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  • Posted on August 3, 2014 at 10:45 am
Pride flags

I have only actually fully participated in one Pride event. I never knew in advance when it was. My mother always knew: ‘Pride comes before the fall’, she used to say. Maybe that’s it. Pride was a bad thing, signifying arrogance. It meant putting yourself above others. And to be honest, being brought up like that, where even to say you loved yourself was a sin, I could hardly look at gay men in weird strappings and think I belonged in any way. That was before I knew what a lesbian was. That was before I knew why I didn’t…


  • Posted on January 4, 2014 at 10:18 pm

Sometimes (I wrote under a photo of a single swan) it is enough just to be.

That was over 30 years ago, a gift with love. Just a few years earlier, I gained a lifetime favourite song, ‘Be’ from the film Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. By now I was grown up, so the question of ‘What do you want to be?’ was getting a bit passée.

Being and doing

It’s interesting to think about the relationship between being and doing, Socrates thought so (to be is to do), as did Plato (to do is to be). And no, it’s not the Sinatra joke (do-be-do). Can you do anything without being? Can you be anything unless you express it by doing? I think the difference is that you can suppress actions that you feel would be natural, if only you felt free and accepted, and you can do things that aren’t natural in order to appear to be something you are not. And you can also make a show of doing something that expresses your being, as if it were exceptional, in order to seek permission to be.

I’ve read people who write about ‘doing’ trans* or queer, perhaps because they feel their sense of being is not resolved by pigeon-holing themselves, or because it is a stage in exploration: can they really be different? Can it really be that they are different?

I remember a quite distinct period of ‘doing’, of pushing the envelope, of seeing what fitted, what would happen, where it would lead. At first it was what I very much wanted to do, and felt very like expressing something I was, but felt a bit awkward simply because it was different. And there was also an element of wanting to be noticed. It was a real nuisance and disappointment after a day of ‘doing’ female to remove the nail varnish, but it was also a good reason to leave it on so it would be noticed. If it had really felt out of place with my being, I would have wanted to remove it. I didn’t. I wanted what I was to be seen by what I did. And I started to make more and more things noticeable, because I was desperate to be known for what I was, by having to explain things I was doing. I think it is a very common thing.

Doing and permission

But it isn’t just about being trans* or queer, or anything do do with sex or gender. It’s about our freedoms do be ourselves, to make life something of being, not of doing.

I remember ten years ago and more screaming out inside because I was in constant demand, but only for what I could do, not simply for what I was (as a whole person). And that was before I even began to understand my gender struggles. I wrote a poem at the time that expressed my life as being like a cairn, a way-marker. Everyone passing by was placing another small stone, making me useful, adding to my layers, my reason to be there for them. Whereas what I wanted most of all was to have bits of me taken, loved, valued, to add to their lives, their sense of being. It was a very powerful period in my life, and, looking back, a beginning of inner change that enable me eventually to find the freedom to not have to do, but to be.

Sometimes it is enough just to be? No. It is always enough just to be.

Doing as a free expression of being is not conscious doing, it is what others see as a result of you simply being. You don’t make it up, you don’t have to make it visible in order to gain permission to be yourself.

Tied in knots

Last night I was talking with a friend who had had one of those difficult family Christmases. Physically, she was literally tied in knots as a result. Unable simply to be in that company, she had done as much as she could to accommodate herself in the situation, and had come away with needing to do the right things to release herself from the knots: ‘I’ve got to get rid of all this contraction first!’ – and she had a method in mind, difficult, but sure to be effective.

I remembered this time last year, writing several times about letting go of a marriage, a love, something deeply attached. I was an orang-utan mother carrying a dead baby, being mother when mother was no longer the reality. And in the end, after too long, I realised it wasn’t just grieving, it wasn’t difficult in itself, I just had to know I was allowed to let go. No special technique, no esoteric method, no effort or strength – just to put down what I didn’t have to carry. If I didn’t want to.

I reminded myself and my friend that a simple fact of life is that we don’t owe anyone anything, and no-one owes us anything. We are born to parents because that is the only way in. We mostly grow up in a family, because mostly parents or carers feel our nurture is the right thing to do. But it doesn’t put us in debt, it just teaches us to do likewise or better. There is no debt system hanging over us. If we choose to be kind, to love, to be generous, to be free, then we can be. Can you think of anything better? Not out of indebtedness, but out of an expression of self.

This is doing as an expression of being. Not doing to see if we can be ourselves, or dare to be ourselves, or are acceptable as ourselves.

What helps us best to express our being? If we want to do that, the rest follows.

It isn’t a resolution for 2014, it’s a revolution.

Just be. Oh, and let others be who they are, not what you want or need them to be. Love them as they are. Some may love you as you are too, especially if all your doing is a free expression of your being.

Semantic hegemony, if you know what I mean

  • Posted on July 5, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Sometimes things collide and I feel a small blog coming on. This one involves the proposition that, if gender had never been defined as strictly binary, and anyone could live anywhere in the spectrum they wished, would fewer people feel the need for a solely binary solution to their own gender identity?

A paper (‘Psychotherapy for Gender Identity Disorders’) by Az Hakeem was noted today, which proposed a form of group therapy to reduce gender dysphoria, where the author suggests that a body/mind disagreement can as equally be resolved by treating the mind or perception. His thesis that trans* people are more gender binary than cis folk is somewhat disingenuous of course, but he also proposes that sex is scientifically verifiable, whereas gender is a social construct.

Then a friend was enquiring about implications for reversing transition (which some do; it is why full transition is taken so cautiously and painfully slowly). Let’s face it, the road is very rough and the hatred and bigotry one meets requires an enormous resilience. Which is why I reckon I have never seen such generosity and such strength as I have among trans* people.

And then a relative (I have a very small extended family) that I was keeping in touch with over my own transition revealed a depth of bigotry such as I had not as yet encountered. One email a few months ago (no reply), then a helpful follow up yesterday, evoked thinly disguised hatred (or fear, I suspect) and a very commanding last word between us forever.

Finally, New Zealand is adding to the list of countries including a third gender on passports (Mx or X is used), which immediately presents non-binary or transitioning people as ‘other’, which, unless you are out and proud, and everyone is freely using a third gender in the day-to-day, is really not what you want.

And it’s all about semantics. Shared meaning and understanding.

As my last blog, words are everything when communicating. Lewis Carroll plays with this a lot in Alice in Wonderland (and Through the Looking Glass). Here is Humpty Dumpty:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

So when we talk about gender (sorry, I do, rather a lot because it’s a conundrum to me too – I had much the same education as you) we fall immediately into what the user of the word means. All words are made up, so the problem arises when different people don’t agree about the meaning or definition of a word, and whether complimentary terms are absolute or relative (eg, black/white versus light/dark). The result is that for me to really mean ‘dark’ I might feel obliged to use the term ‘black’ (or vice versa if I want to be less absolute).

Male and female are the chief cultural terms for gender, and the rest are constructs (andro-gynous; gender-neutral/queer etc.) so it is rather difficult if you are comfortable in the middle (non-binary) but have to fill in forms with M/F. And then you ask why the telecomms company actually needs to know, or the DVLA (are we really all gender-stereotypical drivers?). And then you ask what gender is anyway (covered in earlier posts here). The etymology of the term isn’t helpful, but meaning ‘kind’ (ie, distinguishing men and women) goes back to about the 14th century, but only came to be really useful when the term ‘sex’ started to get embarrassingly common in the 20th century in terms of activity. So it isn’t really very specific.

Who wins, Humpty?

You could be heading for a fall when the egg-heads disagree with little Alice. Is it an academic thing, defined by researchers? Or is it a colloquialism? And oh dear, when you prefix it with ‘trans’ you really stir things up, because what one trans* person claims it for is not the same for another. So the construct of gender is not so much a mental or psychological status as a social consensus on behaviour and presentation.

So back to our little coincidence of events today. How can we decide whether gender dysphoria, that feeling of mismatch between an assigned binary term (absolutist male or female) is a mental disorder, a physical disorder, or simply over-prescription of the need to associate sex-identification (physiological) with gender identification (social – no, not psychological!)? Tricky ground, and one that elsewhere has created very strong feelings. Is there a disorder at all, or is it just that because we don’t accommodate the non-binary or ambiguous or mixed presentation and behaviour, we artificially create a problem that need not exist?

Well, I have met enough different people to think that there are firm clinical and/or genetic roots for real ‘gender dysphoria’ at a profound physiological level – a clear awareness that the body does not fulfill the needs and expression of the psyche in terms of sex-differentiation. But also enough to feel that trans-binarism is not the only answer, and is entirely unsuitable for others. Women behave and dress as men frequently, but we go ape when a man dresses and behaves as a woman (even well, so let’s leave out the bizarre) – this is not, in my mind, a clear case of gender dysphoria, but social and cultural dysfunction. People should be free, but not obliged, to identify as non-binary, and free to live anywhere else in the spectrum they feel most appropriate, and that should be respected.

When someone undertakes the real life experience of their preferred (non-assigned) gender they really are finding out what it would be like to always be ‘the opposite’, and it may not fit well enough. And for others, even full transition with complete surgery is not enough for them to overcome feelings that they were ‘born wrong’. So freedom to identify in a fluid way is the socially mature way to regard gender. And finally, if we can sort out the use of ‘gender’ and ‘transgender’ flexibly enough through not needing to be prescriptive, we need to discard absolutism.

The case of my family member (‘relative’ seems strangely appropriate now), in all likelihood, is seated in religion. God made man and created them male and female. Well, did god create me? So whose fault in quality assurance am I? Old Testament absolutism is so riddled with fallacy that I shan’t discuss it here, except to say that the world’s major religions are founded on peace and love, and those who betray that ideal on spurious interpretations of ancient literature, may have to choose whether or not to shake my hand at the pearly gates as Saint Peter (and god) look on! What if they do, what if they don’t … ?

Check your baggage …

  • Posted on March 4, 2012 at 4:45 pm

I had this vision of meeting someone the other day … They were walking along, but struggling under the weight of two holdalls, one in each hand.

They seemed happy enough: I would be, if I had two heavy bags full of something valuable! I offered to carry one, because we were going the same way. But no, they insisted they carried both (my mother used to say this when I offered with the shopping) – because they were ‘balanced’. Well, maybe that makes sense; it saves a bad back.

But the trouble was, they couldn’t get on very quickly, and opening doors was a bit difficult. I asked how long had they been carrying the bags? ‘Oh, as along as I can remember’, they said. ‘Doesn’t everyone?’ I replied that they must be very inconvenient, but no: ‘they’re mine!’

‘When did you last open them, and need what’s inside them? And how do you know which is which, when you pick them up?’ I inquired.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ they replied. ‘I’m so used to carrying them, it hardly matters! It’s just what I have to carry.’

‘Maybe you don’t need them any more?’ I suggested. ‘Why don’t you put them down and look inside? Perhaps they aren’t as important or useful as you think?’

Well, it took a great deal of persuasion, but as we talked, the weight of the bags seemed to become questionable, and finally the bags were lowered and let go – not without some relief. Together we worked the zippers that hadn’t been pulled for a very long time, until they dragged their teeth apart to reveal the contents.

Each bag seemed to contain pretty much the same thing: bricks. Just bricks. A little dusty from rubbing together so long, but still – just bricks. They probably fitted together quite well, and who knows, something useful might be built with them. Maybe those from one bag and those from the other, put together, might be even better, but deciding which came from which bag, to put them back again afterwards, would be really quite difficult. Maybe it didn’t matter.

‘Oh.’ my companion said, ‘I really didn’t know what was in the bags. They’re so heavy and they seemed so important. But they’re just bricks!’

‘Then perhaps you can leave them behind now?’ I ventured, looking up at them. Then, glancing down at these impeccably balanced burdens, I noticed there were tired, old labels tied to the handles. I rubbed the dust off the fading ink, and when I’d worked out which way was up, saw that one read ‘male’ and the other ‘female’.

We took a couple of bricks out and examined them more closely. Yes, there were slight differences in shape, where they would fit together for strength, but otherwise they were all very much alike.

‘What are you going to do now?’ I asked.

‘Dunno. But I’m not carrying these bags around any more; no point. I’ll just take a couple – could be useful. Here, any two will do.’

‘Don’t you want one from each bag?’

‘No. It doesn’t matter. I only want them to keep doors open.’

Learning points

  • check your baggage: did you pack it yourself?
  • question the contents: are they important?
  • just because you have a balanced burden doesn’t mean you can’t put it down
  • whatever your burdens, keep your doors open
  • never stretch a metaphor too far; just see if it helps!
We all carry around far too much baggage about the useless gender binary of male and female, and in doing so fail to see others as they really are. Instead we constrain them and us, so we can’t even shake hands or hold doors open for each other. Put these bags down. Walk away.

Calling names and name-calling: gender terminology

  • Posted on February 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm

It’s a funny thing, but I still remember from 1986, the class roll-call. Every morning and afternoon, the Register. Alty, Anderson, Bird, Burkinshaw, Catton, Cookson – then me. Names stick. And somewhere down that list, O’Donovan will remember the half dozen names before his. They weren’t our real names of course. Budgie, Bugs, Pod were who we were. It didn’t matter what teachers called us, we identified each other differently; we knew each other, and if Bugs got his name for his front teeth, nobody minded.

One year, someone decided that Cookie should become Shirley. Now that was different. Were we all going to get girls’ names, and what did it mean? I felt very uncomfortable with what name I might get. It lasted a week or too, and it was a bad idea, so by consensus we dropped it. It was a boys’ school, you knew what to do to survive with minimal hassle, so for a while he was Copperknob instead (red hair!).

Naming ambiguity has been in the media, blogs and TV a lot in recent times. They always will be I guess. I remember discovering that in Australia Durex was something different, and much later, when doing my MBA, going into the fraught world of international brands. ‘Marathon’ chocolate bars sounded pretty robust, while the renamed ‘Snickers’ still sounds more like knickers to me, or a cheap snigger. Even that last word sounds dodgy these days.

Gender terminology

Despite the global vocabulary brought by the Internet, terms for gender and sexuality remain difficult. In one country or continent, the connotations (like pants) can be quite different. What we define in the UK as cross-dressing, as transgender, as gender-queer (again, ‘queer’ used to mean something else) and as transsexual, might be clearer than ever – but not everyone agrees. And terms almost become names, especially when someone is telling you what they think you are. The grammar is as tedious as school: what is the correct pronoun, when is a term only an adjective, not an adjectival noun? When is an abbreviation reserved (only a tranny can call a tranny a tranny) such that outsiders using it becomes offensive?

Any social group with commonalities will want to define, as we did at school, what the names mean. But the teachers weren’t wrong. We went and changed names mid-term – now that could be confusing! So it is with gender labels. There is a definite role for academia here, an academia that understands from the inside, not that makes it up from observation alone (remember quantum effects: the observer alters the state of the observed? It holds true for some social research too). And I think we should allow it, and if necessary bend to it, simply to achieve a reliable vocabulary that we can share with a bemused world.

The gender vocabulary needs to broad but clear, and allow for respect of many states. This week I have read comments online by lads who think gender-diversity means ‘weirdos’ who should (not could) be made fun of. And I have read as much from ‘lads’ who think banter about rape is OK, presumably because women are not equal as people to them. Worse, I have read hateful comments by trans people about other trans people who don’t fit their idea of sufficient authenticity, where one state of trans life and identity is real and another is mere pretence and deceit. Radical feminists can be truly hateful too about trans people not being ‘real’.

Naming middle genders

We need to describe the middle – the third states of gender – better, and trans people need to find their own place of comfort and true belonging without feeling someone else’s concept of gender authenticity must be their goal. Me? I don’t need to be a woman. I never really can be, and however much I risk my well-being to gain my dream breasts, or a better jaw or remodel my genitals, my bones were sculpted by testosterone, and I lived as a man for half a century. That has left an indelible mark. But before you shout at me because you need or needed maximal reassignment: I respect your choices and needs. I know without shadow of doubt that at one end of the spectrum, physical identity is absolute, and gender positivity places you in a traditionally binary place. Maybe one day it will for me too. But meanwhile for all the two-spirits, dual-gendered, female husbands, gender-queers, androgynes or whatever – there needs to be validation.

If you find you are on an unexpected journey (and unless your ticket is a lot clearer than mine), you really cannot know your destination. Knowing it probably won’t make it any easier, other than having some kind of end in sight. Gender dysphoria has degrees, and you don’t have to place yourself on the Benjamin scale or whatever right now if you don’t want. It might be useful later; maybe it will have changed later.

For now, I call myself transgender; I am crossing boundaries and I don’t know where it will end. At one level I have no choice, and at another I do have choices I can make. Finding my place, though, does mean I need a reliable description of where I am. Apparently, according to some comments I’ve had, I am just a man in a dress, assigned to fetishistic sidelines where frankly, I have never belonged – because their definition of transgender is terribly narrow and they own it!

I agree with Grrl Alex that it is quite legitimate to redefine by asserting individuality: you don’t have to do what anyone else does. You haven’t become another stereotype just because your gender discomfort has caught up with you.

We shall all remember the roll-call of gender terms, and hopefully definitions will become authoritative, but what we call ourselves does need to match (the more informed) academic study, and have clear meanings in the media playground and the world at large. Cookson? Cookie? Copperknob? Shirley? If you read this you’ll appreciate I was a friend, whatever; and Shirley was a bad idea at the time.