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  • Posted on March 25, 2012 at 11:55 am

As so often, several little things come together with a common theme, and invite reflection. This morning Jane Fae had written some comment for the Scottish Sun about her own experience of transphobic violence. Nothing new, and sadly commonplace. Last night Grrl Alex added to her blog ‘Familiarity breeds acceptance’, dealing with transphobia on trains. And yesterday, more fellow musicians told me how brave and courageous I was to come out by addressing the entire band.

All of this speaks of the motivation, the response and the inevitability or the trans life. As Jane said: ‘I’ve got used to a level of violence which, had you said to me this will happen every couple of months, I’d have been horrified.’ I can’t think that anyone would actually choose to be trans in a starkly gender binary society. But we don’t choose to be like this: it really isn’t anything to do with lifestyle. But do we have a choice at all? In a way, most of us have chosen for considerable time: to repress our true nature and live as best we can in the physically-apparent gender. Coming out trans is the result of giving up that choice. Hence what happens to us isn’t altogether avoidable if we want to live normally. So where was the courage? In the life lived-best-but-wrong, going against the current, trying daily to not feel uncomfortable, out of place as an outsider? Or in giving up and then taking whatever is cast at us? At best it is a different kind of courage.

Grrl Alex reflected on dealing with society’s curiosity, not just deliberate transphobia. We can forgive ignorance, but we can give understanding. A trans person on a train is cornered, and it does take courage to travel in a way that leaves you tremendously vulnerable and trapped. Alex’s book relates her own early experiences with trains, and I have had the feeling of surprise in going for a quiet late train, and arriving to find it was football night and packed with striped scarves. Again, no choice. But Alex raises the question of vulnerability and courage. If you act very ‘just leave me alone!’ you can become a target, whereas if you address the ignorant attacker honestly, confident in who you are, you can realise that the problem was really transphobiaphobia (coined perhaps by Richard Beard in Becoming Drusilla, which I recommend). So clearly an active courage can be a great help – so long as you want to be out and visible, and not pretend to be stealth (ie, so convincingly gender binaried that you are indistiguishable from cis-gendered people) when you are not. Alex resolves this by being herself (and I always hesitate at pronouns for Alex) and rather than being brave, is assertive (the blog and cover of the Grrl Alex book speak for themselves).

Which brings us to me. I chose on several occasions this past week, to stand up in front of between 30 and 40 people at a time who have long known me as a man, and effectively say ‘I am a woman’ – with a bit of explanation. For ages I scrubbed off nail varnish, changed my watch, as well as everything else, after a day lived as a woman, just to go and play the trumpet. And I admit there was no courage there. I tired of that, and soon people were noticing – even admiring – my choice of colours, which maybe matched a bracelet also left on. I relaxed. That wasn’t courage, it was just starting to be myself. And anyone who asked, increasingly got a direct reply that I was transgender. Was that courage? No, it was just getting safer to be honest. Compared with the first time I went out as a woman, speaking in public about myself as a woman was almost trivial. So I protest now that I am only doing what I have to do and that, being authentic, it is just being honest. I don’t have a choice, when the alternative is a denial of self.

So why am I so visible? Is it just that I can never be pretty enough to ‘go stealth’? Maybe age is on my side after all! No. I have shared with people around the world what it is like to be trans, and have found so many scared people, in very unforgiving circumstances, or in fear of what they might have to admit to themselves and to partners that, like Grrl Alex, I feel compelled, at least for now, to say ‘It’s OK to be trans. You don’t have to be a 100 per cent man or woman, indistinguishable from cis-gendered folk. This is part of normality and the way the world is.’

So if I show any courage at all, it is because I want to give a little more confidence to people who need it in order to realise themselves. I can’t make life easier for them or for me. This is tough. This can tear your emotions apart like nothing else. But it is OK, whoever in your life can’t cope with it. And it is far, far better than trying to pretend everything is fine in gender-land when it is not.

Courage is what you have when you enter a place, not where safety is not guaranteed, but where you are positively likely to get threatened. These are places we simply must eradicate, but they won’t go until trans people do stand up and be visible, be assertive, write in our newspapers, blog and live normal lives – like people of different races, or gay and lesbian and anything else between increasingly can.

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.

Grrl Alex

  • Posted on January 25, 2012 at 2:04 pm

I consider Brighton a kind place. I go anywhere I like and have had very few negative experiences as a transgender woman. I don’t pride myself in ‘passing’, but I do try without going over the top. I don’t call it a disguise, though I appreciate to some that it is hiding male traits. I call it revealing what I should be: it’s just how I feel about myself from the inside. If someone looks twice at mean and thinks: ‘OK, I think there’s a man under there’ I don’t really care. That’s just how they have learned to think, and it really isn’t as simple as that.

A few months back I met Alex Drummond, a unique trans writer among other things (I really admire her joinery skills). He was over from Wales for a conference, and I wanted to talk about publishing, so we met up at the lunch break and migrated to a café. Sometime into our lunch and conversation, one of the waiters calls over, across the floor: ‘Love the hair!’ I’m not used to flattery, so I turned round. ‘Thanks!’ replies Alex. Huh! Either I was passing very well, or really not at all. Alex, resplendent in black jumper, cross-checked skirt, black tights and rather nice boots, bedecked with beads (hmmm: we actually have the same bead bracelet …) is certainly distinguished by the long brunette hair.

And beard.

So what can it mean to be transgender? I thought I didn’t know, then I thought I did, then I met Alex. Stylish, individual, assertively ‘out’, he just doesn’t need to try in order to be himself. Even if I do hesitate every time I use a pronoun. But what I really respect about Alex is that he is authentic, if different, and unafraid to be an example – and has really done the homework including an transgender-themed MSc. I found that really useful, because alongside her autobiographical account of self-discovery (which I found both funny and very close to home), it helped me understand what my ‘normal’ could be.

Grrl Alex book coverI was really pleased finally to be able to publish the revised edition of Grrl Alex: A journey to a transgender identity in January 2012, including a Kindle edition – not least because I think the unconventional message has a lot to say to all of us transgender people, and to those we know and love.