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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 (a thousand non-sex un-boxing characteristics).

So it seems that not only is ‘biologiocal 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.

Stars

  • Posted on February 24, 2017 at 7:02 pm

Some go to the harbour
for the buoys
or gaze out to sea;
others fly to crested castles
for knights hoping
for a favour, to be won;
we go down to the undercliff
where the spray
catches us, reeling.

Landed, quiet and still
wrapped in you, I feel
your breath on my shoulder;
each exhalation full of
fragments of dreaming;
every inhalation drawing
inspiration for more.

Our limbs become branches
of a single tree,
acquiring leaves;
and stars.

 

2016 © Andie Davidson

The curiosity of debate

  • Posted on February 19, 2017 at 5:36 pm

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.