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Idol thoughts

  • Posted on March 7, 2015 at 10:40 pm

This week, bulldozers were running over 3,000 year-old treasured remains of the ancient city of Nimrud. I remember it from my university studies and visits to the British Museum, as containing very powerful symbols of a civilisation that dominated the region that is now Iraq. I always found it quite absorbing imagining the people who actually made the statues, built the temples, walls and gates, used the artifacts in their daily lives but also in their rituals. 3,000 years in one way is relatively recent, but in another is really ancient. The same artifacts that I could recall, then appeared this week being pounded under sledgehammers by men from the so-called Islamic State or ISIL.

It isn’t new though. Throughout history, histories have been obliterated, and religious extremists of all kinds have destroyed things precious in our eyes for secular reasons. In the Reformation in England, iconoclasm, or the removal of religious symbolism, was every bit as destructive. In 2001 the Taliban destroyed the 1,700 year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan because they were considered idols. In Nimrud, the destruction was again because significance was perceived to exist in objects we might just see as art. The same has now happened in Hatra. So what is an idol, that deserves such treatment?

We don’t have them much around here – do we?

An idol, even in biblical times, was an object invested with power. It doesn’t mean that the stone or wood, once chiselled and shaped, actually had any power, only that it was believed to have such, and therefore influenced people’s behaviours in relation to it. At the extremes, of course, such objects can become fetishes, and through suggestion are seen as being very powerful supernatural objects. Believe in the magic, or power, juju or voodoo, and real things do happen; charms, enchantments and curses really can affect people. But if you or I were innocently to find such an object, it would just be at most a sinister-looking piece of handcraft.

It is peculiar how as humans in societies, we create these things out of nothing, and then fear them, curse and bless with them, and render them dangerous enough to destroy again. And it’s all in the human mind. Religion, in this sense, still intrigues me. How is it that we can construct the edifices of a very wide variety of supernatural and superstitious beliefs, which necessarily must be limited by contemporary awareness and understanding and context, and then invest them with such infallibility that they become immutable doctrines, dogmas, rules, beliefs and faiths?
Essential to this activity is that the ‘knowledge’ has come from beyond, not from within, despite all evidence to the contrary.

That every divine being elucidated in literature has chosen to communicate with mankind through chosen individuals and mysterious beings, ending up being written down and susceptible to mistranslation and misunderstanding, may seem suspicious. (Is there really no better or more certain and secure way?) Even more so when this divine knowledge is expressed in temporally-bound terms. And yet here we are, in a world flooded with religions purporting to free us, whilst drowning us in guilt, self-destruction, rigid principles, and immune to improving knowledge and understanding. Copernicus and Galileo are stark reminders, but have we really moved on?

I had a slightly testy conversation recently over social media, that had been evoked by religious influence in a legal case. A judge had expressed his opinion about same-sex parenting, in court, and had been reprimanded, and a petition had been raised by Christian people to reinstate him. I objected to personal faith in a courtroom, but also to the underlying assumption that I was now unworthy of being a parent simply by virtue of being transsexual and also lesbian. Love, it seems, is not the same thing in a family with me as parent, as it would previously have been. Out trotted the usual mantra: ‘God made man and woman and marriage for the procreation and stable upbringing of children and this is the only natural way.’

Well, I went back with them over the definitions and current state of scientific understanding of the origins and meaning of sex and sexuality, explaining that you can either believe the man/woman binary system in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can see that in fact it isn’t quite as simplistic as that at all. And if the man/woman binary thing is unsafe, and you stop believing in it in the face of the facts, where does that leave you with concepts of marriage and parenting, families and households? The trouble with religions is that you can’t let them out of the bottle. So am I unfairly hitting back at religion, because it is so prevalent in the misunderstanding and bigotry against LGBTQI people? I began with a religious situation destroying the secular, in the belief that it was not secular but idolatrous. And now I am saying that religions easily make their own beliefs iconic and protected from secular understanding. Is it just that religion of any kind gets into a muddle, because it is not based on knowledge, and an understanding what knowledge actually is?

Having ranted and explained, I then came across a vlogger patiently going through some very interesting material on how presupposition affects perception (example: generally, we think male babies are bigger and stronger than female babies, not because of what we observe, but simply because we have been told a particular baby is male or female.) There are many researched examples that demonstrate our perception is skewed easily. Interview a person with your hands round a warm drink, and you will feel better towards them than if you hold a cold drink. Yes, that basic. So if you have a set of strongly-held beliefs or opinions, of course the world is a different place, and you actually think things are different. You have a faith? Then in your hands it has a supernatural power and changes the way the world is, around you. Even if you have an iconoclastic faith, your faith itself is an icon.

But this vlogger was even more interesting, because she vlogs as an atheist, experiencing atheist transphobia (a small percentage of transphobes whose attitudes cannot be attributed to religious cultural conditioning). Her conclusion was that the atheism itself had become a faith, and that the problem of the transphobes is that they have closed their understanding to new knowledge, to learning, and new ways of looking at things.

It all makes you wonder what ‘faith’ is. Is it just the ability to think without thinking about thinking?

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.

Being, as entertainment

  • Posted on August 19, 2014 at 12:10 pm

There was a time when people with congenital deformities accepted that the only way to survive was to accept a place in a freak show. A woman with a lot of facial hair would be the ‘bearded lady’ and sit to be stared at, talked and laughed and wondered at, rather than try to live a difficult life in the mainstream. The circus at least meant acceptance, and probably the friendship of other ‘freaks’. She probably had polycystic ovaries.

Accepting being different, knowing being different, exhibiting being different was a response to misunderstanding and exclusion for being different. We aren’t there any more, are we?

I remember the pain of watching Little Britain, and the falsetto cross-dressing sketches: ‘Aim a laaydee! Come orn Emily, let’s do laaydees’ things!’. Long before, I remember the awkwardness of Monty Python and the very popular ‘I’m a lumberjack’ and the transvestite bit of the song. These and many similar jests were all saying to me that I could either laugh with it (and everyone else) and be a secret freak, or expose myself as a freak and be laughed at. Where was the in-between recognition that a joke was being made out of valid non-binary, non-heteronormative identity?

I recall documentaries: don’t show too much interest in wanting to watch the programme, or you might give something away. Don’t show enough interest, and there is no opportunity to introduce an aspect of yourself and have a sensible dialog. There was My Transsexual Summer, the Channel 4 series in 2011, just as I was coming out, where six people of mixed age range and stages of transition came together over a period of weeks to share their experiences and aspirations. This was unavoidable, informative, presented to retain an audience, not quite entertainment, not quite just factual. ’You don’t want to do that though, do you?’ Scary.

How many tabloid front page headlines have we seen, exposing a ‘sex-swap sensation!’? I know several people who have been that person on the page. How does this make other people feel, who have any questions about their gender identity? Safe? At risk? Normal? Bizarre? The only difference between headlines and TV series, is the duration. Last week’s headlines get forgotten because it isn’t this week’s news. A series – with personalities, celebrities, oddities – becomes part of social dialogue, workplace conversation, pub sharing with an edge of inebriation. This is the point where the trans person, suspected trans person, gender queer, ambiguously-identified person gets drawn in for comparison.

The power of social comment

It has been a good season in the media by and large, with prominent trans personalities receiving awards and accolades, and significant articles being written that situate gender identity in objective sociological contexts where it can become mainstream and ordinary. We have also just had a tabloid turn towards the better. Two tabloids were kept at bay by legal injunction from outing Kellie Maloney until she achieved a deal on her terms with another. The big difference? The media expected a real sensation as the boxing world turned on the freak man-become-woman sex-swap fantasy. Only it didn’t. Kellie was embraced and accepted, better still, supported. End of story. Almost.

Predictably, however good the story was as it rattled around, and however reassuring the story about the non-story became in the wider media, comment threads online continued to feature hatred and bigotry, ridicule and rejection. Any trans-emergent person breathing a sigh of relief over Kellie was at once confronted by obvious and unchanging social hostility. This level will take a long time to resolve, just as despite social acceptance in LGB matters has brought almost complete social acceptance, has not deterred attempts to sensationalise sports men and women coming out, nor the comments people feel obliged to leave online. Nevertheless, when it comes to LGB issues, bigots really do look like bigots. Hatred is seen as hatred. Religious intolerance is seen as sickening.

I wonder if we are anywhere near this with trans issues though. It’s back to my ‘midas touch’ theory. Anyone can defend a top sports personality, in regular conversation, and accuse a friend of being homophobic or intolerant, because they know that (a) their friends won’t respond by saying ‘oh, so you’re gay too then?!’, and (b) even if they were gay themselves, it would not matter. Joke over, sensation over. Mild surprise; end of. The trans scenario? More likely a jest about secretly wearing a dress on Friday nights.

Transsexuality, less-known as gender dysphoria, is still viewed in the popular mind as a sexual thing: fetish, intrusive, threatening. It is something that you cannot align yourself with in understanding, because you don’t. Accepting that society has a substantial peppering with trans people feels unsafe. Despite the triviality of the figures, there are always comments that ‘I hope they’re not expecting me as a taxpayer to pay for their surgery’. Ignorance is rife, objectivity is a stranger. If it isn’t this, then it is seen as a psychological disorder: wrong in the head, even if it’s getting better described in the DSM manual of diagnosis (the universal Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders issued by the American Psychiatric Association). Transsexuality remains a curiosity, an embarrassment by association. All of this makes the trans person in society a thing rather than a person, unlike gay and lesbian people.

‘I saw Conchita Wurst [Eurovision winner 2014], and thought of you!’

‘I see Keith, er Kellie, Maloney is on Big Brother! Isn’t that good? I thought of you.’

And the ensuing conversation:

‘Did you see Big Brother last night? And Kellie! Not surprised she’s scared. Nadia did alright though didn’t she? Still, being transsexual is a bit freaky isn’t it? Is she gay?’

‘Oh yes, and didn’t you know, that woman who works upstairs, Andie. She’s a transsexual.’

‘Oh, is she? Has she still got her bits – you know?’

‘Don’t know. The Mirror says Kellie has. You can have it done on the NHS.’

Of course it won’t happen. Of course. I don’t mind if it does. Just don’t stare at my crotch. I’ve been in hospital and away a few weeks. Work it out.

Really, I don’t mind that much, except that the chatter goes round and the focus drifts away from whether I can do a professional job without this junk going on in the background. Nor do I want you to download that plug-in, called ‘acceptance’. Do I have one for you, to accept that you are normal, cis, hetero, gay, whatever?

I’m lucky, it probably won’t happen like this at all, but what I am illustrating is that participation in the media as a trans person does not make you a good representative, or ambassador, and does not necessarily help other trans people, closeted or otherwise. Too few trans people writing and presenting reduces the perception of our natural diversity. Being young and with a stimulating back story of incarceration, drugs, prostitution, is great for people in that zone. But the ordinary middle-aged person who simply loses their lifetime of family, prosperity and love? They lost it because society is not ready for them, and the story is boring. What do you expect, sympathy? No. I just want you to know how many of us there are, who remain invisible, disadvantaged, lonely simply because all you know about us is that we are separate, different, challenging. Even knowing us, changes you. And I’m simply asking: why?

The way to change popular perception is through education, not entertainment. Unfortunately, even news has become entertainment, and I for one, was very glad when trans people walked away from BBC Newsnight, refusing to be part of an entertaining debate on the validity of the trans identity.

More fundamentally, why is any trans person, famous or otherwise, a story at all, let alone a component for entertainment? The Victorian bearded lady had polycystic ovaries. I was born with whatever caused my gender dysphoria.

Snakes, patterns, labels

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

Here 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,…


  • Posted on November 16, 2013 at 5:57 pm

I’ve told a few cis friends that I shall be going to a TDOR event this month. TDOR, on the 20th November each year is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Hot on the heels of Remembrance Sunday and the 11th November memorials, some assume that it must be something to do with trans people in the two world wars. Understandable, but it did set me thinking.

First of all, what is TDOR all about? Observed all around the world now, it commemorates all those transgender and transsexual people who have been killed through the year as a direct result of transphobic actions arising from fear and hatred. Roll-calls of the dead are read out, and those who suffer from transphobia are remembered. In many countries murders of trans people are not recorded as hate crimes, and any other reason than transphobia can be given as motive. We remember people in countries where transphobia is cultural and endemic, and those who take their own lives because others make living intolerable.

This should be on mainstream news bulletins, but being a minority issue, it rarely gets covered. Why should the world remark? There are fewer trans people than many other minorities, and to be frank, few people actually care about transphobia, maybe because they don’t understand that people are born trans, and that so many end up in unfortunate circumstances that lead to being very vulnerable, simply because society finds being trans confusing, curious and, well, weird. It’s time the world came to see that a small percentage of every population consists of people whose brains and natures for real physiological reasons are at odds with their reproductive organs. Yes, that’s all it boils down to. It happens. Rather a lot.


Back to the confusion. The word ‘remembrance’ is not used much, in fact we mostly only hear it in reference to war. Younger generations now question so much remembrance at such distance over events they can’t imagine being repeated, and see the side that almost justifies war for producing heroism. The ‘war to end all wars’ did not, and many wars have followed. Fighting still seems a human necessity, and talking, sharing, negotiating, understanding, still are not good enough for us to live peaceably. We do not like change from what we believe were unalterable foundations.

In the West, the gender binary is such a foundation too, almost like a nation’s borders are sacrosanct and to be defended.

Transgender Remembrance? I recall the many times I have been called brave, courageous, almost heroic, for being visibly, honestly trans. I mean, what was that choice all about? Following the order by an officer to go ‘over the top’ was obedience. To be killed doing so was heroic. That’s millions of heroes over the years doing what they thought was right, learned primarily from others and the mores of the day. But being trans? There is no order from anyone else. In fact coming out as trans in many ways goes against everyone else’s expectations, hopes and wishes. And yet we are still being told we are pioneering, brave, even heroic, for daring to be different. Maybe there is greater courage in being true to yourself – even though it means risk, danger and rejection or worse – than in fighting someone else’s war, even for your country, if only because you do it alone, and out of who you are, not what you believe in.

No. We are different, we don’t just think differently. Just as you as a cis woman, or you as a cis man, are different from all the others who are not. It’s just that you have a validated name, and we do not. And for that, the world over, some of us are murdered. It’s a few hundred, but it is specific and targeted. That means in some countries and circumstances I too would be in real danger whereas you as a cis person would not. Yes, it is also true of being gay or lesbian, but at least most of the world will rise up against that kind of discrimination now, whereas for trans people they still stand back.

So in this remembrance for those of us who are killed, there is no particular bravery or courage other than the imperative to be true to ourselves.

Thankfully, where I live, I do not have to think where I am going when I go out alone at night. I am too old to frequent clubs and drunken younger people, and not all that obvious visually. But for millions of people like me in other places, watching your back, for the way you were born, is a daily way of living.

This remembrance is an important one, so if it’s new to you, hang onto it, and just think that if you count me a friend, even an Internet friend, I am merely one of the lucky ones who as yet has not been roughed up, attacked, beaten or worse for being trans. But I might. Tell others about TDOR; don’t be embarrassed. They might meet me or another trans person one day and realise how normal we can be, and how at risk.