You are currently browsing the archives for 13 September 2014.
Displaying 1 entry.

Understanding: not taking the ungiven

  • Posted on September 13, 2014 at 12:01 pm

With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
I undertake to abstain from taking the not-given.
Buddhist precept

When we say ‘you’ll never understand’ we tend to forget that we too shall never understand. And this use of ‘understand’ can be used as our protection, both of what we feel helps identify us, and from what we feel might change us. And we all do it.

Before I start, this isn’t about religion, gender, race or any minority or majority – it’s about all of us. We all have things we want to be known as, and things we do not, and things that we feel diminish or erase our identity. I can’t presume what yours are, and you can’t presume mine. That is taking. We must speak, and clearly, and allow honest questions from those who want to understand. That is giving. Do I get it right always? You bet I don’t. And neither do you.

Limits to understanding

Probably the biggest tag in my wordcloud for as long as I’ve been blogging is ‘understanding’. It reflects my desire to be known and not blamed or othered, for being trans. I don’t know how much I’ve succeeded; a bit. But I still remember saying to one psychiatrist at the gender clinic, that even though they go to work every day, as specialists, to hear the like-for-like stories, hour by hour, of trans people, they will never know what it feels like to be transsexual. Of course they can’t. What I guess I really want is ‘enough’ understanding – and to be believed and validated.

I have friends who say very kindly-intended things, but which reinforce my feeling that they really don’t understand either, and equally I also know other people whose traumas, or simply differences from me, I will never know from experience either. But when I get bullied or rejected for not understanding, when all I have attempted is dialogue, or exchange, I start to wonder whether not being understood can also become a protection, a place where we can belong with others who share an experience, where we can also hang onto our difference because it’s something we can legitimately own, and in a way be unique.

It is customary in gender-variant circles to protest labels, or being over-defined restrictively. And yet non-trans people also object to ‘non-trans’ being termed ‘cis’ – a factual descriptor can become an emotive label. Some labels are used derogatively, such as ‘tranny’, often compared with the n-word. Labels leave sticky residues though, whatever they are, so when we try to describe as a way of understanding, we must be careful of limiting or reducing other people. Some say I cannot be lesbian, because I did not go through early socialisation as a girl. Some emphasise that I have known male privilege. Others that having white skin and European heritage means I can never understand racial prejudice. These are things I cannot change, any more than being born transsexual. And they are used to say ‘you can therefore never understand’ whilst at the same time being used to blame for not understanding.

So how are we ever, as social human beings, to understand each other? What kind of discourse can we possibly have? I have my boundaries, you have yours, and in places we overlap. How exclusive must I be to maintain my personal territory in order to feel safe? How far can you enter my territory before I feel you have disrespected me, or taken something away from me? How much am I, are you, an individual, and how much irretrievably part of a group to which I or you must always be confined or belong?


What if

  • I believe taking a photo steals part of my soul?
  • wearing a First Nations American headdress erases the destruction of my culture?
  • drag makes a parody of either my gender or a joke of my dysphoria?
  • conspicuous wealth insults my misfortune?
  • two heterosexual men get married for the wrong reasons (true, this week)?

Examples like these suggest to me that we are not naturally good at understanding and respecting each other. What are we to do? I think firstly there is a difference between deliberate persistence in disrespect in order to demonstrate disrespect, and naïve or unknowing treading on toes. Do both deserve the same backlash?

If someone shouts ‘tranny’ across the street I will react differently from correcting a friend’s mispronouning of another who has just come out as trans. So I have felt very hurt by very different recent instances of being personally slammed after very innocent writing (not here). And I have felt very hurt too after my own privacy was breached and then justified by others. Accident and deliberation can be very hard to distinguish, for us all.

Another word that goes around is appropriation. I wonder whether misappropriation is more correct. We live in a very mixed society where cultures, art, expression are very shared. We listen to and play each other’s music, eat each other’s food. And yet some things are not for sharing. Since prehistoric times, when people traded decorated pots there will have been tensions over stealing designs that had group or tribal meaning. I can trade it with you, but you cannot make one; didn’t you know that motif is symbolic? Or painting: when is something ‘in the style of’ (e.g. cubist) too much an imitation (e.g. after Picasso)? Does it need Picasso’s permission or blessing? Does it make a difference if Picasso dies penniless? Is it stolen? Copyright law is both recent and specific.

When is something so invested with meaning that it can never be used by someone else? When is a Cornish pasty mislabeled, and is Bakewell tart a commercially protected brand? Up the scale, dreadlocks, with a very ancient near-eastern history, can be highly emotive because of more recent ethnic association. Have they become so exclusive that on just anyone, they diminish their current social ownership? A Hilda Ogden-style hair-restraining turban is not the same as a male turban fashion accessory for a non-Sikh. That dilutes their prime significance to Sikhs, at least in that style and in this country. Native Americans may make and sell moccasins so we can walk in their shoes; but a cheap war bonnet made in China erases dignity. Or a cross worn because it’s a ‘Christian country’ rather than as a real faith designator? Time also erases history very selectively.

I wonder whether the feelings some of us identifying as transsexual feel about transvestites who overdo the glam, because tomorrow they can be ‘normal’ again, are similar. Is cross-dressing a misappropriation of something that threatens us? How can I defend myself against a radical feminist who says I can never be a real woman (appropriation), when all around are what appear to be men dressing as women? Is this why society in general finds gender dysphoria so difficult to handle? And where does gender queer or dual-gender or non-binary fit in my comfort zone? Whose sensitivities hold primacy?


Is this all about what is given (and by whom, and who has a say) and what is not? Is it about who has a right to belong in a social space, and who can arbitrate? Or is it mainly about exclusivity of membership and safety? Sometimes we hang on tight to our rights for the wrong reasons, and find we have created a tension by doing so. Anger works exceptionally well in achieving this. It might be because of something that can’t be undone, like history – or that can be undone like my story (that I keep telling myself as the only one). Sometimes a knot cannot be undone without releasing both ends …

Again, it is all down to giving respect: both ways. But I still maintain that respect requires a mutual willingness to communicate, an appreciation of where things come from, where ownership is and is not shared. If I am too strident about being transsexual in a very non-trans world forgive me. But if I tread innocently on your toes over some other innocent remark or question, please don’t chase me down the street shouting, for being so rude and ignorant for not understanding. We all deserve better than that, however angry and frustrated we feel about the way our society can treat us.

We all enter and leave this world as individuals, not as groups, yet in between we live and strive and fight as groups. I just want to be taken as me, here, now, learning, hoping to understand better each day.

Please give generously.