out of the box with clear instructions and diagrams. It’s designed to go together from little pieces into a beautiful whole. A pirate ship or a castle, maybe. And yet it may never be that again.

Imagination, mistakes and lost pieces intervene, pieces that belong elsewhere come in, until the original set of pieces is part of a muddle in a common box.

Do we really move towards a better design, a clearer purpose, a more completely ‘correct’ idea of who we are and can be?

Too often we end with broken ideas, false certainties, failed hopes, lost direction and a sense of being alone, being deserted by life itself. Like an idealistic housing project in which no-one has lived because it was a great idea that did not reflect the reality of living. Don’t you wish you could find the original plans again? The older person fixed in ideas and failures, unrepeatable successes, dragged down with fears and grief, struggling to believe in themselves – is the one without fulfilment in being alive today, and today, and today. How then, are we to preserve the joy and meaning of life, to grow younger as we grow older?

Grief is a remarkable teacher, if you let it be

Let me take your hopes and aspirations, your ambitions and goals, your images of what life is all about and which give you your basis, as of now. Let me take those forward agendas, those lists and prescriptions, those expectations and wish-lists, and let me tear them slowly into small pieces before your eyes. Let me cast them into the air between us, openly. Let’s watch the fluttering fragments descend to the dirty floor. How will they fall? In chaos? Certainly any pattern will be a measure of your psychological response, not of orderedness.

Now stand with me and take this in. How do you feel?

There lie all your future loves. There are your future rewards and achievements. None of them are real, all are based in everything you have learned, embedded in yourself, or to which you have anchored yourself. Do you feel freedom – or fear? Which do you most feel like doing: fitting the fragments together with shaking hands? Or blowing gently on them and taking a fresh, clean, rather smaller piece of paper, on which to rest not a pen but your ever-changing thoughts.

Yes, the sense of loss is unbearable, isn’t it?

You are thinking: such a waste! But is it? Where is this fear coming from, and of what is its substance? What are those pieces on the floor, what do they represent, and why this profound grief? I want to try this idea: what you have lost is possession. Everything in pieces is what you felt secure with, that you owned, that was yours, that maybe even was a part of you. And yet you were born with not one letter of one word on one fragment of this agenda, this list, this future you.

Possession and fear are inextricable

The moment we have anything in our lives – from a realisation that we can do something, to a material thing like a shoe, a coin, or even a home, to job or responsibility, or a friendship, to a deep love for another – we enter the fringes of fear. Grief stands waiting from that first moment, hand outstretched for the dawning of doubt, the fragility of hope, the impossibility of anything good lasting, or of being good enough to deserve this thing at all. We are terrified of our aloneness. We are terrified of ever being that baby again, one hundred percent potential, surrounded by grown people balanced on their uncertainties and fears, ready for grief.

What must we learn about life in order to regain its potential, and let go the fear of losing everything, the moment we find something valuable in our lives?

Not much of a Christmas/Seasonal message is it (apart from the Lego bit)! I want to know why, though, because I feel that it is true, and yet avoidable. What must we learn about life in order to regain its potential, and let go the fear of losing everything, the moment we find something valuable in our lives? I want to learn something here in a new way, because this is where I am. I have known loss, I have known grief, I have stared into the gaping pit of becoming nothing, of life becoming completely not worth continuing, or preferring to be dead than to being alive. And I know I am a ‘mild case’ of this so I don’t take it lightly at all.

If nothing else, we must let grief teach us honesty. We must take in the pieces on the floor and know they mean nothing.

To belong is not to possess; to be possessed is not to belong

I belong to no-one. No-one belongs to me. I ‘owe’ nothing, and I am ‘owed’ nothing. I have nothing to give, I have only myself to be, and to choose how to be. If my being alongside another helps that person to be, then I have done what every particle in the universe, dark or bright, does. I have created a resonance that makes a bond that creates something new, that influences the next, even at the most fantastical relative distances.

And yet I see this so easily as being vulnerable, as feeling intensely alone. Is this actually where we find real strength? If the ability to belong wherever we find ourselves is the most real we can be, then we can begin truly to live only when we realise we shall always belong. Perhaps in different ways or places, but always belong, simply because everything belongs – simply because that’s how things are. How can you dance through life if you can’t hold hands, let go, and hold hands again? (With anything or anyone, not in a romantic sense.) How can you receive if your hands are full with not giving? And why is this so frightening? Why does everything new have to immediately feel permanent and safe, when we know nothing about us is permanent?

The baby simply belongs, the adult fears. The adult sees the baby as insecure. The baby does not yet know how insecure the adult is. The baby possesses nothing, the adult fears losing their possessions. The baby is all life and potential. The adult is too often trapped in their own misunderstanding.

Lego, just let go

Sometimes I think we learn life like accruing Lego bricks. We get one, we place it, another and it clicks on top. We keep going, with occasional adjustments and rearrangements, building our idea of a house (or pirate ship or castle), hoping to finish it and explain the pieces by means of our construction. At worst we fear the bricks falling apart (the early ones did!) and apply our glue. This, we say, is how life is.

But maybe we are building false complexity, mistaking order for availability to live. Maybe the simplicity of simply belonging as we are, rather than possessing some whole construction, is what this life is all about.

Lego does not mean ‘let go’. It actually means ‘play well’. So let’s go and play, not possess. And lose our fear of life.