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Check your baggage …

  • Posted on March 4, 2012 at 4:45 pm

I had this vision of meeting someone the other day … They were walking along, but struggling under the weight of two holdalls, one in each hand.

They seemed happy enough: I would be, if I had two heavy bags full of something valuable! I offered to carry one, because we were going the same way. But no, they insisted they carried both (my mother used to say this when I offered with the shopping) – because they were ‘balanced’. Well, maybe that makes sense; it saves a bad back.

But the trouble was, they couldn’t get on very quickly, and opening doors was a bit difficult. I asked how long had they been carrying the bags? ‘Oh, as along as I can remember’, they said. ‘Doesn’t everyone?’ I replied that they must be very inconvenient, but no: ‘they’re mine!’

‘When did you last open them, and need what’s inside them? And how do you know which is which, when you pick them up?’ I inquired.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ they replied. ‘I’m so used to carrying them, it hardly matters! It’s just what I have to carry.’

‘Maybe you don’t need them any more?’ I suggested. ‘Why don’t you put them down and look inside? Perhaps they aren’t as important or useful as you think?’

Well, it took a great deal of persuasion, but as we talked, the weight of the bags seemed to become questionable, and finally the bags were lowered and let go – not without some relief. Together we worked the zippers that hadn’t been pulled for a very long time, until they dragged their teeth apart to reveal the contents.

Each bag seemed to contain pretty much the same thing: bricks. Just bricks. A little dusty from rubbing together so long, but still – just bricks. They probably fitted together quite well, and who knows, something useful might be built with them. Maybe those from one bag and those from the other, put together, might be even better, but deciding which came from which bag, to put them back again afterwards, would be really quite difficult. Maybe it didn’t matter.

‘Oh.’ my companion said, ‘I really didn’t know what was in the bags. They’re so heavy and they seemed so important. But they’re just bricks!’

‘Then perhaps you can leave them behind now?’ I ventured, looking up at them. Then, glancing down at these impeccably balanced burdens, I noticed there were tired, old labels tied to the handles. I rubbed the dust off the fading ink, and when I’d worked out which way was up, saw that one read ‘male’ and the other ‘female’.

We took a couple of bricks out and examined them more closely. Yes, there were slight differences in shape, where they would fit together for strength, but otherwise they were all very much alike.

‘What are you going to do now?’ I asked.

‘Dunno. But I’m not carrying these bags around any more; no point. I’ll just take a couple – could be useful. Here, any two will do.’

‘Don’t you want one from each bag?’

‘No. It doesn’t matter. I only want them to keep doors open.’

Learning points

  • check your baggage: did you pack it yourself?
  • question the contents: are they important?
  • just because you have a balanced burden doesn’t mean you can’t put it down
  • whatever your burdens, keep your doors open
  • never stretch a metaphor too far; just see if it helps!
We all carry around far too much baggage about the useless gender binary of male and female, and in doing so fail to see others as they really are. Instead we constrain them and us, so we can’t even shake hands or hold doors open for each other. Put these bags down. Walk away.

A normal transgender person

  • Posted on February 8, 2012 at 10:32 am

I have left a poem Front Page News that is part of this story. It came about after the Metro newspaper landed on commuters in and around London in September 2011, juxtaposing two headlines:

‘The £1 million man from Atlantis. Walliams completes his torturous Thames odyssey … and raises a fortune for charity in the process’

– and

‘Boy, 10, who went back to school a girl’.

It made me think: why is it so normal to swim the Thames, and why does it make you such a hero, compared with a 10-year-old who braves the opprobrium of parents, friends, family (and, under headlines now, the world) and causes a sensation? Most real heroes, when asked, say that their act was not a matter of choice, but instinct, so you judge who is most heroic here. It felt such an irony to see these two together, and quite sad too.

Since then several children have made headlines, and with immense bravery shared by their parents, have pressed forward the case for transgender identity to be normal. Not just normal, but acceptable; beyond sensational headlines, beyond despicable use of words that make trans people different, reviled or just a subject of ridicule. This has been the most difficult year of my life. It’s odd that for fifty years I have struggled with not feeling normal, and now I feel completely normal, I struggle with a society that says I have become abnormal. So I applaud organisations like Trans Media Watch who tackle the prejudice, deliberate sensationalising, or even the sheer thoughtlessness and ignorance, of journalists and editors everywhere. I wish I was one of them: I wish I was up there at the front being bolshie and noisy about being normal, and making others like me a bit safer and more accepted.

So I admire these children and their families for risking so much to be seen, to be listened to on their own terms. I know who is the heroine in the headlines.


I immediately know that the statisticians among you will say that normal has a definite meaning: the majority group in the middle of the bell curve of variance. What I mean by normal is that ‘this happens: rather a lot more than most of us know’ and that as a result, being trans is an everyday part of diversity. There are many places you can read up the stats on transgender people, intersex incidence etc., if you haven’t, just be aware that you will likely have met, maybe know, people whose transgender identity, past or present, simply isn’t apparent to you. Part of the reason for this is that it can be so difficult to reveal or fulfill a transgender personality. By doing so, you make a statement that still shocks, that so runs counter to preconceptions it tears families apart. There is no blame, there is no cause: it just happens, and because we don’t accept it as normal we have to set it apart, in case it’s dangerous or subversive.

If we all accept that there is a bit of the feminine in all men, and a bit of the masculine in all women, we are inevitably faced with the question: ‘yes, but how much’? And how much is ‘too much’? Too much for what? Our personal gender security? Even if it could be properly measured, how could we ever determine a maximum percentage for a definition of normal?

So as I watch, support, and follow the children who recently have made the front pages and the breakfast TV, my heart is with them. I wish I had known at an early age that there is a language for this, a space in life and society, and that it’s OK: you can be loved, you can express who you are and you can live a normal life. Meanwhile, I am still up against the buffers, where people can choose to be associated with me or not, on grounds of my kind or normality (‘Don’t let anyone think I’m the kind of person who finds this normal’!).

I can’t walk away from being transgender, but they can. If they can only feel safely normal by distancing themselves, they will. I am a normal transgender person – why do you feel your personal sense of gender is so betrayed? I hope these children work a miracle in the popular mind, until one day there is no media sensation, no permissible transphobia, and it is perfectly normal to love, be seen with, be a parent – as a transgender person.