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Well, really? Reality and freedom of speech

  • Posted on February 21, 2015 at 4:04 pm

OK, so last blog was a bit weird and surreal, but what I was trying to get at is that we create and impose realities that simply fix ideas, and in the course of this lose touch with the dynamism and possibilities of life. We should allow things to appear surreal in order to let the subconscious speak, and learn how to be free to change and change again.

This week has seen yet another furore about prominent feminist voices of a particular kind, and the legitimacy of being free to impose the fixities of their reality as some kind of authority, when those views directly harm others. Then, when those who have been oppressed by this view of reality shout and kick back, they are seen as being the aggressors. Plenty of other and better bloggers have taken the circumstances apart, framed as an issue of free speech and debate within university circles, where debate is an essential part of life. But I remember student protests at racist speakers when I was studying, because hate speech and reducing others on grounds of a ‘difference’ regarded as socially excluding, is not a good proposition for debate. Unfortunately, these people write in prominent places too, places regarded as authoritative and informative, where readers (even critical readers) are persuaded by the personalities or reputations.

In this case, the argument returned to whether sex and or gender (interestingly, not sexuality) are essential: i.e., whether they are mutable or fixed, psychological or unchangeably biological according to visual interpretation. In a society where the gender and sex binaries rule, this does matter. She is a real woman, he is a real man. She is a real woman because she has the right bits and experiences in life. She is not. She is a man with a vagina and breasts because you can’t change from one into another. She is a woman born without a uterus, he is a man with a micro-penis, she is a man because she does not have clear XX chromosomes, he is a woman because he does. She is a traitor to women everywhere because she is living as if she was a man, he is a rapist because he thinks he is a woman and goes to the women’s toilets to invade their space. They are all pretending, because instead of looking in their knickers and being honest they are talking about ‘identity’ as if it were distinct.

And worst of all, it isn’t for them to say. The debaters, thriving on controversy and profile as popular voices, are who decide what anyone’s legitimate identity is. Because reality is … what?

It all sounds rather mediaeval that a fixed world view by some can oppress anyone defined by them as different. And yet it is very strongly there. My gender is not a subject up for third party debate, especially in universities where real research is done that is revealing the fragility of established ideas.

It is mid-February and 11 trans* women have been murdered this year for being trans. The suicides are not counted, we just strongly hear of those leaving explanatory suicide notes online. The statistics don’t change much year by year. That means societal pressures are leading almost half of all trans people to at least attempt suicide. Maybe three-quarters seriously consider it. And all because what? Because we stand aside when those with strong views and opinions about the illegitimacy of gender broadcast them. Essentially, when someone with a powerful or popular voice, affirms or asserts that the identity of another person is not real, they are being violent. Violence is not a reasonable defence for freedom of speech.

I will never forget the night it hit me, in my marital bedroom, that I faced the rest of my life never being real. Not-a-man-not-a-woman, ever, when there were no socially legitimate normal alternatives. I was being cast into outer darkness because my naked body was showing one thing, my being was shouting another, and I was no longer wanted, let alone loved, for either. For anything. Not for being myself, and not for being honest. Whatever nice words were being offered, this was the base truth. I was no longer real, and would never be real again.

Nor will I ever forget the darkness and desperate emptiness that this realisation presented me with. I’m over it now, but it was a place no-one should ever find themselves.

Self-understanding among trans* people is diverse. Some like to be affirmatively trans* all their lives, many disappear from their trans* groupings and social circles, knowing others, being friends, but making nothing of their transition pasts. Even after full surgical transition, some will honestly say that they are not completely the gender they live in. They create a clear presentation in a binary sense, as a convenience to avoid questions and hassle – which is not the assertion other trans* people will make, that they are definitely ‘in the binary’.

So it seems some of us live in a binary gender identity simply to adopt a reality that is fixed by society, by all those around us. Let’s face it, in most cultures, your are pretty much obliged to cast your identity in a binary way. Your only way to avoid being the conversation, is to live someone else’s reality, not your own. I guess in some ways I do. I always said that I know much more definitely what I am not, than what I am. I think this is because saying what you are presupposes that you know what someone else feels like, to be that thing. Maybe nobody can explain why they ‘know’ they are a woman, though they have plenty of explanations for why they are not a man. We can list attributes and comparative traits (not all of which every other woman will share), but these are just clues and indicators. Surely everyone just says ‘I am me’, and everything else is a comparison for the sake of others. ‘I am me’ is the most real it gets.

And then Nature journal published a paper this week published Sex redefined. Claire Ainsworth explains the current research which shows that there are too many competing definitions of sex and gender, in physiological terms. Our bodies are frequently contradictory in the common signs of gender or sex (the word sex remained binary until now, whilst the word gender has split into a spectrum). Sex has been presumed to be the means by which one person can categorise another, whilst gender has come to mean self-identity, because it has relied on the four physical attributes of anatomy, cells, chromosomes or hormones. The big trouble, the reality, is that of those four, they just don’t all point simultaneously in the same direction. Each tells its own story, and they simply don’t always agree, to the point that the author states that intersex conditions are not the usual statistic of 1 in 2,000, but more like 1 in 100. Most of us will never know, because we feel OK with the outer physical presentation compared with our inner feelings. But one per cent means an awful lot of people must be squeezing themselves into a social reality that limits them, or makes them dissatisfied or uncomfortable with their appearance or feelings compared with the standardised attributes of ‘man’ or ‘woman’.

And this is the emerging truth about human sex and gender, that the binary clarity is actually and scientifically speaking, wrong. Now if light dawned, and the binary suddenly lost its significance, it wouldn’t mean people stopped falling in love, or that those born with a fertile uterus would stop having babies, or that we would be thrown into confusion (oh, my goodness, I suddenly don’t know who is what!). Maybe we would understand the pointlessness of ‘Title’ on all the forms we fill in, and maybe we would lose the presumed superiority of the ‘male gender’ and find a more natural equality. And maybe people who speak in university venues would understand that transsexuality just happens, and is real. After all it is the university research (and not just the sociologists) that says so.

As my last blog, isn’t it time to understand that what we take to be real could change into a new reality? Maybe then we would talk about kindness rather than fighting over freedom of speech.

The truth can sting

  • Posted on February 9, 2012 at 10:27 pm

I often reflect on why people love each other, and what can change that, as times and life changes. There is the obvious case of a husband who turns to drink or to crime, and we would all urge the wife to leave him – or better, kick him out. It’s unacceptable behaviour, unlikely to change, and we recognise it. So why do some stick by their man and take the punishment, claiming still to love him? I won’t attempt to answer that here.

Flip that thought now, and think of spouses who have to deal with accidents, illnesses and disabilities. We pity parents with disabled children, thankful it is not us, but recognise that one can’t divorce a baby that isn’t quite as ‘normal’ as expected. But the husband or wife, when the other goes blind, loses their faculties prematurely, or becomes immobilised? Again, we pity, we sympathise, we even help if we can, but we recognise that it can all become too much. And for a young person, we endorse a divorce that allows the healthy one to find a new and more fulfilling partnership for the rest of their lives.

I just watched a BBC 4 Horizon programme on what makes us good or evil. It was disturbing in concluding that psychopaths have a clearly marked genetic disposition that, combined with an abusive or damaging upbringing, makes them prone to acts we would describe as evil – and yet it is not entirely their fault. Somehow their free will (still present) has been compromised. What if all our antisocial traits have biological roots? The programme asserted the role of oxytocin in making people team players (it is measurably increased in pre-match warm-ups), whilst recognising that testosterone creates the aggressive competitive drive so the team wins the game.

No-one should endure violence, physical or psychological, just because they see the good in another, and with a good understanding of causes, maybe we can make ‘evil’ people less dangerous. And there passes the shadow of clinical cures for homosexuality … and the assignment of gender identity disorders in directories of mental illness.

But as these thoughts about causes drifted around my head, I also remembered a story in today’s Daily Mail. The headline was ’My husband became my wife: transgender woman reveals how a bee-sting led to her sex-change … and how the woman she had married stayed by her’. Setting aside the mis-concept of sex change, the story reveals that a very rare reaction to the sting toxin led to a dramatic reduction in testosterone.

There are two strands that came out of this for me: first, the woman, Chloe, was actually only unmasked. Beneath the testosterone there was something about her ready and waiting to be fully expressed as female. It wasn’t the bee sting that was powerful, it had been the testosterone. She did have a prior history of some gender uncertainty, but had fathered children and been a good husband for eight years. She too had no choice in the matter, and genetically, psychologically, she simply became what she was beneath the influence of the male hormone. But second, was the response of her wife, Renee. We find in the article that they are no longer married (they are two women, neither of whom describe themselves as lesbian) but they do share their home and family as two women together in a committed relationship of love.

What is it about Renee’s love that meant she didn’t wave goodbye to Chloe? Many women would have done. Those who have read Helen Boyd’s account of living on the brink of her husband transitioning to female in She’s not the Man I Married, find how heart-rending it can be (and Helen and Betty did stay together through transition). I don’t think anyone would equate the decision to stay after gender identity change, with the decision to support a disabled partner (total loyalty through major change) – but should they? Does either break a marriage contract, in that neither situation is one of choice?

That takes us on to the issue of Gender Recognition Certificates (GRC), and the requirement to dissolve a marriage in order to be officially recognised in the gender that feels most authentic. (How odd that you could then reunite in a civil partnership, even though neither partner identifies as lesbian …) It makes us examine our authenticity, and the awkward concept of who you are in context of what you are. We do contract marriages and partnerships because of what we are (male, female, fertile, intelligent, capable, wealthy even), but it is really more because of who we are (supportive, loving, helpful, kind, lively, entertaining, like-minded). Yes, the two do merge, but what I mean here is that I am still the same person if, once wealthy, I fall on hard times, whereas I am really not the same if I lose my loving and kind personality. The GRC says that the what has changed even though the who is merely a lot happier – and therefore ‘something must be done’.

My heteronormative upbringing meant I never even entertained the possibility that I might find a man attractive. I was only looking at women when I found my wife. I’m still not attracted to men in any way, and my wife’s experience is the same the other way round. So it’s hardly surprising that the question of attractiveness comes up. Big time. I am still attracted to the woman I love so much; she, of course finds it rather difficult. What I am has been changing. Who I am, I maintain (from the personal, internal experience) has not.

Back to where we began: what makes people love each other? Or stop loving? Why, or how much, does my gender identity affect yours? Am I validated as heteronormative by you fitting my heteronormative picture, (and that can seem very important)? What trumps who, time and again. If my heteronormative picture isn’t that strong (as for Helen Boyd) it is less of a problem, but still there. So when does love become a decision, with a decision tree to help you get there (and yes, how and if you do sex is a box along the way)? Can I only be a non-lesbian woman in a partnership if you are not a woman?

The whole business of how much we choose to be what we are, regardless of who we are, is fraught. Serious crime and punishment? Dead easy, but now, perhaps, disturbing. Antisocial behaviour? Easy. Disability? A source of sympathy. Gender? Ah, now there you have me. Because I am not a woman, I am transgender, and even the most loving people can have a hard time deciding what I am and whether the who has changed and which was the main source of love. Congratulations to Chloe and Renee, Betty and Helen, and all those who have made it through, and most of all for sharing your stories, to keep us on our toes.


  • And as so often, I have a poem in sympathy with this thought: Hands

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.