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Come on in, but not for an explanation

  • Posted on May 3, 2015 at 4:20 pm

Society is very dysfunctional at times. Some of those times are when things change. Which is all the time. Nothing is as dysfunctional as when one group doesn’t understand another group and doesn’t want to. That’s where wars start, families break down, cities dissolve into riot, and discrimination breeds hatred. But let’s look on the bright side instead.

What happens when a status quo challenges the prevailing view and people do want to understand?

I was challenged last summer over social issues, which in the end boiled down to the argument that if A and B are different, it isn’t up to B to educate A in order to gain acceptance or equality. Rather, it is up to A to gain an understanding such that equality is simply no longer at issue. The principle seems to be that if A has privilege (i.e. they never need to explain being different from B), then as privileged people they should be the ones to make the effort, challenge their own privilege. Why should B need to defend and explain anything? After all, both A and B are equally different …. The problem is the privilege, not the difference.

So far this seems quite reasonable, fair and logical. And yet at the time this was presented to me, it seemed equally reasonable that I should be able to have dialogue with B in order to understand why I was seen as having this ‘privilege’ of simply being (by accident) me-where-I-am. And dialogue was being refused on grounds of ‘it’s not up to me to educate you’. How else was I to gain insights, since everything else short of dialogue was going to only provide an outsider view of the difference between me (A) and B? I think I came to an impasse over this in the end.

My social range is changing (as is that of my partner!) and what this implies is that each of us is going to meet new people. Some will be surprised – by our differences: our age difference, that we are in a lesbian relationship, that I have a trans history, meaning (for them) I ‘used to be a man’. And that sort of screws up the lesbian thing a bit and, if they’ve never met a transsexual person before, make them wonder quite what I am altogether.

This places us both in a situation where explanations may be wanted. My big thing is that we don’t owe anyone an explanation about anything. Why are we in a happy relationship, living together, making a new home life? Well, it’s easy. We love each other, we feel we are good for each other, and it all feels to us the most natural and normal thing to be doing. So what should be more requiring of explanation than love, well-being and happiness? I guess some will nonetheless find us hard to understand straight away, whilst more than expected simply wish us well and be happy for us. Explanations will always be around the corner, and we can either offer them or ignore them.

So what are explanations about?

I think that what I might need to explain is why the other person feels uncomfortable or uncertain about ‘how to treat me’. In other words, I can describe the condition of being transsexual, and (as in this blog as a whole) describe my experience of discovering myself and going through a transition – but that is not an explanation. I can offer theories to date of how a person can have a gender that is not in agreement with their physiological sex characteristics, and this will offer an explanation of how I came to be transsexual at birth. But it doesn’t explain anything. What seems to be requiring an explanation is why my ‘condition’ (now fixed) is an issue, why it brings people up short, why it presents any confusion in them, and why it concerns them at all by feeling I must be ‘different’ in any way that matters. Maybe I am unpredictable, mentally unwell, weird, dare I say it, perverted, you know, sexually? Because they don’t know.

In other words, I am explaining not myself, but them. Why is this my job? Try this:

I saw someone today, and I couldn’t decide if they were a man or a woman. Then I saw them kissing another woman, and I thought, ‘I wonder what she must be thinking and feeling with someone so unusual and odd’. I couldn’t stop thinking about them all afternoon, so I talked to some colleagues, and they thought it was funny. I didn’t want to laugh, so I felt awkward joining in. I wondered, if someone like that came into my shop and asked to try on a dress, how it would make me feel. I couldn’t decide how I would address them, and thought how embarrassing it could be. Then I realised I might be more embarrassed than they, and wondered why I was thinking about it so much. Why was I feeling so uncomfortable? It’s a bit like not knowing when to help someone in a wheelchair, or where to look if someone has a disability. My friend used to say ‘look at the person, not the disability’, but I don’t think the person I saw today was disabled. Just odd.

Where is the best explanation needed? The explanation the observed person might give is simply: ‘Oh; I’m trans. I guess you noticed.’ The real explanation of the situation is more like: ‘Transsexual people make up a percentage of the population. Some you notice, some you don’t. If you’re really not sure what pronouns to use, just ask. But if you feel uncomfortable, it’s time you did a bit of simple research on gender, because your discomfort arises from a basic misunderstanding. This person you saw doesn’t share your misunderstanding, so if you want to feel better about it, sort out your own discomfort.’

It doesn’t need my life story to provide an explanation, because it doesn’t do that. The story is just how I came to understand, and what I did about it. I can always offer that for anyone who needs to know, because (as previous blogs recently) it’s come to be an ordinary fact of life. It helps people in similar situations, but it explains nothing to the uncomfortable. I remember people who said to me years ago: ‘I’m not ready to meet you yet’ (they never did), and realise that no explanation of this kind would help them anyway. I can give the facts, but the explanation of why people need to ask is, in most cases, up to them.

And so it is that I came to the conclusion that there is no more ‘coming out’ to do. That was an event that enabled me to inform people, not explain. What happens now is ‘coming in’, where anyone who wants to be part of my life is welcome to understand why they might not want to, drop this, and join me. In all our entirely shared and equal differences.

This can probably be generalised quite usefully. First find out if people socially different to you really are potentially harmful (not just conflicting with your beliefs), or not. If not, they are just different from you (and equally, you from them). They might be as uncertain about you and think you harmful. If we are all open to learn about others (and change our beliefs and prejudices accordingly), then in turn we become open to let others in. Then the whole of society has a better chance of being less dysfunctional.

I’m not coming out, but you are welcome to come in.

TDOR 2014, and more

  • Posted on November 22, 2014 at 3:21 pm

I hesitate.

There is an article about transgender murders that I feel like sharing on Facebook, and since I read a fair few articles others have shared, and feel I learn from, I like to pass things along. But I hesitate. The article is informative, well-written, and speaks for me and many others.

And I hesitate, and start thinking about caveats, explanations, warnings. I write something to encourage the next reader and explain, and then share.

With doubts.

It is an otherwise ordinary day, halfway between 20 November and tomorrow, when I shall go down into Brighton for the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). Worldwide, this is the 16th year of remembrance, and around the world the names of transgender people whose murders have been recorded as being transgender identity-related are read out. It’s a list of between about 220 and 250 each year, which seems like a drop in humanity’s ocean. Trans women of colour are disproportionately represented, as is Brazil as a country, though not as a percentage of population. There are a number of sources for names, lists, numbers and charts online under the TDOR or ITDOR name, and you can even read the means of murder, which can be horrific.

So that’s about 5 people in the world per week. Pretty small isn’t it? So why the fuss? There are other minority groups with worse statistics, equally demonstrating how vile human beings can be to each other, and they may have their protests and remembrances too. You could even pick out those whose gender identity placed them in danger, such as in sex work, not because they were fetishists or immoral, but because it was a means of survival. For some clients, being trans* is the reason for the transaction. For others there is self-disgust, deceit and violence. Or you could pick out those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like anyone can be, when alcoholic bravado creates antagonists in a situation where hate can be enacted. And hey, you don’t get many actual murders in the UK, do you, so why should we join in on such a minority, and perhaps predictable, state of affairs?

I hesitated, not because it seems like such minority interest, but because of the comments posted under the article in the 24 hours since it went online. This too is a predictable state of affairs, and the tone, content and quantity is never a surprise. Yes, there are also always trans* people on there either lamenting an incident, or praising some brave soul, perhaps relating their own experience. They are back on later with facts and explanations, because sooner or later, we are being discussed:

  • how many transgenders [sic] are there? (that’s not many, is it?)
  • yes, but it isn’t true, is it?
  • nobody is transgender, God made men and women
  • these transsexuals are just deluded, they can never make their bodies different
  • they need curing / putting away / executing
  • if you’re born XY that makes you a man, forever
  • comment removed by moderator as not abiding by the rules
  • and so on.

Some of us are sensitive and tetchy, which doesn’t help. The replies are rude and direct. Another comment is deleted by a moderator.

So I hesitate; do I share, so that the comments are seen by those who will be sympathetic? Or not share, because they are hurtful? Probably no-one in my Facebook extended network is in danger of their lives, but for all I know there are some who are gender-questioning and fearful, not of being physically murdered, but socially murdered. That might sound like I’m diminishing TDOR; I am not lessening it one bit. I am saying that whilst I don’t know anyone who has been murdered, I do know people who have attempted suicide, and I have contemplated it myself.

I wonder what the statistics really are, worldwide, among people who have come out as transgender, if we counted everyone for whose death their gender identity was a material factor?

And I wonder, how many more gender diverse people we would actually see, if gender expression was not a social problem? It is a social problem in many ways, because very few trans* people completely escape discrimination, whether this is loss of job, loss of family, loss of property, loss of status or respect, or the freedom to live and move without harassment, or exclusion from the means of regaining these.

TDOR is about society’s commentary, not just murder

In the news this week have also been articles on suicide rates among young trans* people, and a particularly nasty event on 4Chan (source of the ‘gamer gate’ furore), where incitement to hatred and violence, driving transgender people to suicide is discussed heroically and enthusiastically. Just lonely teenagers in their bedrooms?

Do I feel personally threatened? No, not right here right now, but many are. The freedom to write anonymously online creates an environment that is not just online, but in the hearts and minds of the participants. If you are even ridiculing online, surely ridiculing a trans* fellow-employee is a bit easier and more natural – I mean, you have support for your attitudes out there, don’t you? Verbal abuse, tripping people up, denying their presence or credibility, or simply neglecting to uphold anti-discrimination laws, are all part of attitudes sustained by popular comment. This is the way minority groups are kept under and fearful, denied their rightful share of society, and it isn’t exclusive to transgender people. You can read it and believe it, whether that perpetuates your own fixed views, or whether you receive it and are fearful.

My hesitation to share the article was not because my non-trans friends would be upset, or because some comments are plain ugly. No, because few people actually think they are part of the problem at all. They don’t have to take part in the argument. Indeed, one friend had said this week, that she found herself talking with someone about transgender things, not because of anything, but just as something normal to talk about. My being out matters, because I am an example, in some sense, of success. But believe me, if I opened this blog up again to comments, and started getting rude or nasty comments that I had to start reading and moderating, I might feel less inclined to be open. And one defence of the nasty-commenters is always ‘what did she expect, if she’s going to be online / in the media?’

And so I hesitated, because keeping going through and beyond gender transition is a fragile thing, and just because you were born trans does not make you strong or resilient. So if you protest at this blog and say I am over-egging things ‘because I made it’ and you’re accepting of me, think again. I made it because I am strong, not because society has been completely kind. In another place, my strength would not have been enough. In another place I may be homeless. In another place I may be abused daily, outed and insulted. In another place, I may be dead, by my own hand or another’s. Whoa! Dramatic, eh, Andie? No. In another place things could be very different, for exactly the same reasons that 266 murders have been registered as transphobic hate crime. For exactly the same reasons that almost half of all trans* people have attempted suicide at least once.

Murdered trans* people. Suicidal trans* people. Unemployed trans* people. Trans* people excluded from their own families. Trans* people discriminated against, ridiculed, even simply excluded from using the right toilets, or legislated against. Or simply unable to access clinical treatments to end their gender dysphoria in a timely manner. Dead, or socially reduced, for being transgender, is a very good reason to go along to my nearest TDOR service tomorrow, and to say that I took part, and to share this blog.

I shall not hesitate.

And remember, when you hear jokes or read comments, or see discrimination and prejudice, your response is nudging society one way or the other. Even if you know me only through this blog, you know me, and if I have earned any respect, you can turn the conversation away from suspicion, misunderstanding and even hate, where you are.