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A lurking fear … of what?

  • Posted on May 14, 2012 at 9:46 am

Disclaimer. I would like this post to be read as a question mark rather than just a personal statement, and certainly not as a personal challenge to anyone, because it is important to so many people who undergo gender transition as part of a family. It is not a statement of right or wrong, it is an exploration.

So, I come out as transgender.

‘No! For goodness sake, I’m not gay!’

By which I mean, really, please understand that this is about gender, not sexual orientation. It’s about what I am, and it doesn’t change what I do. Am I so assertive only because it confuses things? I like to think so.

‘Well, are you a lesbian then?!’

Er, yes, I think that’s a good description, but I prefer the adjective to the noun.

The funny thing is, gender dysphoria still makes you question your orientation, how it might change, and compare it with people you’ve never really had to identify with before. Suddenly, instead of being a hetero male, I’m in another minority that might not wholeheartedly welcome my membership! I’m OK with that, actually, but it does something to other people. Being associated with me, then, does two things to other people. ‘I have a friend/husband/father/colleague who is a trans lesbian woman!’ Fame – or complication. So what does that make you? I am the daughter/friend/wife/colleague of … Oh dear. You didn’t ask for that, did you? And I am sorry – neither did I.

This thought-piece is not about what has been lost. We all lose something when gender comes into question, because we hung a lot of washing on that line. This is about what is not lost. This is about the person who has the gender dysphoria, who always had it but mostly hidden. And mine isn’t hidden any more.

It’s about that thought: Oh my goodness! What do I make you?

I would like to question whether I make you anything at all, other than someone who understand, loves, cares, empathises, stands by and so on. You are only what you willingly make yourself.


Alex Drummond, in her book Grrl Alex, recounts a conference speaker asking if members of the audience would be happy to read Gay Times openly on the train. We are not homophobic, are we? Not at all. But there is a hiccup in there for many of us. We describe the feeling as ‘being misunderstood’, not as being homophobic, heaven forbid!

So what is the fear? ‘I don’t dislike it, it’s just not me!’

Is that all? I wonder whether there is a fear, and a secondary fear too. Richard Beard in Becoming Drusilla (recommended reading!) records a sensation of ‘transphobia-phobia’, interpreting his discomfort of being with Dru (in her transitioning phase) in the presence of people who might be less than friendly. Yes, we are afraid of having to show we are unafraid to people who are afraid. People who are afraid, I suggest, that happy LGBT people undermine not just social order, but personal security in being ‘normal’.

‘What if I get too happy being with gay/lesbian/trans people and I feel too comfortable? Does that mean … that I might not be straight??! What will people think of me? What will I think of myself?’

Personally, I think it is vitally important that we come to understand exactly why we have any discomforts. Is it that we feel ‘unselfed’ by misidentification as something other people don’t always like? Or that we become a proxy target? Perhaps those discomforts are nothing more than our insecurities.

What I make you

I hope this isn’t an unfair thought experiment, but try it anyway, and don’t blame me if you don’t altogether like it. It’s about understanding, not about making decisions.

Disclaimer. Again, this is meant for people in relationships everywhere, struggling with this experience. Swap the genders round – it’s the same story.

You are lying in the dark with your lover. Their hand is gentle, and you trust it. The hand treats you with respect and with tenderness. It explores, it reassures, it loves. It feels safe. It feels good. Very good. And it is just as it has happened a thousand, ten thousand, times, catching you in all moods, interpreting you.

You are lying in the dark with your lover … you drift off to sleep, you awake. Their hand is … there, at rest. The sun has risen; you turn. And you see in your lover that something has changed.

Not their love, not their intent or respect. Not their eyes and the look in them when they meet yours. Not their hand. Not their tender kiss; not their tongue. These are all the same.

Your lover, you know (you may not see), has changed their gender.

This, you realise, is the hand of a woman. These are the eyes of a woman, the kiss and tongue of a woman. And their hand is … there. As it has thousands of times before. Respecting, loving, even worshiping … you.

What does this make you? Why does it give such discomfort? What is the fear? Do you feel drawn into a strange world from which you’ve always felt safe? And from all those ‘other people like this’ that you are being made to feel one of? Are you just afraid of being misidentified? When you lay there in the dark, before the sun rose, what was in your mind, or either of your hearts? Why was it so important, in this situation, your lover’s gender?

Here we are not looking at the procreative possibilities, they may be long past. No, we are talking about the expression of love. If the touch is not different, nor the intent, the love – what is the fear? What causes the tinge of distaste, and the – well – inappropriateness? What was it you liked, there in the dark? What is it really that you don’t like, in the risen sun?

(I like to end as I began:)

‘No! For goodness sake, I’m not a lesbian!’

By which you mean, really – what?

That accepting what is offered changes your sexual orientation? That it changes what you can and cannot do as an expression of human love? That it changes what you are?

And what is it, that you think changes you? The hand? Or you?


I only mean to encourage a deeper probing of why we are so unsettled by gender, and why, I suspect, homophobia (even heterophobia) and transphobia can lurk in every one of us. None of us changes anyone else without them being changed by their own fears and insecurities, not ours. Given how we have all been educated in the meaning of gender, it is quite understandable. And it is strong; strong enough to block the love intended or given in intimate spaces, often over many years. But that does not make it the only possible response, when we allow ourselves to reinterpret gender for a better fit. For all of us, it’s not about trying harder, it’s about letting go.

Knowing what you are and knowing what you are not

  • Posted on May 9, 2012 at 2:28 pm

There is no straight test that determines where a person lies on the gender spectrum. The only person who might give you a genuine idea of their gender position is they themselves. You really cannot examine anyone and make that conclusion without asking them. And they may not tell you the truth, they may be afraid of the truth, they may not even know what gender truth means. Or they may tell you their truth and you don’t believe them.

Despite what we were all taught in school, gender is not a simple binary thing, and that has been said so many times, and is known by clinical gender specialists and psychologists, that you would think we would have given up on it long ago. But no, it is a huge prop for a society built on gender antagonism and power. While it suits, polarisation enables predictable roles, a sense of social security and normality, but it simply is not a valid descriptor of how we are as human beings. It has become taxonomy for taxonomy’s sake, and it simply will not do.

This morning I was reading yet more on the disquiet around DSM V (the American Psychiatric Association’s definitive Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders pathologising everything that is not ‘normal’). Specifically, I was reading how everything gender was being sexualised into a male-dominated heteronormative concept. From the origins of DSM (read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test if you want some idea of the twisted picture of humanity it gives and why), too few individuals have imposed their idea of ‘normal’ and made quite ordinary features of life into mental disorder. I raise this, because theoretical, often entirely hypothetical, observations of others with regard to gender are used with no evidential basis, and assume the observer always to be better qualified than the individual.

Yellow and blue are easy

‘I’m yellow’, says this bit of the rainbow. ‘Leastways, if you look at my middle!’

‘I’m blue’, says another.

Green stays silent, the edge of yellow blending on one side, the edge of blue blending on the other. Then:

‘I’m not red!’ In triumphant realisation, green knows what it is not.

I am no expert, but I have become quite saturated with the discussions and theories and expressions of what gender is, what it means to be a woman or a man, how it is between the ears not the thighs, how it is at least in large part innate, not socialised, and how dysphoria describes a problem with the body not with the mind. Gender identity is not personal identity, it is simply where you feel you are on the spectrum with regards to femaleness and maleness. It does not define you, it simply compares you with others in a relation of proximities.

And it is OK to be turquoise – or lime.

In all the gender conversations I’ve had, I have met more people who know what they are not, than what they are. Green knows it is not red, but cannot so easily say it isn’t a yellowy green or a bluey green, and give either a name.

This, I think in large part, is where a sense of dysphoria lies, and where discomfort can persist, whatever steps are made to put gendered physical characteristics right. I know fully transitioned (male to female) people who insist that they are not, and can never be, women in the way they would have been if born and grown up in a different hormone environment. I do not have a female pelvis, and dig me up in 100 years, and an archeologist will tell you that. But they will not know how I identified. (There was the case of the Prague trans internment, about which I wrote this poem – you might reflect or enjoy it.) But what does this mean? That I am never good enough at being what feels most right to me? Who says so? Actually, me. My mind slips back into the binary view, and suddenly I am not good enough.

Every spectrum has two ends, and people live there. I know people who were certain, early enough on to make a real difference to their outcomes, that they live right at one end of the spectrum and quite opposite to their natal physiology. And they have every right to not even identify any longer as transgender (or spectrally misplaced).

But for everyone else who occupies anywhere else that appears at odds with their body’s reproductive bits, it is perfectly OK to be there, and even not to have to talk about it. And it is most OK when we don’t feel we have to justify it to ourselves, understand it, or even describe our gender ‘colour’. In a way it is simply not relevant, providing we are authentic.

Now consider, physiology apart: what are you? Describe how you know you are a man or a woman, or queer, or androgyne. Now do it without referring to what you are not, and without reference to sexual orientation. In other words, without sexualising yourself in terms of preferred activity. Now, without speaking of their body and what they do with it, how might you set a definition of someone else’s gender? Only they can tell you, and they have every right to describe and to present as they feel most authentic. Why does that have to be confusing?

Letting go of paradigms

I try to imagine a world sometimes, where people express themselves, modify or shape or clothe their bodies, simply according to what feels most fitting to them, and where this has nothing to do with any declaration of sexual preference or contribution to the mating game. (After all that’s the easy bit.) Maybe it would be easier for some (no, not all) to live with non-congruence between body and mind. Maybe decisions to adjust physical attributes or not, would be more openly accepted and phobias would evaporate into irrelevance. Maybe we wouldn’t even need to understand how gender dysphoria arises any more than hair colour, because there is no fixing at source. Maybe we could all love trans people for the extra they bring to the party rather than confusion. But that world cannot exist while we maintain any idea of men or women being somehow better than each other, or one defining the rules for the other.

Here’s an exam question for you:

Shania Twain sang Man, I feel like a woman (link with lyrics). Discuss.

Prague spring, 2011

  • Posted on May 9, 2012 at 1:35 pm

In spring 2011, a burial was unearthed, of a male interred as a female, and was promptly billed by the press as ‘WTF? First Gay Caveman!’. In all likelihood the person was transgendered, accepted, even revered as in so many ancestral cultures.

The 1968 Prague Spring was a period of rapid political liberalisation . . .

Five thousand years, layering
this on that, of change on chance
to be dug, this day, these

crouched bones face – respected
male bones placed, inflected
by pots, not knives – east

away from warrior west, in the
suburbs of Prague-to-be: a woman
who is not a man, for

five thousand years, in which
we have learned to write with
fast fingers, blog and fear.

One grave, one loved person, and
five thousand years – from clay tablet
to wired world – in a waste of words.

Not gay. No cave. No vestments.
Just acceptance lost this spring,
in Prague, pressed, and buried.

2012 © Andie Davidson

Published in Realisations.


  • Posted on May 8, 2012 at 8:53 am

It’s a bank holiday. At some time in the past the banks must have worked so much harder than the rest of us that they deserved an extra day, so since 1871, for so many days per year, the banks decided it was OK not to make money. Of course they do now, even on bank holidays, because a 24 hour global culture doesn’t require their undivided attention to keep going.

But a strike day? A day off sick? Whoa! Now that’s different. We lose money. And economists are great at calculating the cost to the country of a snowy day. Everything is costed on the basis of unstoppable money-making. The cost to the economy of only working 35 hours a week is immense. And the cost of sleeping . . .

We have no acceptable limit, only the balance of forces between increasing GDP and the limits to health. Who sets this agenda?

And today is another day of births and deaths. Like every day, people will die too soon, too young. Never too old. And that nebulous non-community called scientists will predict that we need not die below the age of 150, now we know the role epigenetics plays in DNA degradation. Once we know why cells die off without replacement, why chromosomal telomeres shorten and bodies age, why not put it right? I suppose we should be thinking ecologically too, and sorting out our pets to live as long as ourselves, breeding butterflies that live many years instead of days. Why not, if we can? Don’t get me wrong, losing a friend or loved one brings grief, but it is the way the circle of life works on planet Earth, and it does avoid exponential population growth and the ethics of deciding when people simply have to die to save cost and space.

We have no acceptable limit, only the balance of forces between love of life and the limits to endurance. Who sets this agenda?

And it isn’t a bank holiday in China or India, where today too many people are earning too little for comfort, working too hard for their health, and living shorter lives than we are, making goods at prices we can’t afford to make them for. How much advertising of FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) is based on ‘value’ (ie, price without quality being too poor)? When is cheap, cheap enough? What is the smallest margin, the least a worker can be paid, for us to have more than we need? Again, is there an agreed limit, or just a stretching out to the boundaries of tolerance and awareness?

We have no acceptable limit, only the balance of forces between greed and someone else who has no choice. Who sets this agenda?

Are we all really seeking to maximise and minimise everything? A longest and healthiest life, with as many consumer goods and individual rights as can be squeezed out? Wringing the last drop of fossil fuels from the ground, reaching as near as possible those tipping points of survival? Are we ever tall enough, ever the right size and shape, educated enough, wealthy enough, intelligent enough, busy enough, working hard enough? And who is setting these agendas? Why is this bank holiday a waste of money and lost revenue, and yet tomorrow will not be a waste of health and relaxation with others?

People in various European countries are getting very edgy about austerity. In order to live in prosperous economies, these people know some of them (not all) must actually suffer – not just do with a bit less. We can be terribly bad about managing our own expectations and even worse about sharing equally according to need. And we are not very good at calculating the cost to us of not recognising our limits. The agenda setters? We all are. We accept the guff that advertisers pour over us every day. We rise to it and demand the best and latest at the cheapest and as much as we can. Automatic greed that has become an expectation steps aside from ethical living and becomes a right.

What if. What if we stopped believing these needs. What if there was no ‘ultimate’ mobile phone, entertainment device, vehicle etc.? What if we stopped pursuing and started appreciating a phone (for example) that just makes calls and started asking directions, interacting with people, getting there more slowly, feeling safe and assisted when bits of life break down? Why is nothing ever good enough?

It was an interesting thought just over a year ago, when I took voluntary redundancy, realising that I was being offered enough money to step aside for a year and work out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I earned next to nothing in all that time, I used the car less, walked more, read and learned to write creatively again. And I found out, finally, what I should have known about myself long ago, but was too busy, too embroiled with work and life, to work out. And at last I feel a lot more ready to live with what I have, travel less far, enjoy small things, and especially people and friends, and even die young. Why? Because there is more fulfilment in simply being true to myself than there was in my old 45 hour week in an office. The rest is up to me, to be useful, to be creative, and to take responsibility for the things that matter most. (Is there an app for that?)

Arty, stuck and artistic

  • Posted on May 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Original art by Aaron Holmes

Art, and reality, are beyond mere inspiration.

Brighton Festival in May includes the rich diversity of a month of Open Houses, when local artists and crafters somehow manage to lose furniture, personal treasures and general clutter into spare (or not) rooms, and present some wonderful collections of original art, jewelery, photography, sculpture and other crafts in more clear space than I seem to have. And there are so many of them! I could never dream of touring all that is on offer, and yes, it is tiring as well as inspiring. You can get art overload, however much you appreciate it. And I really like being able to talk with the artists. I’m always intrigued as to who is making a living, who is ticking along in spare time, and how they find their lives as artists. But also I like talking about what inspires them, why they do what they do, and how it drives them. I like understanding the link between inspiration and skill, deliberation and accident, and reflect on the similarity with wordsmithing.

I’ve often said, ‘put me in a studio with lots of gear and just leave me, and I’d think of something new to create every day’. I just feel such enormous creative drive, but I also know I would never survive as an artist. I see all this brilliant work in the Open Houses, the product of training and years of experience, and there is so much, it has too few places to go. I see stacks of canvasses that will go nowhere, and yes, a few successful artists who are going somehwere.

I’d like to contrast two artists we visited yesterday.

The first worked entirely by inspiration and accident. He was surrounded by canvases that had been there quite a long time, accumulating on a grand scale, leaving very little living space. There were some very happy accidents of light, I have to say, but I might have been tempted to treat the canvases as I would a photograph, and severely crop them! He reminded me of inspirational poets who will not rework their lines lest they become somehow humanised instead of divine! In fact he deliberately blanked all thought out as he worked, and so, as far as I could see, he wasn’t really learning at all. Someone asked a price for a smaller example of the canvases he wasn’t selling, and it was so inflated I knew it would still be there if I came back next year. But he was happy, so who am I to say?

The second artist was young, and similarly untrained. His house was impeccable, the presentation was professional, the lighting perfect and his orderly canvasses were amazing. They too were full of accidents, but deliberate – or at least guided – ones. He worked in layers, with some idea of how the end result might turn out. A large canvas, he said, took up to six weeks, working flat, very wet and using an airbrush to blow the paint around. His prices were similar to the first artist, but he was living from it, selling enough, and was every bit as inspired – but learning, constantly moving on. His theme last year was completely different, next will be different again. You can gaze into his paintings, just as abstract as the first artist, but perfectly controlled, and really get lost. Being in a position of both not earning and not having wall space, there was no way we could afford one of these magnificent scapes. But no way either I could walk out empty handed, so parting with more money than I should afford, comparing prices with a wig, a therapy session, a hairdresser bill, I bought my wife a small, mounted original – because its value for future reflection and enjoyment was worth more than the money in the bank.

We don’t really buy art, for all the above reasons, but we have pieces by three artists now, and in each case, following studio conversations with the artists. The pictures remind me of those exchanges and those studios, as much as being beautiful objects in their own right.

The first artist yesterday, I felt was really stuck. He thought he was free by emptying his mind and ‘letting it happen’, but in fact he looked very encumbered by the unsaleable products. The second was really working hard, thinking about everything he was doing, and it gave him his freedom. The reason he had far fewer canvasses (and so much more light and space) was that each piece had much more value, and so he produced less and sold more.

So I’m back to writing (it takes less space behind the sofa too, and dries remarkably quickly), and dreaming of freedom of expression with control and deliberation. We make our own reality (yes, I like to go along with that) and learning by watching and appreciating what comes out, makes it much more valuable. This year’s trip around Open Houses was my first revealing my authentic personal canvas, far less stuck, still arty and with much more artistic value than last year.