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A stitch in time

  • Posted on August 22, 2013 at 11:14 pm
Picture of Mam Tor from flanks of Lose Hill

On Sunday evening I walked out of my hotel in Hathersage (Derbyshire / Peak District National Park), across the road, and back into a view and a countryside I first walked alone over 40 years ago. Sheep were bleating across the slopes, the air was clear, and the rural smells took me right back to the times I walked everywhere with a too-small-scale map, straight off the bus and into open country. And if I couldn’t afford the bus, I just walked to where the bus would have stopped, and carried on walking. I dropped down the slope, crossed the…

The ties that bind

  • Posted on August 18, 2013 at 8:39 am

These days I try to avoid any confrontation. I don’t need any special treatment, or to be made an exception, because I live and speak as a woman before I do as transsexual. ‘Woman’ is what I am, whereas ‘transsexual’ is merely a description that sometimes is useful. It is nevertheless true that you get used to having to assert your identity amongst those who simply don’t or won’t understand, and that unquestioning acceptance of other people’s attitudes wears very thin. I dig my heels in sometimes, not to be bolshie, but to insist on respect for who I am, and how I got here, and against false social expectations that we have simply gotten used to.

I sat thinking yesterday what a fair analogy might be for how I was feeling. Was it something like: ‘You wouldn’t ask someone with claustrophobia to do this in a cupboard, would you?’ And then I tried considering whether I was being over-principled, or whether it mattered this much. I came down on the latter. And in the end it was for two reasons, not one.

My journey has been more difficult than most cis people could possibly imagine. I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘I think I’ll be a woman from now on’, and go out and buy a dress. And nor did I grow up as a little girl, as a teenager, and as a young woman, to accept my place in a male world, as an enclave. I was told my place. My place was to ‘be a boy; be a man; stand for your rights; take the lead because women expect it’.

I accept my social conditioning. So must you. And if you too have broken free, well done!

How do you, as a woman, find your place in a male world? Is it by internalising your identity? By attending sorority meetings of fellow business-women? Is it by being so stridently feminine that you cannot be ignored? Are you prepared to get people’s backs up because it is simply unacceptable for women to be always in second place? Or do you play to the gallery, accepting the ranking but playing it away with the bat of femininity? Men will melt to your wiles, that shows where the real power is! Perhaps you buy into the male game instead, accept the conditions of membership, and adopt male attributes to gain credibility. Wear the trousers, the executive suit, the uniform.

I spent the first 55 years of my life doing what was expected, completely uninformed about transsexuality. When I told the story a few weeks ago about my massage therapist seeing me always as ‘different’ (i.e. as a completely conventional business male!) it was as a reminder of how hard I tried not to stand out whilst being screamingly individual inside. I lived to expectation, and I regret it; deeply. So now, I am not going to waste my life on expectations any more. If I am expected to go against my instincts now, I am walking away. Whether at work, or socially, this is it. Here I stand. Apply a lever, and the earth will move.

Who is stubborn for the better reason? You or I?

I am not trying to be unreasonable; I am being very matter of fact. There are some things I will not do, simply because my personal integrity matters more.

The Noose

Yesterday I was handed a noose.

It was grey, and I was told that to be the same I had to place it around my neck and pull it tight. To everyone else it was just a tie, and it’s what you do.

Brass bands (less so concert bands) grew out of male preserves, domains where after a hard day’s labour, you showed your lighter side, your cultural skills and awareness – with military pride. If your pit or works could afford it, the uniform could be very military indeed, mimicking the army bands, including the marching and parading. You can be a man and play cornet, or a fife. Discipline, in gold braid. The rules were quite harsh too: play the instrument you are given, be fined if it wasn’t polished well enough, or if you turn up late.

As the heavy industrial environment declined, and as women entered the workplace more, doing ‘men’s’ jobs, so they began to be recruited, exceptionally, into the brass bands. Women didn’t wear trousers so much to begin with, but the braid, sometimes the caps, and the ties, kept the band looking acceptably disciplined. Completely on male terms. Women have always been ‘accepted into’ male domains, on male terms. ‘You can be one of us’ is the caption to every picture of female equality.

You won’t find a band (please correct me after a frantic Google search!) where women and men alike wear pink blazers, pretty blouses and silk scarves as their uniform. Men don’t, as a rule, join women and adopt their standards.

So I had two reasons to dig my heels in yesterday: firstly as the woman who had spent a lifetime wrestling with ‘being a man’ and then being told to dress like one again. Secondly, as a woman being told to obey male standards (albeit as an historical convention). Did you spot ‘an’ historical? There is a side to me that makes me successful in my work, where attention to the particular matters. Good music demands discipline. But it does not demand a noose, and if the noose matters more than my playing ability, then there is always somewhere else to play.

There is always another way to look at expectations. Change them.

What shit is

  • Posted on August 10, 2013 at 10:40 am

‘Shit’ used to be a deprecated word in English. But it’s a very old word, a purposeful word, and an honest word. It’s the stuff that’s left over when all the goodness has been extracted for the purpose of sustaining healthy life. It’s the stuff that isn’t good for you. It’s the gunk that was always bad, or useless, and it was the indigestible fibrous bulk that was necessary to get the bad stuff out efficiently.

And the thing about shit (unless it’s a medical thing, and you analyse it as information) is that we handle our own OK, but seriously dislike everyone else’s. It’s a healthy attitude really, but it’s partly a cultural thing too. We don’t talk about it, even though we encounter it every day from birth to death. We don’t talk about it like we do about food, even though it’s just the opposite end of the same argument.

I’ve taken in a lot of good stuff all my life. I’ve been lucky to have had a stable childhood, a good education, an adequate social circle, for a while a small degree of affluence (in UK, not global terms – I accept my position there is very different), a few wonderful (romantic) girlfriends, a successful and long marriage, two grown-up children, and a series of jobs that I could at least really make my own. I have skills and talents I indulge in expressing, and now … And now?

From some things, all I have left is the shit.

My soon-to-be ex hears all my sadness and grief as anger and recrimination. I hear all her coping mechanism as defensive, cold and distanced. There is no exchange of love any more. There is no meaningful relationship. This is refined shit, with all the goodness taken out. My daughter hasn’t spoken or communicated with me for over two years, and I frankly expect no change any more.

And I have no intimacy and no sex, and I can’t remember the last time or when. That’s pure shit too.

I’m worth more than this. And yet I have to ask, what am I feasting on now?

A new diet

Last week I blogged anger about Pride becoming carnival rather than protest. But as I walked up the main road to the event, surrounded by hundreds of lovely people, most of whom had been through a similar crisis of acceptability and identity as I have (and realised I was the only trans* person in sight) I saw openness, vulnerability, strength, romance, love and happiness. We joined thousands already in the park, the music was loud, the atmosphere was amazing, and I felt completely safe, completely accepted. Why should I not be happy too? In the Literature Tent, some of the anger, the protest and the meaning of Pride was voiced. Enough for me not to do the same. My angry poem stayed in the folder, my envisaged introduction unspoken. There was a consistent, articulate trans* voice in the event, and that was enough, so I added my own with a different poem.

I’d never even brushed close to Pride before, and here I was seriously enjoying myself and meeting new and lovely and welcoming people I could never have met before. If my flat purchase in Hove succeeds, it will feel very much like coming home. ‘My people’ are different people now, and it feels good. In fact, where was I, and where were they, all my life?

Today, once more, my legs are aching, but my feet less sore, from dancing barefoot all evening. This week, not Five Rhythms, but ecstatic dance. What? Who? Me? Yes me, dancing with 30 others, doing my thing, synching with people I’ve never otherwise met, flying around the floor at times like a bird set free. This is the person who was the massage client described only a few years ago as ‘very different’, not for being trans* in hiding or denial or not understanding, but for being so conventional! My previous life-diet signified one thing: either I was severely constipated, or I was shitting pure goodness without digesting it, and not growing as I should. And now I am learning where the best food is, chewing it, appreciating it, accepting the shit.

The whole point of this, is that these last two years have been a really bad time for me, to go through such heartbreak, so many destroyed ideas of what love and life are all about, feeling that I have only ever been loved as an object of significance, not as person of value. I haven’t lost everything at all. A lot, yes. Things that most people would only imagine losing through infidelity, serious misdemeanour, or death. But everything was a result only of my integrity and their choice. I have told the story to death, and the book’s binding is tearing loose, the lettering no longer gold.

With all the goodness extracted from the previous three decades and more, I have been left with the shit. And the significance of this, is that everything in the shit was inside my life before. Some of it just useful roughage, but the truths of being loved for significance rather than self were there all along. Contingent love looked different when its dependency was safe. And now all the crap is out. That means no longer in. It should instead feel like relief.

I love. I love other people. I have a few deep friendships, and a new ability and freedom to truly encounter and share with the people I meet. I know what it means that women are sisters. I know what it means for me to express my emotions and intuition openly and freely, and to find the same in others. I know that in some ways I have entered a whole new world of personhood, inhabited by people I could never truly have known before, who share my love and exploration of life and meaning, who eschew ordinariness as impoverishing. I will probably never live in a suburban semi with garden again, though somewhere I can have a cat or dog would be welcome

I have real questions about my previous concept of marriage and the merging of people into singular coupleness. I like the word ‘partner’ because it sounds more equal and less role-dependent. It seems to leave people intact and able to do their own thing and find their own way. I would love to find romance, and real commitment, but without the suspiciousness that marriage can bring. Maybe it’s my age! And I really long for kisses and intimacy … My diet may have changed, but I still need a complete diet.

It takes a while to understand shit, to accept that it is waste, and is meant to be waste, that it can contaminate and needs to be disposed of and washed away properly. But there will always be some, and it is better out than in. It is the product of imperfect goodness, and no reason not to feast. The shit is over. Long live shit.

Angry. OK?!

  • Posted on August 2, 2013 at 11:01 pm

transgender flagHave I done anger yet? Maybe a bit, for example: We have had enough, but it feels like time to talk anger, to feel anger, see anger and to speak it. Not in fury or resentment, but from the heart.

This week, weekend to weekend, has been Pride in Brighton. Being the centre of the world, of course it’s a non-local event, and has become a carnival, a big party, a celebration. Look, world, we can be gay, we can be lesbian, and our sexuality has nothing to do with you and everything to do with how we were born. Stuff you, we’re proud! And by now Pride everywhere attracts our friends and relations in joyful support.

We’ve arrived! YeeHaaa!

Haven’t we? I could walk out of Pride Park and be abused on my way to the station. Not for being gay or lesbian, but for being trans*. But in fact the worst street abuse I have had, and in Brighton, in daylight, was for being a woman. Vile stuff that went on and on, from men in a small truck.

Pride has become carnival for the huge strides in acceptance of sexual diversity in this country. It began in anger, in protest for equal human rights, against hate and bigotry embodied in the law, expressed in the media, ingrained in culture and perpetuated by blind beliefs. In no small part, religious dogma and doctrines have been responsible for the roots of this culture.

I want anger again. I want real anger for media hounding and othering. I want anger for women being expected to protect themselves rather than men being expected to drop their societal privilege. I want anger because of events like 50 rape threats an hour online when Caroline Criado-Perez succeeded in her campaign for a woman to feature on a UK banknote. Sexual threat against any woman who has an opinion, success without acting masculine or adopting male dominating attitudes is a deep sickness that has been accepted in our society. It’s just men being men. Carry a rape alarm and avoid dark places. It’s up to you to be safe.

I want anger that Pride has had to exist at all. I want anger that countries where Pride is a feature still allow trans* people to be demeaned and diminished, working below their skill levels or unemployed, and subject to violence and hatred. I want anger, that at one end of the year the carnival streets are alive with Pride, while at the other there are quiet, dignified events marking the Transgender Day of Remembrance. That one is in the media with colour pictures, whilst the other hardly features for its sobriety.

I want anger that a large proportion of people attending pride still have no idea what trans* really means. That ‘T’ is an honorary add-on member smiled upon and thought of as being something sexual.

Trans Pride – a first

This year in Brighton saw the first Trans Pride event in Europe. It was a gathering in celebration of trans* people finding each other, being free and happy together, enjoying a degree of quiet acceptance, good entertainment, and rain. But among the 1,500 who went, probably every single one will have suffered some abuse, and every one will at least know another who has attempted suicide, if not having done so themselves. Many, if not most, will have experienced some rejection by one or more family members.

I wish I could have gone, but I had previous commitments. And to be fair, I do have some reservations about anything that requires me to ‘belong to a community’, when I just feel normal and ordinary. And yet standing out is an important statement too. Or at least standing up. Because there is much still to be said, and a lot to be angry about.

The need to speak righteous anger

Injustice should shout to everyone who believes in humanity. Instead we have become a society of individuals afraid of being noticed, and afraid of reaching out to protect others lest we too be attacked. Pride is easy, because it’s a carnival. It wasn’t when it began. And there is nothing carnival about being trans* on a daily basis. If we survive, we are strong. As I often say, we are not brave, but we need a hell of a lot of courage.

Tomorrow I shall stand up in the largely LGB tent at Pride to read. I’ve wrestled with what to write, read or say. A nice bit of stirring, fun performance poetry? Would something gentle and thoughtful be more settling instead? (cue polite applause) But in reality I want to challenge, I want to be angry for my two minutes, for all the injustice and unfairness that happens on a daily basis to trans* people everywhere, including Brighton. And for where it comes from.

Our society as it is didn’t come from nowhere. We are not male dominated by default, not by some divine proclamation, and not because humans evolved fighting bears for survival. Comparative physical strength rather than inner strength is not by default the determinant of rights. And yet our heritage is stamped with ‘male is default’ (unless stated otherwise with ten good reasons listed beneath). Men are listened to more, expected to be the leaders (sorry, darling, didn’t notice you). Women are still expected to be the respondents and givers of pleasure through food, home-making or sex, still expected to accept what to do, still expected to listen before they speak, to concur before they disagree. All old feminist stuff? All still so terribly true.

And so I want to be angry that Pride has ever needed to exist, and that the carnival hides what is still a bigoted, wilful, male-dominated, unequal and unjust world right outside Pride Park. So if you are L or G or B, or just content to support and welcome others who are, spare more than a thought for what trans* people still encounter every day, with fewer protections and less support. Share a bit of anger for the overt and covert discrimination, for the hatred, for the media sensationalising, for the parents denied access, for the loneliness of being ‘different’ whilst being exactly the same as you on the inside. Because it all stems from not challenging societal norms, in origin flavoured powerfully by masculine religious culture and past doctrinal teachings.

I don’t mean deliberately to run up against people with faith – I will respect you if you respect me. But we do need an honesty about where societal norms originate about right and wrong, good and evil, and about how those norms have been given authority and by whom. Is your god male? Does your god have a history mostly of working through men, where women are the exceptions? Does your god have a history of male law-makers and priests, disciples, bishops, cardinals, and popes? Does your religion reflect ancient cultures where men ruled and women were usefully subservient? All of these things have helped give us a binary, clear-cut world where even gender and sexuality can be right or wrong. Why do so many feel suspicion about trans* people? Why is there that thought, that ‘something isn’t right here’, or indeed is ‘wrong’? Why is something that can be clinically diagnosed regarded as a moral issue, or distasteful? I reserve a bit of my anger for this, because in no small part I lived 40 years in fear and self-anger because of this cultural belief.

And now? I’m proud alright. And I’m angry. OK?!