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Orientation: Portrait

  • Posted on June 7, 2019 at 8:42 pm

I’m sitting in front of the big portrait mirror, watching the incremental improvement in my hair under the expert scissors of my lesbian hairdresser. I can talk comfortably about my partner – and hers – and indeed about being trans. I told her early on, half presuming it was already obvious from my thin hair on top, my characteristic hairline, and to signal that I was OK to be identified. I started coming here on recommendation of my partner, so ‘coming out’ as gay had already been done by proxy, though it was into my first cut that I realised…

Cereal Killer

  • Posted on June 2, 2019 at 7:38 pm

It came from the supermarket, like every other time. A box of cornflakes. It went into the cupboard to wait for the last packet to be finished. It was one hurried morning on the way to other things that it was opened, bowl and milk at the ready. The flap was opened, the inner pulled apart and wheesh! Into the bowl. My bowl. Breakfast.

Something was wrong and only I seemed to notice. Everyone too busy, but it was my bowl, my breakfast. The milk was already in, and I could hear it. Snap, crackle and pop is how it is usually described. And cornflakes don’t do that. I ate the cereal. I enjoyed it, even though this was not what we usually bought.

The next morning I asked for rice krispies.

No, you don’t like them, have your usual cornflakes. Here.

I took the box and was about to pour my new option into the bowl, when I almost said: these are rice krispies, aren’t they? But I didn’t. Everyone was as rushed as usual, nobody noticed. I enjoyed.

On Saturday I said nothing, and poured my cereal.

Why are you eating rice krispies? Where did you get those from?

Almost indignation. I explained that all week, I had been using the cornflakes packet and enjoying rice krispies. My mother grabbed the box off the table, scrutinised the outside, scrabbled into the inner, shook it and sniffed.

This is wrong! They’ve put the wrong thing in. It’s too late to take it back now. You should have said. Krispies are cheaper too, so I’ll have to complain next time we go shopping.

I like rice krispies … I began to explain, already halfway through the bowl, my mouth still crackling with a spoonful.

Don’t talk while you’re eating. It’s rude. And you like cornflakes; you always have.

I looked at the picture on the box, feeling chastened for bucking the trend, for departing from the norm.

Serving suggestion. I began to wonder which the variable were that made this a disclaimer from disappointment. Was it the milk? Or that you didn’t have to use a blue-striped bowl? Was the spoon optional so you could drink it up from the edge of the bowl? Or was it the cornflakes?

On Sunday I asked for rice krispies. The box was tabled assertively in front of me.

You can have cornflakes as usual, OK? These are cornflakes. And it you have to pretend, pretend, but you can see what’s on the box. Now eat your cornflakes.

I quietly enjoyed my corn krispies. That’s what I called them now, and everyone made a jolly joke of it. So I laughed with them. And the thing is, the same happened the next time we bought cornflakes. Only this time we had friends to stay for a few days, and of course we had breakfast together. There was a choice of cereal, but not rice krispies. They had to be called cornflakes (but not very good ones, so choose something different). It was too much to own that you had something mistaken. Too much that you might like something that is not what it seems.

I stuck to my imagined serving suggestion and covertly enjoyed this brief period of corn krispies. The joke lasted a childhood, but these day?

I buy rice krispies.

Being transgender isn’t a serving suggestion. It isn’t a choice or a mistake, and not a trend or a joke. It’s what is actually in the box that matters.

Trans is not a word to understand

  • Posted on September 14, 2018 at 11:28 pm

I think some people try to understand what it is to be transgender by trying to understand the words. If they can construct an argument about the words, their origins and use, they have grasped how real, people like me are.

Surely, I would be happy to have made no changes to my body or life if only this social construct of gender did not exist. Yes! I could have lived happily with a male body, dressed as I wished, shaved, gone bald with age and maintained all that cut and thrust of testosterone – because no-one would have minded. I could have just ‘been myself’!

Not so, dear reader, not so.

I am not a term to be understood. Etymology and use do not come near expressing what it is to be trans. Like old shoes, words get baggy with much use and don’t fit anymore.

I was not ‘born in the wrong body’ at all, any more than someone with red hair who hates it, or someone with a disability, or someone who has simply grown too tall from hormone problems. It is not the wrong body. I am what I am. It is just that brain and body development got a bit out of kilter somewhere early on. I can’t change my innate sense of self, but I can change my body.

What about you? Are you definitely a woman, or definitely a man? Are you sure? Or is your first question prefixed by ‘physically’, or ‘biologically’? If you do, you need to read up on the many aspects of what define ‘biological’ sex. Big time.

Or do you just know? I don’t think you need a mirror in the morning, or to have a feel around just to be sure. I don’t think you need a second opinion, and if it differed or was doubtful, I don’t think you might change your mind. When did you last dig out your birth certificate just to check out that your opinion of yourself matches that of the doctor or midwife?

Even if you live a non-binary life and dislike the idea of actually ‘being’ non-binary … you know what you are not.

Do you understand what it is to know if you are male, female or neither or a bit of both?

  • Seven years ago I began to understand.
  • Six years ago I began to live in a new way.
  • Five years ago I lived alone.
  • Four years ago I had transforming surgery.
  • Someone told me: ‘this is just the beginning’
  • Three years ago I began living with someone I deeply love.
  • And since then I have understood that for all the beginnings and endings, some will never understand.

I have been told that I am not a woman. I have been told that I am a man. I have been told that I am trans, or deluded, and many other things. I have been told that I am not lesbian, that I must be gay, or that I am still a hetero man because I used to be married while registered as a man.

I have been told many times what I am, what I am not, and effectively what I am not allowed to be.

What do you think? And where did you get your ideas from?

When my children were much younger, they had a friend who was the most tomboy a child I have ever known. A little later, my son had a trans friend at school. That was it. No issue or problem. Unlike me (yeah, well!), they had gay and lesbian kids in their school, and that’s just how they were. Friends I had at university were gay, lesbian and bi. I came to know people with intersex conditions. I discovered that there are men born with micro-penis, women born without a uterus. A colleague had a hysterectomy at a very young age, and so could never experience what most women share. And friends with polycystic ovaries and hormonal imbalances. More and more women who divorce men and begin lesbian relationships.

I wonder what their many life experiences have each been like. Could I segregate them by their life experience confidently and exclusively as women and men? If I DNA tested them and mapped their chromosomes, would that help? What about their sexual attractions (or lack of)? Would that help me divide them into straight, bi, gay and lesbian? I wonder how clearly I could research and gather physical, psychological, social and mental attributes in such a way as to divide them up?

But why?

Surely their needs are different. Medically? Socially? Surely a trans person is not as really the gender they claim, as someone born with unquestionably clear genitals and chromosomes and sexuality? I mean, it is so confusing that someone born with enough of a penis but XXY, who used to appear straight male, lives as female and has a female partner and calls themselves lesbian. I mean, surgery doesn’t really change your sex does it?

You say it is only confusing because we squish people into socially constructed boxes. If only the boxes didn’t exist, we would all be happy; no conflict of definitions. Well, I place myself in society where I feel I belong. Why do you want to place me where you think I belong?

I find this kind of narrative about sex, sexuality and gender no different from nationalism. Once upon a time there was a golden age, where everyone lived and worked happily together, the sun shone equally on all, there was a roof over everyone’s head and bread on the table. Wars did not happen, no-one was cheated or downtrodden; a benevolent king was on the throne and life was … good. That must have been before others came in, invaded and spoiled it all, with different languages, different ideas.

Was there not also a time when men were men, women were women and we all knew our place? Well that wasn’t so good for women, was it? So now we have feminism, we must protect at all costs what it means to ‘be a woman’. And that’s where the parallel golden age of gender breaks down. It was never good. The patriarchy still rules, just as first nations people all over the world constantly face erasure and victors rule the historical narrative.

Keeping transgender people out protects nothing, and only ingrains trans resentment against the gender nationalists, even those who define ‘woman’ and throw gender out as false. Let’s be clear, a feminist who is more radical and excludes trans women as not being female or women, is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist. It isn’t just a slur, it isn’t derogatory, it is a description of a formula of feminism, originating in 2008, to distinguish feminists who were, and who were not against inclusivity of trans women.

However, if we are to be a society that listens, accepts diversity and seeks unity rather than division, it is no good boxing people up. But why not do it by letting people choose their boxes, and letting them choose their own mix? That isn’t a threatening or undermining thing to do, and it’s the way the human species has ultimately made its way all along. What we haven’t done so well, is add equality. ‘If you’re going to be that, you can’t do this.’

That takes us on to rights. Rights. Trans rights. LGB rights. What are they? Principally, they are protections to ensure equal treatment of people who are disliked and discriminated against, not for what they choose to do, but for what they are, in their being, in their humanity.

But I don’t want rights. I just want equality. And that comes from understanding that it is me you need to understand, know and respect, not words and ideas you don’t like, or feel are confusing. You don’t need to get your inner construct sorted, or your philosophy of gender or sexuality. Don’t fit me to your ideas in order to understand what I say I am, because that will only make me acceptable to you in your terms.

Anything else simply puts me in a ‘reserve’ box because you don’t really want me to belong anywhere too close to you.

Trans is not a behavour.
Lesbian is not a behaviour.
I don’t need accommodating.
I am here.
I am.
Just like you; no less.

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.

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.