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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

Unravelling Orlando

  • Posted on July 10, 2016 at 5:36 pm

I got shouted at from a passing car tonight. Just ordinary sexist stuff, like I should be flattered to be noticed. By a man. Or something.

On the LGBTQI spectrum, my partner and I tick several boxes between us, but we are really fortunate to live where we do. A gay colleague was in the town last night where a vigil was held for Orlando. ‘But I didn’t see anyone I knew.’ Brighton is like that. There are thousands of trans people I’ve never met here too. No, the city isn’t overrun by us, it’s just that when a place is accepting, those who need ‘acceptance’ gather more easily. I find it very reassuring and liberating to see non-hetero lovers openly and naturally out together, not least because we are not unusual.

But when we are in a different country or place I sometimes hang on tightly to my partner’s squirming hand rather than just letting it go. I got used to being looked at, at feeling my difference, because I really was noticeable at the start of my transition. I’m not now, but walking around as a lesbian couple has been a new visibility to both of us. And being safe sometimes means watching out for your visibility.

What I mean to point out, is that you sort of adapt to being a potential target. Maybe not violence, but just opinion. Maybe just a little something that tells you that you’re less than, for being not hetero-cis-normative. You can forget a time in life when it wasn’t about this. Maybe you were bullied, had a difficult time for another reason, but you grew up and the childish challenges died away. If you were bullied for your sexuality or identity, that probably did leave you scarred.

So being in a safe place, where you are with and among other people who at least have a chance of understanding, is precious. But it is a reminder that for the vast majority of us, prejudice, suspicion, misunderstanding, aversion – are always as close as the proverbial rat. However normally we live our lives, we know it is there.

The origin of normal

However normal we feel, there are those who seem to believe that we are not. Statistically, with normal being the middle range population, that might be true, but many people use normal to mean acceptable, non-deviant, in the terms of some moral framework. That moral framework isn’t intuitive, it’s taught, and the chances are that religion is involved. This is simply because moral authority has a need to be unassailable, and invoking a god to speak the moral code assures this.

A lot of Western morality is like beef stock: the bones have been taken out but the taste remains. People who have no significant religious belief still speak using its authority. And if that religion has developed past opinions about sex (even for contemporary practical reasons), the flavour remains. Sex is not bad, but open celebration of it as an expression of love is still a bit taboo. Speaking of it as fun, or bonding, or just healthy, is done with great caution, lest you be misunderstood.

Because we don’t talk about it, there is a real curiosity about how LGBTQI people have sex, or play, or love, or whatever. There are no secrets, but it’s not always like you imagine from the outside. We have relationships, we love, we commit, just like anyone else. And yet there is a deep-rooted underlying feeling that it isn’t right, that some god condemns our love, that it is something gone wrong, something abnormal, something to be cured, an illness. Or at the very least, I suspect most view it as somehow less worthy than cis-hetero love.

No. Our love is just like your love.

So when did you last feel a pang of uncertainty or fear, for making physical contact with your lover in a public place? Or a kiss, or an embrace to greet or part? Why should we? And why should we have to accept it, or expect it?

Gender identity and sexuality is something we are born with. It can’t be planted in us, and it can’t be extracted. Forcing any one of us to live as if we were not as we are, or to hide it or deny it, is violence. So yes, I blame any philosophy that attacks or denigrates us, for all our fear, for all our pains, for all our injuries.

Orlando

On June 12, 2016, over 100 people were gunned down, half were killed, and not all were LGBT. They just happened to be happy to dance with their LGBT relatives and friends. The gun issue has to be addressed, but this was not random. The Islamic extremism has to be addressed, but this wasn’t political. The gunman had visited the Pulse club, had a history on a gay app, a father who preached that god sees homosexuality as punishable, and a faith that has local preachers teaching that to kill gay people is a mercy to them. This, in a country that has a Republican party inciting fears about transgender people using toilets, from a fundamentalist Christian philosophy that denies plain observation whilst embodying the worst male traits among its members.

In the aftermath, the reporting made the homophobic nature of the crime blend into ‘an attack on all of us’. But it wasn’t. The parallel is the stand-off between #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter. Yes it was, and yes they do, but recognise that just as black Americans suffer discrimination that began with slavery, so LGBT people suffer discrimination that began with illegality.

The beef-stock morality may have cooled, but between generations its flavour is still taught and passed on, and however human it is to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex … we cannot completely relax and live unguarded as you can. It doesn’t have to be as gross as Orlando, it can be as little as loosening your hands in public.

We still have some way to go.

Minority report

  • Posted on January 17, 2016 at 9:28 pm

2016 turned around with reviews of what a good year it had been for trans awareness. Films, soaps, celebrities, parliamentary inquiries, public debates all made it seem like a breakthrough in awareness. Most of us would say that hatred and exclusion are the result of ignorance, sometimes wilful. As more is said and seen about what it means to have (what is currently termed) gender dysphoria, surely ignorance will decline?

One can understand that when someone prominent transitions, they are snapped up by the media and made a spokesperson. That gives rise to backlash from more ordinary and struggling trans people, who don’t feel represented by someone more privileged and earlier on in the issues to be faced. So we accept that the celebrities make very public mistakes, which can damage as much as help the rest of us. But when the UK parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee presented its formal report on transgender services and equality to the UK Parliament, informed by 260 witnesses, it was criticised in just the same way as being a waste of resources for responding to such a minority interest.

It seems most people still prefer to regard being transgender as a curable psychological disorder, and that because only one per cent of the population experience it, it should be ignored rather than understood. Certainly, treatment on the NHS should be excluded, because it’s just pandering to a lifestyle choice. Fix my leg, broken by skiiing, but don’t fix this person’s hormones or body. Well, to that I say: you too are in a minority because you can afford to have ski holidays, whereas we are called a ‘lobby group’ with an agenda, though we cannot choose. You are free to join a minority, we just happen to share a minority condition, however non-minority the rest of our lives are. And we can choose to go skiing too, so we can be in the same minority together … so long as only our legs get fixed.

Where ignorance and closed minds lead

I don’t think we are a lot nearer social acceptance just because there is greater awareness. It isn’t about minorities really, it’s about a particular kind of minority. In all this growing awareness, there remains a lot of fear and intolerance. This week, I am as equally sickened by Richard Littlejohn writing in the Daily Mail (whose 2013 writing contributed to the suicide of Lucy Meadows), as by The Archbishop of Canturbury’s crocodile tears over LGBT attitudes among his African prelates. It was Christian missionary colonialism that imported homophobia into Africa in the first place, and protecting those who support or condone imprisonment or execution of people on grounds of sexuality, on the self-defined assertion that it is a sinful lifestyle choice, diminishes this powerful presence in the world to a weak and self-serving institution. I am as sickened by The Channel 4 interview (hardly a debate) between Jack Monroe and Dr Julia Long. It was like placing one scientist representing consensus over anthropogenic climate change against a single prominent denialist, as if the argument were balanced. The view by Dr Julia Long, that every transgender person represents a rape threat to ‘real’ women wherever they go, espoused and promoted repeatedly by Germaine Greer, is also rehearsed in The Conservative Woman (TCW) by Emily Watson, who writes: ‘it opens the door to potential sex offences. By opening single sex facilities up to the opposite sex, women are put at risk. Women have a real fear of being sexually assaulted or raped by men, and the sensible ones avoid places or occasions where they could be in danger. Women feel able to let their guard down with other women.’ She supports her case by a single criminal case of a rapist and an incident in a novel. (TCW is a right-wing conservative, Christian fundamentalist ‘family’ group.)

It is the classic statement: being transgender does not exist; some men like to dress up and pretend, and all of them are predatory. Trans women aren’t women; they are men, because god makes only men and women. We are dangerous. I am dangerous. We threaten civilisation and its norms. We challenge ideas of gender, but by identifying as male or as female, we support the patriarchy. And even acceptance of gender dysphoria is dangerous to children, so stop it!

Are we a million miles from anti-gay laws and condoned homophobia? I sometimes don’t think we’ve moved anywhere at all except in circles, the central anchor-point of which is Judeo-Christian religious.

It’s all about sex

Those of us disadvantaged by a birth condition have become regarded as a dangerous lobby of rapists. It’s all about sex. Innit? Just because a man could, if he wished, put women’s clothes and make-up on, with the sole intent of invading ‘women’s spaces in order to molest or rape, transgender women are all placed under suspicion of being sexual predators. So every woman in a burkha or niqab could similarly be a male rapist in disguise. This all echoes the idiocy in the USA of all those who would almost insist on examining the genitals of anyone ambiguous (child or adult) before entering gendered lavatory facilities. Cis women have been thrown out of female facilities for looking too male, and it escapes attention that bearded and testosterone-fuelled trans men having to enter female facilities would be absurd. (Testosterone-fuelled does not mean potential rapist any more than oestrogen-fuelled trans women, but it does highlight the absurdity.) Especially when everyone goes home to share a common toilet with all genders of their family and friends. And because more sexual violence occurs in familiar domestic circumstances than in public faciltities and venues. And because rape by transgender women is almost unknown.

Being transgender has nothing to do with sex, let alone coercive sex.

Becoming undangerous

There are many things about me that are minority. I play the trumpet. I write poetry. I own a flat. I have three university degrees. None of these places me in the category of lobby group or having an agenda, though each confers certain rights and marks me out as different. But these things are safe. (Well, the decibel rating of a trumpet may not be, and should I be writing politically sensitive poetry in China, that would not be.) They are also personal choices based on innate abilities. None causes me distress, and I am sensitive about the trumpet in the flat. Life is peaceful, you are safe, I am safe.

But any day I can read people online who go out of their way to make untrue assertions against my condition, that may lead others to fear me, disadvantage me or attack me. Living in Brighton, I am lucky. I can choose not to read hate, and I know it will always exist, and I live inconspicuously in a tolerant place. But many others are not so safe. How do we become undangerous, when we are treated as we are, so obviously, in social and broadcast media? When we transition and return from that traumatic passage in life back to ordinariness, we don’t all want to be labelled forever as trans. Only this week one person I know through social media said ‘Now that I am a year post-surgery, I am no longer trans’. Another said ‘I’m fed up with this; I don’t want any labels.’ A government minister came out as gay this week, and the point was raised: ’why does anyone need to come out any more?’ Being trans makes coming out unavoidable, but after that, many of us are done with it. We become able simply to live as we feel right. I have struggled with ‘being out’ in order to be an encouragement, when I feel I’ve said all there is to say, and just want to live inconspicuously. But then I feel hurt to read another person deny my experience, and add a reply to another Guardian comment trail …

One per cent of the population is quite a lot of people, and if we were all completely visible and getting on with our lives, perhaps we would seem less dangerous. But why should we be visible? It isn’t our lives’ mission to educate the world. Against us, is the propensity to cite the extreme, the singular. Whether quoting a celebrity transitioner, or a long-discredited piece of research, a criminal case, or a prominent ‘detransitioner’, the negative (like consumer dissatisfaction) is re-quoted many times more than the positive. I would like to see a headline like this instead:

NHS spends £17m per annum on gender care, including £4.5m on surgery, and saves £80m in social costs of mental health, impact on emergency services, loss of employment productivity and welfare benefits!

(I’m not sure about the £80m, because no-one has measured it, but if half of young people and a third of older trans people are suicidal, the on-costs for all of us must be surely in this order.) But I don’t think one is coming any time soon.

What really will make a difference, is when everyone who knows someone like me actively stands up for us, and refuses to accept the misguided hatred, the subtle discrimination, the careful sidelining, the nudge and the ‘understanding’ wink. If there really are about 650,000 of us in the UK, and we each have fifteen people willing to actively diffuse ignorant comments and jokes, that’s nearly ten million people making our lives safer.

So, dear Anglican Church, dear Pope, dear politicians, academics and experts. Dear journalists, panellists, and public debaters. Dear comedians, writers and critics. Dear family, friends and colleagues. When you hear or read someone declaiming people like me as potential sexual predator, rapist, subversive and moral disaster, speak up, speak out – not to me in my safe spaces, but where it may also cost you that cocked eyebrow, mild shock and surprise. Because every time you play safe and self-protective, you make it harder for us to lively safely and normally.

Idol thoughts

  • Posted on March 7, 2015 at 10:40 pm

This week, bulldozers were running over 3,000 year-old treasured remains of the ancient city of Nimrud. I remember it from my university studies and visits to the British Museum, as containing very powerful symbols of a civilisation that dominated the region that is now Iraq. I always found it quite absorbing imagining the people who actually made the statues, built the temples, walls and gates, used the artifacts in their daily lives but also in their rituals. 3,000 years in one way is relatively recent, but in another is really ancient. The same artifacts that I could recall, then appeared this week being pounded under sledgehammers by men from the so-called Islamic State or ISIL.

It isn’t new though. Throughout history, histories have been obliterated, and religious extremists of all kinds have destroyed things precious in our eyes for secular reasons. In the Reformation in England, iconoclasm, or the removal of religious symbolism, was every bit as destructive. In 2001 the Taliban destroyed the 1,700 year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan because they were considered idols. In Nimrud, the destruction was again because significance was perceived to exist in objects we might just see as art. The same has now happened in Hatra. So what is an idol, that deserves such treatment?

We don’t have them much around here – do we?

An idol, even in biblical times, was an object invested with power. It doesn’t mean that the stone or wood, once chiselled and shaped, actually had any power, only that it was believed to have such, and therefore influenced people’s behaviours in relation to it. At the extremes, of course, such objects can become fetishes, and through suggestion are seen as being very powerful supernatural objects. Believe in the magic, or power, juju or voodoo, and real things do happen; charms, enchantments and curses really can affect people. But if you or I were innocently to find such an object, it would just be at most a sinister-looking piece of handcraft.

It is peculiar how as humans in societies, we create these things out of nothing, and then fear them, curse and bless with them, and render them dangerous enough to destroy again. And it’s all in the human mind. Religion, in this sense, still intrigues me. How is it that we can construct the edifices of a very wide variety of supernatural and superstitious beliefs, which necessarily must be limited by contemporary awareness and understanding and context, and then invest them with such infallibility that they become immutable doctrines, dogmas, rules, beliefs and faiths?
Essential to this activity is that the ‘knowledge’ has come from beyond, not from within, despite all evidence to the contrary.

That every divine being elucidated in literature has chosen to communicate with mankind through chosen individuals and mysterious beings, ending up being written down and susceptible to mistranslation and misunderstanding, may seem suspicious. (Is there really no better or more certain and secure way?) Even more so when this divine knowledge is expressed in temporally-bound terms. And yet here we are, in a world flooded with religions purporting to free us, whilst drowning us in guilt, self-destruction, rigid principles, and immune to improving knowledge and understanding. Copernicus and Galileo are stark reminders, but have we really moved on?

I had a slightly testy conversation recently over social media, that had been evoked by religious influence in a legal case. A judge had expressed his opinion about same-sex parenting, in court, and had been reprimanded, and a petition had been raised by Christian people to reinstate him. I objected to personal faith in a courtroom, but also to the underlying assumption that I was now unworthy of being a parent simply by virtue of being transsexual and also lesbian. Love, it seems, is not the same thing in a family with me as parent, as it would previously have been. Out trotted the usual mantra: ‘God made man and woman and marriage for the procreation and stable upbringing of children and this is the only natural way.’

Well, I went back with them over the definitions and current state of scientific understanding of the origins and meaning of sex and sexuality, explaining that you can either believe the man/woman binary system in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can see that in fact it isn’t quite as simplistic as that at all. And if the man/woman binary thing is unsafe, and you stop believing in it in the face of the facts, where does that leave you with concepts of marriage and parenting, families and households? The trouble with religions is that you can’t let them out of the bottle. So am I unfairly hitting back at religion, because it is so prevalent in the misunderstanding and bigotry against LGBTQI people? I began with a religious situation destroying the secular, in the belief that it was not secular but idolatrous. And now I am saying that religions easily make their own beliefs iconic and protected from secular understanding. Is it just that religion of any kind gets into a muddle, because it is not based on knowledge, and an understanding what knowledge actually is?

Having ranted and explained, I then came across a vlogger patiently going through some very interesting material on how presupposition affects perception (example: generally, we think male babies are bigger and stronger than female babies, not because of what we observe, but simply because we have been told a particular baby is male or female.) There are many researched examples that demonstrate our perception is skewed easily. Interview a person with your hands round a warm drink, and you will feel better towards them than if you hold a cold drink. Yes, that basic. So if you have a set of strongly-held beliefs or opinions, of course the world is a different place, and you actually think things are different. You have a faith? Then in your hands it has a supernatural power and changes the way the world is, around you. Even if you have an iconoclastic faith, your faith itself is an icon.

But this vlogger was even more interesting, because she vlogs as an atheist, experiencing atheist transphobia (a small percentage of transphobes whose attitudes cannot be attributed to religious cultural conditioning). Her conclusion was that the atheism itself had become a faith, and that the problem of the transphobes is that they have closed their understanding to new knowledge, to learning, and new ways of looking at things.

It all makes you wonder what ‘faith’ is. Is it just the ability to think without thinking about thinking?