Snakes, patterns, labels

  • Posted on August 1, 2014 at 11:53 am

know your snakesHere are two snakes. One is harmless, the other will kill you. You have to know the colour sequence to differentiate a coral snake (deadly) and a milk snake (harmless). This is how living creatures survive, by recognising patterns, by getting it right. We recognise faces similarly, and expressions that mean friendly or aggressive. We are terribly good at it.

In fact we are so good, we naturally categorise everything, creating a mental instant index of what is safe and favourable, unsafe and unfavourable. It is best not to have a lot of fuzziness in between, because doubt takes time, reducing the fight/flight response time. It helps of course in bonding as co-defenders too. If you know who you are safe with, that’s a step better than not being totally sure, which is a step better than real doubt of alliance, and a whole lot better than feeling there’s something potentially dangerous alongside. It’s a brilliant adaptation of senses, mind and memory for survival.

Somewhere along the evolutionary line, there is a fork in the road. A harmless fly that looks like something nasty-tasting or armed with a sting, survives better than one that doesn’t. A snake that looks dangerous, whereas it is defenceless, is more likely to survive. And of course, anything that blends into the environment can be either predatory or simply safe.

And so it is that we live in a world where not only patterns matter, but also have to be interpreted as genuine, authentic, trusted.

Social patterns

Socially we have progressed a long way beyond the basics, and culturally we have learned to classify pretty much everything we experience – and so it is that even ideas, philosophies, religions are patterned for our assessment, acceptance or rejection. We brand things, apply logos, write straplines and mission statements to distinguish one thing as superior to another. It is still evolutionary competition! And in all these things, the practice of pattern recognition becomes divorced from its origins. We think ourselves sophisticated and analytical, whereas instead we are merely conditioned for instinctive response. We are all very aware of how manipulative branding and marketing can be, from fizzy drinks to politics. By linking so much to ‘lifestyle’ we flatter to deceive – and unconsciously absorb it all. And it changes our perceptions and attitudes without our realising it. Are we really thinking for ourselves when we make the milk snake / coral snake assessment? That’s a simple example, compared with the current opinionating around the Israel/Gaza crisis, where there is no single right/wrong judgement to make, and yet where people seem so clear in their minds who is to blame for what.

Don’t we wish that everything was just a matter of stripes? And aren’t we so glad that there isn’t a poisonous snake with both series of stripes along its body?

Patterns that matter, patterns that don’t

It doesn’t actually matter to me about snakes, because I am really unlikely to have to remember the little rhyme about the coral snake (‘red to yellow, dangerous fellow’). When it comes to meeting people, however, I do like to get a sense of whether they are open or closed, antagonistic or friendly, distant or helpful etc. Trust matters if I am going to open myself up.

It matters if I am choosing a new purchase: will it work to my requirements? Can I get the colour I want? Is the description accurate? Is there enough detail? Are the reviews honest enough? Is the price the best I can get? In my home, I want to forget the purchase, because the item meets my needs at least as expected. It’s a complex pattern to compare, but a necessary one.

Then there is my driving licence. It is forgery proofed, because it is a form of identification. It has my unique number on it, and a terrible photo from the week I finally transitioned, so yes, it is a picture of me without my glasses and wearing a wig! The ratios of ears, eyes, nose, mouth and chin are authentic, and enough. I don’t have to like it. It has my name on it. Names are not unique, and entitle you to nothing, because they tell you so little. I am not the son of David, and Andie is not an abbreviation. Nevertheless, I had to get a new one of these two years ago, with the title Ms and gender marker F. Strangely, it has not changed my insurance, made me a more competent driver, made me younger or more or less experienced, and still doesn’t say I can drive an HGV. Is there any reason at all for my driving licence to be gendered? Does this pattern designator serve any purpose, enlighten or confuse? No.

But I bet that anyone with this marker not saying what they think they are, or saying something they think they are not, finds it offensive. Like a milk snake with a tag around its neck saying ‘coral snake’. It’s one thing to feel safe in your colours, another to be told you are deceiving – even dangerous – by wearing them.


I have over two years’ worth of official documents designating me a female, and none in that time to the contrary. And yet I am still not legitimately female. Very soon I shall have that certificate (aren’t you envious that you can’t back up your birth certificate with one of your own?), but for some people it will make not one iota of difference. The world is not and never will be unanimous about my gender. For most people I expect the fact that there is no need to make a sworn statement on my gender relieves them of the need to make their minds up. I can comfortably and safely be left in a limbo, called a woman for all intents and purposes, but with eternal uncertainty about what I really am. Because I don’t fit the pattern. Breasts? Check. Vagina? Check. Behaviours? Check. Documents? Check. Chromosomes? Actually even I don’t know that, but we might guess there is definitely a Y in there somewhere.

I shall always be transsexual?

There are countless people (and I do mean uncounted) who do not know that they are chromosomaly not what they think. There are women born without a uterus, or a vagina, and huge numbers of people with some kind of intersex condition. The gender pattern scheme we have maintained so long simply does not fit, and we do have to ask whether it matters. And yet we use gender markers all the time for legitimsation: you may enter here but not here, belong there but not there, be included with them but not us.

For so long as we mainstream the gender binary, anyone who is not clear-cut is in the ‘other’ bin. The uncertain snake, neither identified as poisonous nor harmless, handled carefully, not dangerous, but not safe.

I shall always be transsexual?

This label will always be applied to me. My new birth certificate will not have the fountain pen ink and patina of age that my old one has. But I ask why I cannot be called simply a woman? That is my choice, and it doesn’t mean I am a binarist, just that this is where I situate myself, among my queer friends and those eternally-transgender, androgyne or simply non-binary.

We are not chameleons, we are just human beings who say that our identities are our own to declare. I shall always have a history, and I am not ashamed of it or embarrassed by it. I am not afraid of ‘woman with a trans history’, but it is behind me, not what defines me now. There is no ‘other’. We are all other because we are individual.

Please, never say: ‘she is transsexual’, ‘she used to be a man’. I may well be ready to help anyone understand the issues of being born with gender conflict, but you may not of your own decision, your own pattern-recognition, define me for your comfort.

Snake in the grass?

There are some very aggressive people around, especially trans-excluding radical feminsists (TERFs) who have difficulty with these people:

  • women born without reproductive organs
  • XX(n) chromosome people with few biological female markers
  • XY(n) chromosome people with few biological male markers
  • women born with even the most severe gender dysphoria

because they are not ‘womyn born womyn’ (avoids use of the letter sequence m-a-n). For them, M and F are universal political brands devised solely for the cultural purpose of oppressing womyn born womyn. Extreme? Yes, and frequently vile in temper and intent. You can look them up easily, and read all the toxin you can ingest in order to recognise the pattern-identification that defines them. The worst in the list is the transsexual, whatever their chromosomes, because they are part of the political plot, and essentially always male, predatory, and seeking the rape of real women in their exclusive spaces. They would look me in the eye and say the same of me …

Radicals and separatists aside, it does leave me still wondering if ever I shall be released from people who (even privately) insist I am eternally transsexual?

Why, I want to ask, is that more important, than to understand that I am a woman, plain and simple? Is it so significant that I (like many other women) did not menstruate in my fertile years? Or have to face unwanted attention from men? Or that I was not beautiful and available to men? Is it that you cannot place my sexuality?

Am I a snake in the grass? If so, do you think I am invasive? A pretender? A hazard?

Just a thought when you decide, when you look at me, what I am.

yours truly,

Milk Snake


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