Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

I’m really delighted that a team (of which I was a member) comprised entirely of trans voices has been published in the BMJ (the British Medical Journal). Our article provides basic information for GPs providing healthcare to transgender people. Of course, we could’ve said a great deal more, and desperately wanted to. However, both the word count and editorial decisions created firm limitations around what this piece could do. Nonetheless, my colleagues and I are all proud of the piece, and would be hugely grateful if you’d take a look. Perhaps most importantly, if you know any medical practitioners, we’d be indebted if you’d send the link their way – the more practitioners who are comfortable and equipped to assist trans patients (with transitions and generally) the closer we come to best practice, and equal treatment.

The link is below. The language is non-technical, and there is no paywall (article is approx. 1000 words):

http://www.bmj.com/content/357/bmj.j2963

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uncumber

If you know of Saint Wilgefortis, you probably have an uncommonly large knowledge of hagiographies – the biographies of saints. This particular saint gives some interesting but amusing insight into how gendered cultural signifiers have… caused confusion.

I should say, Uncumber was her English name, while also being known as Wilgefortis, and various other names such as Ontkommer in Dutch, and Liberata in Italian. One commonality is that her name often translates to mean unencumbered, liberated, or escaped (or similar), as she was venerated by those seeking freedom from hardship. More specifically she has been the patron saint of women wishing to escape from abusive husbands.

The story of Wilgefortis goes that she was the daughter of a pagan king (sometimes in Portugal) who had arranged her marriage to another pagan. Because she’d taken a vow of chastity, she prayed to her (Christian) god to make her ugly and undesirable so the marriage would be called off. When she awoke, she had her bushy beard. Her father duly called off the marriage, but also had her crucified.

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So, presuming that you don’t take this history entirely literally, where did this representation come from? Medieval imagery doesn’t have a tremendous reputation for representing gender non-conformity after all, let alone venerating those who express it.

‘Bearded figure on a cross’ usually only brings one name to mind, and this is no coincidence. It is thought that because Eastern representations of Christ were in, by Western standards, feminine robes or even a dress, when miniature copies were brought over by pilgrims and traders, a narrative sprang up in order to let the image make cultural sense. This argument was first made in 1906 by Hippolyte Delehaye, a Jesuit hagiographical scholar. Volto_Santo_de_Lucca.JPG

The Volto Santo di Lucca, or ‘Holy Face of Lucca’, a 13th century copy of the early 11th century original, which contributed to the rise of depicting Christ in long robes. 

The link between the Holy Face of Lucca and Wilgefortis is underscored further by her name being a corruption of ‘Hilge Vartz’ – or holy face. Gender roles were so rigid that god granting an overnight insta-beard was far more reasonable than ‘men wear different things in other lands’.

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This statue is in Westminster Abbey in London, specifically in the Henry VII Lady Chapel (fittingly). 

As one might expect with a process akin to theological Chinese Whispers, the different articulations of a bearded lady’s crucifixion got hashed out in all sorts of different ways. Santa Librada (as represented in the North-Western Spanish town of Bayona) is clean-shaven, and one of nine sisters who were all martyred. Additionally, robes on men somewhere like medieval Italy wouldn’t have inspired the same unfamiliarity as perhaps in more north-westerly contexts. I take some pleasure, however, in imagining a medieval snake-oil salesman having to really think on his feet when put on the spot by a sceptical Bavarian, French, or British peasant over his statuettes.

I was honoured to be asked by CN to offer a round of feedback on the manuscript for this book prior to publication (with Virago Press). I inhaled the text in a single evening, despite generally dragging my feet when reading longer pieces on my computer screen. The research was incredibly thorough, but at no point did this become dry or stuffy. This book isn’t an academic text in the traditional sense, but it’s certainly a very educational one – I’ve already cited it in my own academic writing.

Once I got my hard copy of the book, I felt it had been a long enough time since that editing process that I should really read it again before reviewing – plus, it wouldn’t be fair to assess a pre-final version. Generally I struggle with re-reading books, as my attention often wanes as a result of half-remembering what I’m encountering and having to fight the urge to skim. I was surprised with trans like me, that I was touched more deeply second time around than the first. Divided into 15 chapters over 214 pages, Lester’s conversational style creates an intimate and effective sense of a meaningful conversation over coffee with a friend. Before the journey has really begun, they explain how “to learn how to learn about trans people, about the ways in which what we know about gender is shifting and growing, we must first unlearn” (p. 5); their experience as a teacher comes through (which we are explicitly told about later, through their careful threading of personal anecdote through the narrative), and an attentive, skilled one at that.

Lester effectively conjures compassion in their audience through beginning by engaging with the worst exploitation of the tabloid press. Their points are consistently reasonable, relatable, and simple. There is no sense of polemic, only kindness. They give of their personal experiences and history generously, but without allowing any reader to fall into voyeurism. Lester gets us thinking about who has the power to tell stories, helping the reader to understand the incredibly invasive expectations, demands, and groping hands trans people can by explicitly targeted with. While there is a partial element of autobiography, trans like me reads as a collection of interrogative, well-evidenced essays that are absolutely committed to an empathetic and intersectional appreciation of many of the central discussions and concerns that come up when trans is on the discussion table. How race and class are profoundly relevant and necessary in any understanding of trans people is also not lost or buried.

It wasn’t far into the book that I started marking ‘wow moments’ in my margins. Brilliant, succinct ripostes to some of the most dangerous and disingenuous (yet pervasive) myths about trans people and communities. These are not incinerated in a blaze of adjectives, but quietly and decisively collapsed. The book manages to do this in a way that is not only affirming to those already familiar with the subject matter, but accessible to those who are not. Lester’s anger is something that one would hope everyone can agree with – anger about bigotry, injustice, violence, callousness, unequal rights, access, and experience. Lester hits the nail on the head by centring empathy in their education and discussion.

I mentioned that I was touched more deeply second time around. For me, this was most profound on page 35: “a question I am often asked is why, as someone who wants to subvert gender norms, i would want or need an additional gendered label. Couldn’t I simply refuse all descriptors? Or, failing that, call myself a feminine man or a masculine woman?”. This made me think of a line from Alan Bennett’s History Boys: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours”. Now I knew this wasn’t unique to me, but I remembered being asked by an exceptionally well-informed and sensitive friend “but aren’t you just a feminist man?” in relation to my own non-binary experience. The discussion that Lester unfolds in response to the rhetorical questions they use is far more helpful (and humble) than a discrete, essential ‘answer’. It made me feel better equipped to have these conversations when (and it is when, not if) they come about.

There’s no such thing as a perfect book. However from my perspective, any critiques feel embarrassingly trivial or unnecessary. When discussing how trans women have been portrayed in popular culture (“the victim, the freak, the joke, the threat” – p. 29) I felt a mention of Julia Serano as quite a marked absence – albeit undoubtedly many of the readers of this book wouldn’t be familiar with Serano’s work. Further, as an academic, while I was glad to see extensive references in the endnotes, I found the system of links listed by page a bit imprecise. These things say much more about me than about the book, and most certainly don’t detract.

CN Lester is one of quite a small handful of people capable of introducing so many aspects of trans lives so well. Doing so to a heterogeneous popular audience is doubly difficult. I can only echo Shami Chakrabarti’s back-cover comment that “I challenge anyone not to have both heart and mind a little more open after reading this book”. This is a book for everyone, living up to the title’s implication of ‘a journey for all of us’. I believe this book can make its readers both wiser and kinder, and makes an incredibly important contribution as a result, that I enthusiastically recommend.

“Don’t wear a suit, just a nice shirt is fine”. This was one of the last pieces of advice my primary supervisor, Sally, gave me prior to the viva. That PhD event so formative and significant, and approached with such trepidation by some that one might expect a crack of thunder whenever the word is uttered. My viva was scheduled for 10.30 am on Wednesday 14th December (2016), and so despite living only a 15 minute walk from campus I was naturally up and pacing at 8.00 am – just in case. I tried on several shirts and smart-casual trousers but I could not feel comfortable. “If in doubt, dress up, not down” my father had always said – and so whilst it might’ve gone against the advice I received, I really felt much more comfortable in a suit that morning. With a waistcoat, because why not, it was cold.

I met with Sally 30 minutes before kick-off, for a cup of tea and general encouragement. It had previously been communicated that my internal examiner would come and collect me from my supervisor’s office. Sally would be sitting in – as a PhD student you’re allowed to have one supervisor (silently) observe your viva, if you so wish. Regardless of your choice, a supervisor always has to be available, just in case an examiner wants to discuss something before or after. The ‘mock viva’ I’d had the week before was an informal affair – just a chat really, that for me, sparked the recognition that I needed to avoid trying to answer every sociological question about gender at the same time, if being asked a small point about how I’d contributed towards scholarship on this, that, or the other.

My viva preparation in that single week simply consisted of re-reading the thesis. Those who’ve done a whopping piece of scholarship will know how hard this can be when you’re very close to a large piece of writing, and so I’d deliberately avoided looking at the document since I’d submitted it. This helped a great deal, and I found I was able to bear reading myself (yet again) much more easily than when I was agonizing over the final edits. I highlighted and made notes on things like how I had contributed to scholarship, what original turns-of-phrase I’d deployed, why I’d made certain practical choices or focused on particular bodies of literature over others. Whilst one can’t predict what will come up, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having things covered which you could expect to be expected to answer. I put sticky labels to divide up the chapters and put it all in a ring-binder to take in with me. I also wrote a few bits on the inside of the folder, but nothing much.

The viva itself was… also, seemingly, an informal affair! I took my cup of tea in with me. My examiners were candid, friendly, and made a point of initiating that the viva should be approached as a peer-to-peer conversation about the details of the thing that no-one in the world is more familiar with than you. A bit of nerves is only natural given the symbolic importance of the day, but really, in the scheme of the PhD, it’s going to be the exception, not the rule, where the viva is make-or-break, and you’d be likely to know this weeks ahead of the fact if this were the case.

Probably the most difficult question I received was actually an ethical one, which surprised me, as I felt much more likely to fall foul of some complex theoretical niggle than simply how I did stuff. It was exciting in a way though, to consider a dimension I hadn’t considered in that way before. It also demonstrated (after the fact) that your examiners can disagree with you about something, and yet your position can remain entirely defendable. They’re not looking for perfection because there is no such thing – simply the necessary contributions.

The whole experience took about 90 minutes. My examiners asked my supervisor and me to step outside – we hadn’t managed to walk down the corridor before being called back in, due to a chance encounter (and frantic whispered dissection) with my second supervisor, who was passing. On being called back in, I was particularly humbled to receive no corrections, which did have me shed a tear of relief (just the one). In the haze of endorphins and surreal emotional diffusion that felt like a balloon letting out all its air, I was given a little information on what would happen next (which I’d already obsessively poured over in the ‘Guide to the thesis examination process’ document I had looked up).

In a way, (cynically), the result of a PhD pass is the same for everyone – more work, of one kind or another! Thus, one should not fear failure – your supervisor shouldn’t let you be going in there if that’s on the cards. Everything else is details, for the vast majority. I put a lot of energy into maintaining my well-being over my PhD, because ultimately, nothing is more important. Beyond survival, everything else is for happiness, and one should do the best one can to construct the PhD experience in a way that allows you to be. As one gains experience and confidence, this can increasingly empower you to tread your own path, even in small ways (like wearing a suit). Approaching the viva as an experience to enjoy rather than an ‘exam’ was certainly constructive. And whilst I couldn’t shake the idea that ‘it could all be taken away from me’ until the result was unequivocally stated, I was able to focus a little so as to ignore that irrational doubt.

The viva is a paradox, because it’s an ending and a beginning at the same time. No two are the same, and yet there’s overwhelming similarity in the way people describe their pre-viva nerves and post-viva relief (and subsequent collapse – put time aside for this!). Ultimately though, it’s yours – and it can be a pleasure.

My good friend and colleague S.W. Underwood and myself wrote a piece in response to Dr. Jordan Peterson’s recent comments at the University of Toronto, regarding his refusal to use the pronouns individuals identify with. Please see here for the article!

http://torontoist.com/2016/10/u-of-t-trans-rights/

If you look it up, a common-sense definition of a slur is simply an insulting remark, that might also harm someone’s reputation. This is over-simplistic, in that it doesn’t consider power dynamics. Often when we talk of slurs we’re talking about language used by those with power (which can mean being socially normalised, not demographically vulnerable to systemic forms of discrimination) to bash those without, in a hateful way associated with some kind of disenfranchised group. I would say minority group, though importantly women of course  experience all kinds of misogynistic language despite the size of the demographic (spoiler: because patriarchy). Most people can recognise and be suitably disgusted by a wide range of slurs, particularly racial ones. There’s also the conversations constantly happening within marginalised groups around the politics of reclaiming previously weaponised words as a form of empowerment – slutwalks, self-defining fags and dykes, and the now quite longstanding world of queer. But due to the (sometimes faltering, and certainly incomplete) progress that has been made through decades of social processes whereby more and more people get switched on to how language is used being something that matters, legitimate processes of challenging oppressive language have been levied as a rhetorical shield against being criticised, or even described.

I would argue there are two particular terms in relation to transgender people in particular that ignorant or prejudiced individuals like to claim are slurs or pejorative – cisgender, and TERF. Cisgender, or cis for short, comes from the latin meaning ‘on this side’ (whilst ‘trans’ means ‘on the other side’). It is a value-neutral descriptor for individuals whose gender identities align with how their gender was assigned at birth. TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminism, and describes people (usually women) who profess a feminist identity but do not consider transgender women to be ‘real’ women.

Cisgender exists in order to de-position the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as always being about people who are not trans (notice how trans men and trans women are always indicated by the prefix, but most of the time cis men and cis women are ‘just’ men and women?). When we say man, or woman, we don’t have any information about whether an individual is cis or trans, but for as long as cisness is positioned as the ‘default’, trans status is positioned as ‘not normal’, rather than minority. Transness is implicitly excluded from being ‘real’ men or women for as long as those words on their own don’t include a universal appreciation of the possibility and reality of transness.  This isn’t to say that cis people can’t and don’t experience tensions, discrimination, or negative feelings because of enforced gender roles. But they do benefit from being viewed as real, constant, stable, and never having to convince or confess to others what their gender is, because it’s taken at face value. Cis people broadly benefit from being ‘the default’, and from cultural practices of ascribing gender to people based on what we see, and this often being taken as ‘more real’ than what an individual has to say about themselves.

People who don’t like these words existing often try to claim that they’re slurs in order to delegitimise their usage. Because of the fact that oppressed individuals may sometimes, in understandable frustration at experiences of inequality express their anger through disparaging the oppressive groups. Compare TERF to say, racist, or homophobe. These are words that are used to describe people with a particular set of (discriminatory) beliefs, or who engage in discriminatory practices. In those cases, people called homophobes and racists tend to respond by going ‘no I’m not! (I have a friend who is gay!)’ – yet fascinatingly TERFs don’t say that they don’t think that trans women aren’t women, but that… it’s offensive to say they are? In more extremely hateful individuals one does see people defiantly, proudly proclaiming themselves as racist, homophobic, transphobic – because they believe it is right to be so. Those who don’t believe it is right to be so but don’t recognise the problems with their actions are now the bigger problem.

People can try to shut down descriptors which shake their ignorant worldviews. TERFs see themselves as ‘feminists’, men and women critical of ‘cis’ see themselves as ‘just men and women’ (I’ve never seen a trans person have a problem or make a critique of the word cisgender, which probably has a lot to do with experiences of having their genders systematically delegitimised).

It is a Machiavellian, political move to utilise narratives of oppression resistance in order to reject descriptive labels that function to make a minority less Othered (in the case of cis) or to describe a set of beliefs unambiguously, making it easier to see their failings (such as TERF). One can see it in other domains – take the descriptor of ‘Blairite’ – because support for the political ideology of Tony Blair has been criticised heavily, proponents try to silence their critics through tone policing and claiming those labeling them are being offensive.

The bottom line – it’s important not to confuse people being pissed off with a group of people described by a word, and the word itself having a disparaging meaning.

 

 

Identities are tricky things. They can be used as a shorthand to tell people something about you (from the gender of your partner/s, to what sort of music you like), and they can be grappled with in coming to understand ourselves better as we grow and move through our lives. I’d like to try and use some of my own process and movement to talk about tensions and limitations of (sexual) identity, and how this can also be okay. This is a bit of a thought-dump, so I hope it’s navigable.

I came out to my friends and parents as gay when I was 18, and that was completely fine (a privilege that is informed by my position as middle class, white, and English). It was only later as I accrued more life experience (in both intimate relationships and intellectual ideas) that I was to turn attention to how I conceived of myself again.

Much of this experience relates to gender. Sexuality is both entwined with and separate from gender identity – who you go to bed with is not the same as who you go to bed as, yet if you’re attracted to say, exclusively girls, your gender is what is then used to position you as straight, or a lesbian. My experiences have forced me to confront often unspoken assumptions about what sexuality means for an individual. There’s an assumption that when we say ‘gay men’ we’re talking about cis gay men (because of cissexism), and thus whoever a gay man is interested in/sexual with is also cis. Far from it. By experiencing and acknowledging intimacy with trans gay people, gayness is decoupled from dominant assumptions that this means two people with the ‘same’ genitals.

Also, through deconstructing and questioning my own gender identity and attempting to negotiate feelings around the rejection of masculinity and manhood, identification with and as non-binary has become something I’ve increasingly positioned myself with. It’s important that we don’t assume that identification is as simple as putting oneself inside or outside of particular boxes – particularly when the labels on the boxes can have radically different meanings for different people. Therein lies something that attracts me to both non-binary and queer as identity categories – they position one within an umbrella LGBTQ+ discourse, without any rigid over-simplification of personal experience. They can tell people what you want them to know without having to have an existential crisis over the details of selfhood every time one outs oneself.

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An important point though is how I found gay didn’t really work without erasing the complexities around my feelings of my gender. It also (for me) would potential disenfranchise the gender of my partner, who identified as male when we met, but does not now. Whilst there may (must?) be trans women out there with AMAB gay identified partners who don’t have a problem with the language their partner feels a resonance with to describe their sexuality, some will feel that this positions them as not ‘real’ women. As I don’t identify particularly as male, does that mean I would feel erased if I were to be involved with a guy who identified as gay? I don’t think so. Maybe this speaks to some internalised stuff about ‘not being non-binary enough’, but it would be far more important to me that they didn’t internalise essentialised notions of gender in articulating their sexuality (that ‘attraction to men’ makes assumptions about what a ‘male body’ is, or what gender expression ‘should’ be, etc.).

Further, if telling someone ‘I’m gay’ as someone read as male, this will result in people making an assumption about my partner’s gender, whether she’s there or not. Plus, we’re still together. I’m with a woman. So whether conceiving sexuality of who you’re sexual with, attracted to, in a relationship with, and then your own corresponding gender identity, I’ve royally muddied the waters on all of these fronts. In addition to all of that, over time I’ve felt a significant alienation from notions of a gay community – a social phenomenon that my experiences of have been very white (and racist), very male (and misogynistic), very cis (and transphobic), and very apolitical. Something I think is very important to acknowledge is that gay community is NOT homogeneous. In so far as my experiences have given me those associations, this is something that is obviously not inevitably symptomatic of all individual white cis gay men, or necessarily communities. If tensions with other individuals who share your identity label were all it took to result in disidentification, then identity would fragment apart into nothingness. Identity categories are inherently limited in grouping together people, when people comprise difference.

So if I was gay, but I no longer identify as such, that makes me an ‘ex-gay’ right? I say this very tongue in cheek, fully aware of the evangelical Christian undertones that the label ‘ex-gay’ is associated with, and how such a reading assumes both the possibility and success of conceptually repugnant and psychologically damaging ‘reparation therapy’. It’s slightly telling all on its own about how erasing society is in general that if not gay, we thus immediately leap to straight. Which I can at least confidently say I am not. I am queer – I cannot easily categorise the bodies, identities, appearances, or personalities of those I find attractive romantically or sexually. I can identify patterns, but such details don’t lend themselves well to identity labels. I’ve learnt not to worry about it any more.

No-Gay-Cure

What it means to ‘be gay’ is also undergoing social transmutation. Queer people (particularly in youth or internet subcultures) might use language such as ‘I’m hella gay’, in a way which resonates or communicates far more something queer than something rigidly, discretely homosexual. This echoes the historical phenomenon where before identities such as bisexual, pansexual, or even transgender were understood and demarcated, ‘gay’ itself was a catch-all term, but which erased people in a way that queer does not. The difference between this historical use of gay and of contemporary use of queer is how ideas of gender and sexuality have developed in the meantime and fed into community consciousnesses.

I do sometimes wish I had a simpler, easier experience of gender and sexuality, as it would make it easier to relate with certain parts of the world and to communicate. But I also think this is a trap. What I really wish is that I could tell anyone that I’m queer, and not worry about what they think that might mean, whether they’re okay with it, or whether I’m going to have to navigate various assumptions made about gender and orientation. Giving time to process the potential complexities of gender and sexuality can feel daunting, but it’s also incredibly important as it equips us all to be more respectful, and more understanding.

 

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