The ties that bind

  • Posted on August 18, 2013 at 8:39 am

These days I try to avoid any confrontation. I don’t need any special treatment, or to be made an exception, because I live and speak as a woman before I do as transsexual. ‘Woman’ is what I am, whereas ‘transsexual’ is merely a description that sometimes is useful. It is nevertheless true that you get used to having to assert your identity amongst those who simply don’t or won’t understand, and that unquestioning acceptance of other people’s attitudes wears very thin. I dig my heels in sometimes, not to be bolshie, but to insist on respect for who I am, and how I got here, and against false social expectations that we have simply gotten used to.

I sat thinking yesterday what a fair analogy might be for how I was feeling. Was it something like: ‘You wouldn’t ask someone with claustrophobia to do this in a cupboard, would you?’ And then I tried considering whether I was being over-principled, or whether it mattered this much. I came down on the latter. And in the end it was for two reasons, not one.

My journey has been more difficult than most cis people could possibly imagine. I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘I think I’ll be a woman from now on’, and go out and buy a dress. And nor did I grow up as a little girl, as a teenager, and as a young woman, to accept my place in a male world, as an enclave. I was told my place. My place was to ‘be a boy; be a man; stand for your rights; take the lead because women expect it’.

I accept my social conditioning. So must you. And if you too have broken free, well done!

How do you, as a woman, find your place in a male world? Is it by internalising your identity? By attending sorority meetings of fellow business-women? Is it by being so stridently feminine that you cannot be ignored? Are you prepared to get people’s backs up because it is simply unacceptable for women to be always in second place? Or do you play to the gallery, accepting the ranking but playing it away with the bat of femininity? Men will melt to your wiles, that shows where the real power is! Perhaps you buy into the male game instead, accept the conditions of membership, and adopt male attributes to gain credibility. Wear the trousers, the executive suit, the uniform.

I spent the first 55 years of my life doing what was expected, completely uninformed about transsexuality. When I told the story a few weeks ago about my massage therapist seeing me always as ‘different’ (i.e. as a completely conventional business male!) it was as a reminder of how hard I tried not to stand out whilst being screamingly individual inside. I lived to expectation, and I regret it; deeply. So now, I am not going to waste my life on expectations any more. If I am expected to go against my instincts now, I am walking away. Whether at work, or socially, this is it. Here I stand. Apply a lever, and the earth will move.

Who is stubborn for the better reason? You or I?

I am not trying to be unreasonable; I am being very matter of fact. There are some things I will not do, simply because my personal integrity matters more.

The Noose

Yesterday I was handed a noose.

It was grey, and I was told that to be the same I had to place it around my neck and pull it tight. To everyone else it was just a tie, and it’s what you do.

Brass bands (less so concert bands) grew out of male preserves, domains where after a hard day’s labour, you showed your lighter side, your cultural skills and awareness – with military pride. If your pit or works could afford it, the uniform could be very military indeed, mimicking the army bands, including the marching and parading. You can be a man and play cornet, or a fife. Discipline, in gold braid. The rules were quite harsh too: play the instrument you are given, be fined if it wasn’t polished well enough, or if you turn up late.

As the heavy industrial environment declined, and as women entered the workplace more, doing ‘men’s’ jobs, so they began to be recruited, exceptionally, into the brass bands. Women didn’t wear trousers so much to begin with, but the braid, sometimes the caps, and the ties, kept the band looking acceptably disciplined. Completely on male terms. Women have always been ‘accepted into’ male domains, on male terms. ‘You can be one of us’ is the caption to every picture of female equality.

You won’t find a band (please correct me after a frantic Google search!) where women and men alike wear pink blazers, pretty blouses and silk scarves as their uniform. Men don’t, as a rule, join women and adopt their standards.

So I had two reasons to dig my heels in yesterday: firstly as the woman who had spent a lifetime wrestling with ‘being a man’ and then being told to dress like one again. Secondly, as a woman being told to obey male standards (albeit as an historical convention). Did you spot ‘an’ historical? There is a side to me that makes me successful in my work, where attention to the particular matters. Good music demands discipline. But it does not demand a noose, and if the noose matters more than my playing ability, then there is always somewhere else to play.

There is always another way to look at expectations. Change them.


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