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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

Biological Sex

  • Posted on November 12, 2017 at 11:07 pm

What does ‘biological’ mean? As far as I can determine, it hasn’t changed recently: it is simply ‘relating to living organisms’.

I raise it again, only because it keeps rearing its head as a reason why it is so important for human beings to be named male or female. Or intersex, of course, if it isn’t clear to the observer (not the person concerned). It’s a normal distribution among most species, including hominids all the way to us, heavily weighted towards bilateral division. So if an observer makes an assignation at birth, it is pretty straightforward in most cases.

What I find problematic about this, as so many others have, is that this naming of ‘biological sex’ is so superficial. If we really are going to talk biology, then we have to embrace the whole organism. My brain is part of my biology, as are my genes, not just my chromosomes, not just my organs, as is the way my particular ‘biological body’ responds to this interplay of factors.

The actual fact is that sex is not simplistic, and that it isn’t neat, even in humans. What you see is not the whole story. Rather, a full descriptor of the physiological body will provide a matrix of characteristics. And yes, most of the time, that matrix will not be sufficiently paradoxical to make the person themselves disagree with the more casual observer.

What you cannot say is that what the casual observer (or even clinical observer) decides at birth is absolute or exact. It may well be good enough, but it doesn’t make it right. Therefore, to say that you will always be the sex assigned to you at birth (e.g. a transman will always ‘really’ be a woman) is precarious to say the least. What was assigned is not based on the biological matrix of determinants of sex at all. That is rarely done.

Of all the characteristics a human can possess, sex is almost alone in being more a determinant than a descriptor. The reason we want it to be a determinant, is that we are still living in a pre-scientific, pre-biology mindset. We have moved on from seeing left-handed people as sinister who must be forced to become right-handed. They never did, of course, they just learned fine motor skills with their less-dominant hand. In this mindset, being a man or being a woman is a vital social discriminator. Accordingly, we have male names and female names, attire, roles, expectations and privileges, in order to divide us.

I have a growing sense that the separation of sex and gender is not quite what I thought it was. You know you are not a man, or not a woman, or indeed not either, because of the way your whole body is configured – not just the bits you can see, whether easily or by a scan or DNA test. I said it this way deliberately: how can anyone describe what it means to be a (man/woman)? There is no single set of perceptions. But I think we all know much more clearly what we are not. Generally, if we agree with someone else what it means to feel like a (woman/man) then we are more confident that is what we are.

We all know that whatever we feel we are (gender/sex) it isn’t altered by the parts of our bodies that may not be present (but perhaps should), that are present (but perhaps should not), or are dysfunctional, or are lost to injury or disease. Losing your primary sex characteristics does not change what you know you are. So why does having them?

I read that a mother of a transgender child explained it to others as being like handedness. You might want a child to be right-handed, but they know when they are not, and your label disables and harms them. By looking at the hands, you cannot tell which way the brain is configured. We don’t box people into R or L on every form they fill in through their lives, and we don’t ascribe it by cursory observation. Socially, it is no longer important.

M and F are not important because they are determinants by themselves. They have been used for so long solely to discriminate. We have different sets of names for M-ascribed people and F-ascribed people, and that too has become important. It tells other people how to treat you. Why do new parents, their parents, fellow parents and friends all want to know M or F? Why, when it is less clear, is everyone so afraid of the consequences?

What name shall we give them, what colour clothes, what kind of clothes, what stories, what toys, and will they help mummy, or daddy? And what will they do when they grow up? This is all about what we do, not about who the baby/child is, or their capabilities (comprising a thousand non-sex un-boxing characteristics).

So it seems that not only is ‘biological sex’ a matrix of easily and less-easily observed determinants, but the importance of ascribing M or F is very unhelpful. Why is M or F on any of my documents necessary? When I visit a doctor, go into hospital, apply for a job, take a partner, run a company, lead a platoon, become a parent or anything else I might do, it is not the M or F label that should matter. I should be treated as a whole person, according to my needs and capabilities, and with respect and equality.

Ancient writings of any source, written long before biology existed as a study, cannot supersede what we know about the complex determinants of sex. We so often hear that ‘God created man and woman, Adam and Eve.’ Why is primal incest OK in this story, but later same-sex love is not? Is every intersex person God’s accident? That’s a deep philosophical rabbit hole if ever there was. (And so we return to my scribblings about religion and the patriarchy from my previous post.)

I’m just asserting that the arguments from ‘biological sex’ are no more sound than ‘the Bible says’. People are people, with wide-ranging and very different characteristics. Even our sex is fascinating and complex, and that includes our brains, not just our minds. If anyone says your visible sexual characteristics determine anything much – let alone the first opinion about them, for life – then they simply haven’t read enough. Humans are but one species requiring complimentary gametes for reproduction, but that is where the importance of sexual dimorphism ends.

So what is the ‘biological sex’ thing all about? Protecting women from men? Or giving privilege to men? Or both? We have laws about treating each other fairly and with respect, and social norms about who gets first bite. The first is a consequence of human behaviour, and the second shapes it. But both seem to require that M or F in the box, and neither has much to do with biology.

This is not about political correctness for the sake of trans people, rather just a reminder that individual sex or gender is not something to be handed out as a permission and enforced as any kind of belief or tradition. If the big fear is that it will lead to an abuse of identity, well just use common sense and law to look after bad human behaviour.

M and F won’t be scrapped any time soon, but they shouldn’t be used where they are not needed.

Process and Protest

  • Posted on July 24, 2017 at 10:09 pm

I didn’t go. Again. The first year, it was the day of my surgery, so I wasn’t processing anywhere – or protesting. It would have been a good year: the first Trans Pride, and Brighton taking the lead. But whilst I did manage to do my bit at Brighton Pride one year (in the literary tent), and I did enjoy the relief of acceptance in public, I haven’t felt especially drawn.

I think it boils down to a range of ambivalences. For one thing, I imagine a whole bunch of men and women walking through town, singing, shouting, clapping, making music and noise, with pink and blue banners, looking just like, well, women and men, boys and girls, and plenty of completely indeterminate androgynous people. Like we see every day, everywhere. I would belong there. I just am not one of those trans people who feels a personal need to celebrate my trans-ness, and I love just being myself, as the woman I am comfortable being, looking like I do every day. Gender dysphoria was just something I sorted out.

Another ambivalence is whether it is a procession for visibility or a protest against invisibility (or rather, erasure). Many of us would have no problem with being invisible, but a lot of problems with erasure. And many of us have some problems with not being able to be unnoticeable, and that noticeability making us a ‘problem’ to other people. Reading comments under the press reports shows how much people would like us to disappear. Almost always, I feel, it is because anything to do with gender must be ‘about sex’, in the sense that sex is a secret pleasure and anything un-missionary must be dirty. Here I do want to protest: against ignorance and unwillingness to find out.

I protest ignorance

And yet, when on the same day as Trans Pride 2017, the government announces a review of the tardy and incomplete Gender Recognition Act of 2004, I do start to get animated. I went online to fill in the government survey and it brought back a lot of memories, things I have tended to forget since gaining my own Gender Recognition Certificate. Aside from not being a LGBTQI survey (itself a lot of erasure) it was reasonable, if a bit thin. I understand that everything was asked about experience in the past 12 months in order to avoid things that may have improved, but I don’t see that they have a lot, and especially not in the past three years.

Immediately we have a small move (by a lesbian politician) towards finding out about LGBT lives, we have the backlash by those who think that it’s only about ‘dubious sex practices’, and in such a way that families and marriage will be destroyed. Rooted almost exclusively in religion and religious cultural history, these are groups and individuals whose social structures and religious beliefs are so fragile that they dare not learn or grow. I imagine their confusion if Trans Pride did just look like ordinary men, women and androgynous folk. Maybe celebration by deliberately dressing up in carnival helps sustain their bigotry. And yet this is precisely why we must protest, not with violence, but with fun and provocative banners.

Our biggest enemy is, and always has been, ignorance. But ignorant people (about anything, and I’m sure it includes me too) find their favourite ignorances difficult to destroy. If by learning this, you have to let go of that, it will be embarrassing, awkward, lose you friends, shatter your world view, or knock a corner off it … We love stability, and yet constant change is pervasive and inevitable. It is what the world is made of. There is nothing in the universe that is not merely a rearrangement of the basic stuff everything is made of.

Think of the children, don’t scare the horses, god made only man and woman …

Predictably, after the launch of a review of the GRA, in order to make process easier for people born transgender, the ‘family concerned’ groups got on the media to scare the easily-afraid that predatory men will have their birth certificates changed on a whim so they can get into women’s spaces and attack them. And again it soaks into the headlines and the summaries that people read most, and often no further. Anyone and everyone, suddenly will be able to ‘change their gender’ or ‘swap their sex’ and it all becomes so easy, too easy. The sky will fall in. And again, trans people are pushed back into psychiatric scrutiny, invasive enquiry, withheld treatment, long and purposeless queues, years of unsupported transition, and finally a bill for accumulating a mountain of paper to go before an anonymous panel who are assembled to judge whether you are right about your own gender.

We do not change our gender. We only change what you say our gender ‘should’ be.

This is what fuels the powerful, conservative, mainly male, mainly religious right in the USA that insists on trans men having to go into female locker rooms and loos. Because trans women must be male predators. It just doesn’t happen, folks. But it could happen here too, and the arguments are already being rehearsed on Channel 4, reporting the government proposals to review gender certification.

I always ask why it is that I can be a lesbian without scrutiny, examination and certification, but not a woman. And why does it matter? If, as a lesbian, I am aggressively propositioning women, or if a gay man is acting similarly, that is no different from a man invading women’s spaces (or it it were likely) the reverse. Harassing or criminal behaviour is just that, and is covered in law. A man dressing as a woman to be a peeping tom is just that, however trans people are treated or respected. Few non-trans people really appreciate what it means to have your essential identity erased, belittled, or simply disbelieved. The transition process is cruelly flawed, and so long as we are not seen, proud or otherwise, we must process and protest.

I wave my little flag here, but even in filling in this latest government survey, I am reminded that there are places where I cannot casually say, ‘yes I’m trans’ without that diminishing my status as woman. There are many places where I cannot risk being spotted and outed, because I would be attacked, at least verbally, and my life would be reduced in scope and comfort and ability to take part socially or in work. And I am one who normally wouldn’t be spotted in a crowd. I am careful with my words, careful with my history, even sometimes careful with partner pronouns, just as my partner is careful holding hands or kissing.

The whole point is, I should not have to be. Nor to worry whether I ‘should’ be marching, processing or just being at Trans Pride. But I am glad that 2,500 people were this year, and that it isn’t going away.

Reflections as I near three years old

  • Posted on July 2, 2017 at 12:58 pm

I am nearly three years old. My gestation was longer than that of an elephant. Those three years feel like – I don’t know – ten or more. Every week I read someone else going through the final stages. It might be surgery, or a gender recognition certificate, birth certificate, or a new job in a new presentation. It might just be the latest verbal or physical threat, of psychological pressure to stop. I still feel very lucky indeed to have had such an easy ride through. But I still count years. When did I first realise; when did I first ‘come out’; when did I first go out – yes, ‘like that’, when did I realise I had to set out alone; when did I leave; when did I last see or speak to my daughter; when did I come home from hospital; when did I burn my mistaken birth certificate and know it was all, finally, over, no questions?

I remember a friend who had gone before me, in a café a few days before my op, saying that it was not the end. It was more like a start, and that it would be five years before it was all fully realised. I am feeling it is certainly three. But then I have the fortune of having found a quite complete new life, in many places where I was not known before. I have no need to hide, no need to proclaim. I can go to the beach in a bikini and swim, share life experiences as a woman, not be known as suspicious, unsettling or a curiosity. My joys and uncertainties are no different from any other woman my age, on HRT, considering her pension, keeping fit and enjoying life.

But I don’t need to look far over the fence to know that I live in a safe place. I have four characteristics that threaten me in a lot of places in the world, and sometimes it feels like those threats are getting closer: trans*, lesbian, woman, older. In past civilisations, these would have been different. Not absent, but different. There is something about religions that has eaten into modern civilisations everywhere, that claims some deity, invariably male, says that women are secondary, purposed for procreation and male pleasure, and that any characteristics undermining the power of patriarchy should be eradicated. It is writ overtly in the presidency of the United States, but embedded in most institutions and organisations still.

I think I would be much more frustrated if I were younger, trying still to forge a career, rather than gracefully letting such aspirations slide away. Yes, society, at least where I live, has vastly improved for women, older, lesbian or trans*, but it is still only slowly improving. Why no female coders where I work? why were the admin staff female and the sales engineers male, in my previous job, and why male senior leadership in the one before that? And I cannot imagine in that job, ever finding universal acceptance while transitioning in work. It wasn’t all bad, but it still isn’t all good. Only this week, a new report (NatCen report PDF) abut trans* acceptance was that the majority of survey respondents claimed not to be transphobic, but that only a third thought it acceptable for a trans* person to be a primary school teacher or police officer. The majority of people around us in everyday life are afraid of what we might do. We represent a risk. We represent a danger. If we speak up, we are a subversive ‘trans lobby’.

I am three years old, and born into disadvantage. Welcome to the world of women. Welcome into the world of transgender.

Don’t look back in anger

The point of this blog is not to criticise what is painfully obvious, nor to complain about the role of religion and culture in threatening my existence. Rather it is to pause and reflect, for all those following after me, what it is going to be like in the years ahead.

Expect normality. If you don’t, you won’t find it. Don’t belong more to the inside world of trans than to the outside, but speak normally about your life if you need to, or if it helps to defend the lives of others.

Recognise that life ‘before’ will change in your memory. If you weren’t male, don’t imagine your memories will be. So neither deny your memories as something to disown. They contain your life skills, many achievements, and the good ones are worth keeping safe. Yes, you have to be careful, for example, when you are assumed to have been the one giving birth, but you were still there. It may be surprising to be a woman who knows plumbing and wiring a house, but be real, be honest, and never hide from yourself.

Hormones and surgery change your physiology and drives, but they don’t change who you are. That’s why others think you have changed more than you do. However, we all change throughout our lives, so don’t hold back from new challenges, or be afraid to drop things that no longer inspire.

Accept that whilst regrets change nothing, they can be real. I regret many things about how I could have lived, learned and expressed myself, growing up perceived as a girl. Maybe I do regret some of the downsides too, because they would have formed me, shaped my observations, positioned me differently. Never let someone call you ‘lucky’ for not experiencing these things. We had enough downsides ourselves, and lacking self-acceptance can be more damaging and limiting than lacking the acceptance of another.

Allow your dreams and visualisations to feel real. Maybe they can never be; maybe it is too late; maybe they would always only have been dreams anyway. But they too are a part of you. Just don’t let them distract from what you can achieve.

Never believe that you owe anyone anything in reparation for being trans, and for finding your authenticity. I see many people living in guilt for being born as they were, giving over everything they gained in life to separated families, partners, spouses, children, colleagues. It is not selfish to be equal, so never take on board the blame that others throw at you just because they feel hurt by the way life is. Being trans* is not decision, trait or behaviour, and what you are is not less than what anyone else is. Live your life as only you know how.