As so often, several little things come together with a common theme, and invite reflection. This morning Jane Fae had written some comment for the Scottish Sun about her own experience of transphobic violence. Nothing new, and sadly commonplace. Last night Grrl Alex added to her blog ‘Familiarity breeds acceptance’, dealing with transphobia on trains. And yesterday, more fellow musicians told me how brave and courageous I was to come out by addressing the entire band.
All of this speaks of the motivation, the response and the inevitability or the trans life. As Jane said: ‘I’ve got used to a level of violence which, had you said to me this will happen every couple of months, I’d have been horrified.’ I can’t think that anyone would actually choose to be trans in a starkly gender binary society. But we don’t choose to be like this: it really isn’t anything to do with lifestyle. But do we have a choice at all? In a way, most of us have chosen for considerable time: to repress our true nature and live as best we can in the physically-apparent gender. Coming out trans is the result of giving up that choice. Hence what happens to us isn’t altogether avoidable if we want to live normally. So where was the courage? In the life lived-best-but-wrong, going against the current, trying daily to not feel uncomfortable, out of place as an outsider? Or in giving up and then taking whatever is cast at us? At best it is a different kind of courage.
Grrl Alex reflected on dealing with society’s curiosity, not just deliberate transphobia. We can forgive ignorance, but we can give understanding. A trans person on a train is cornered, and it does take courage to travel in a way that leaves you tremendously vulnerable and trapped. Alex’s book relates her own early experiences with trains, and I have had the feeling of surprise in going for a quiet late train, and arriving to find it was football night and packed with striped scarves. Again, no choice. But Alex raises the question of vulnerability and courage. If you act very ‘just leave me alone!’ you can become a target, whereas if you address the ignorant attacker honestly, confident in who you are, you can realise that the problem was really transphobiaphobia (coined perhaps by Richard Beard in Becoming Drusilla, which I recommend). So clearly an active courage can be a great help – so long as you want to be out and visible, and not pretend to be stealth (ie, so convincingly gender binaried that you are indistiguishable from cis-gendered people) when you are not. Alex resolves this by being herself (and I always hesitate at pronouns for Alex) and rather than being brave, is assertive (the blog and cover of the Grrl Alex book speak for themselves).
Which brings us to me. I chose on several occasions this past week, to stand up in front of between 30 and 40 people at a time who have long known me as a man, and effectively say ‘I am a woman’ – with a bit of explanation. For ages I scrubbed off nail varnish, changed my watch, as well as everything else, after a day lived as a woman, just to go and play the trumpet. And I admit there was no courage there. I tired of that, and soon people were noticing – even admiring – my choice of colours, which maybe matched a bracelet also left on. I relaxed. That wasn’t courage, it was just starting to be myself. And anyone who asked, increasingly got a direct reply that I was transgender. Was that courage? No, it was just getting safer to be honest. Compared with the first time I went out as a woman, speaking in public about myself as a woman was almost trivial. So I protest now that I am only doing what I have to do and that, being authentic, it is just being honest. I don’t have a choice, when the alternative is a denial of self.
So why am I so visible? Is it just that I can never be pretty enough to ‘go stealth’? Maybe age is on my side after all! No. I have shared with people around the world what it is like to be trans, and have found so many scared people, in very unforgiving circumstances, or in fear of what they might have to admit to themselves and to partners that, like Grrl Alex, I feel compelled, at least for now, to say ‘It’s OK to be trans. You don’t have to be a 100 per cent man or woman, indistinguishable from cis-gendered folk. This is part of normality and the way the world is.’
So if I show any courage at all, it is because I want to give a little more confidence to people who need it in order to realise themselves. I can’t make life easier for them or for me. This is tough. This can tear your emotions apart like nothing else. But it is OK, whoever in your life can’t cope with it. And it is far, far better than trying to pretend everything is fine in gender-land when it is not.
Courage is what you have when you enter a place, not where safety is not guaranteed, but where you are positively likely to get threatened. These are places we simply must eradicate, but they won’t go until trans people do stand up and be visible, be assertive, write in our newspapers, blog and live normal lives – like people of different races, or gay and lesbian and anything else between increasingly can.