Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Archive for the ‘LGBT’ Category

The Gender Recognition Act Consultation – What You Need To Know

A lot has happened this week in relation to LGBT activism. On Tuesday 3rd July, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) released the results of the LGBT survey conducted last year. That same day, the government also launched its LGBT Action Plan to try and address many of the inequalities that the survey results revealed. This includes a commitment to provide £4.5 million in funds by March 2020, and an intention for more after that date. A big part of the action plan includes a consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA), which was the first piece of UK legislation to allow trans people to legally change their gender, by gaining a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). In this post I’m going to focus on the GRA, try and explain what the current Act means, and go through the consultation which is available to complete here until 11pm on 19th October 2018.

What do you currently need to do to access a change of gender in the UK?

The current requirements to access a GRC depend upon the application route taken, of which there are currently three – the ‘standard’ route, the ‘alternative’ route, and the ‘overseas’ route. For the standard route you need:

  • To be 18+ years old;
  • To have, or have had, gender dysphoria (the wording of the act doesn’t specify diagnosis, but the government guidance website does);
  • To have lived in the ‘acquired’ gender for at least two years;
  • To make a statutory declaration to live in the ‘acquired’ gender for the rest of your life.

It’s also important to note that the 2004 act is entirely binary – saying that a person of ‘either’ gender, living or changing to ‘the other’ gender, etc. Non-binary legal recognition is currently not possible in the UK.

The alternative route is very similar, and is mainly there for people in (protected – i.e. legally recognised) marriages and civil partnerships. You still need to be 18+, make a statutory declaration to live in your gender until death, and have or have had gender dysphoria (or had surgery to change your sexual characteristics – this is one difference between the routes, as this isn’t an alternative stated in the standard route). However, you must also have lived as your gender for at least six years prior to 10th December 2014 in England, or 16th December 2014 in Scotland. The overseas route is if your gender has been legally recognised by an ‘approved country or territory’ (though this document hasn’t updated changes in the legislation of other countries since 2011).

The alternative route is easily the most complicated aspect of the GRA because of its interaction with marriage law, which has change since the GRA’s introduction. People who are married can (now) stay married when getting a GRC, but both the person and their spouse must both fill in a statutory declaration saying they intend to stay married. If the spouse refuses to do this, it creates a seriously problematic situation because their is no ‘timer’ on their refusal. An ‘interim’ certificate can be granted (which can be used as grounds to end the marriage) if this statutory declaration is not completed. This has been termed the spousal veto, which I touched upon back when writing about The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. This is also one of the areas where devolution impacts the GRA – an interim certificate can only become a full certificate in England and Wales once the marriage is ended. If the marriage was registered in Scotland, the interim GRC can be used to apply to the sheriff court for a full certificate without ending the marriage first. Because same-sex civil partnerships still don’t exist under UK law (though this might change, after a Supreme Court victory on this issue on 27th June 2018), civilly partnered couples have to convert their civil partnership to a marriage before applying to the Gender Recognition Panel.

So yes. If you fulfil the criteria for one of the routes, you have to download the appropriate form, and post this with ‘supporting documents’ and a £140 fee to the Gender Recognition Panel. The supporting documents currently needed are:

  • An original or certified copy of your birth certificate;
  • Copies of deed polls/other official documents of name change;
  • Proof of living in one’s ‘acquired gender’ for the necessary amount of time (2 years for standard, 6 years for alternative) – original copies of your passport, driving licence, payslips, utility bills, etc.;
  • ‘Any medical reports’. This has to include either ‘a report made by a registered medical practitioner practising in the field of gender dysphoria’ (who are listed hereor ‘a report made by a registered psychologist practising in that field’. In both cases, a second report is also needed by a registered medical practitioner (who can be anyone, gender specialist or not). This is expected to be either your GP, or surgeon.

There is no interview with the Gender Recognition Panel.

Some of the problems that have been pointed out with this system are (non-exhaustive list!):

  • No possibility of legal recognition for people under 18, non-binary people, or intersex people;
  • pathologises gender identity by requiring extensive medical documentation;
  • The possibility for a spouse to block access;
  • The offensive notion that other people can adjudicate on whether a person’s gender is deemed ‘real’ or not, in the eyes of the law;
  • The cost;
  • The stress and labour of the accompanying bureaucracy.

What is the current consultation?

The consultation is 25 pages long. You have to provide contact details, including an address. This will hopefully discourage individuals who you would otherwise provide insincere or abusive answers.

It is important that responses to the consultation do not conflate or confuse the Act’s provision with the remit of The Equality Act 2010.

Following the contact information questions, the consultation asks for:

  • Experiences of Trans Respondents;
  • Whether you think there should be a requirement for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, a report detailing treatment received, evidence of living in the acquired gender for a period of time, respectively;
  • Whether you agree with the current provisions for spousal consent for married persons;
  • Whether the fee should be removed, and what other financial costs trans people face when applying and their impact;
  • Whether privacy and disclosure of information provisions in section 22 of the GRA are adequate;
  • If there’s anything you want to say about how the current process affects people with one or more protected characteristic under The Equality Act 2010;
  • Whether you think changing the GRA will affect the participation of trans people in sport;
  • Whether you think the operations of:
    • the single-sex and separate-sex service exceptions
    • the occupational requirement exception
    • the communal accommodation exception
    • the armed forces exception
    • the marriage exception
    • the insurance exception in relation to gender reassignment in the Equality Act 2010 will be affected by changing the GRA;
  • Whether you think the act needs to accommodate non-binary people;
  • Any further comments.

All questions have open text fields for full answers, to accompany mostly yes/no tick boxes.

 

Why I don’t want to talk about Caitlyn Jenner

The irony of this piece of writing isn’t lost on me. But as possibly the most visible and discussed transgender person ever, it’s practically impossible to be engaged with transgender scholarship and activism without acknowledging that she has influenced the conversations that are being had.

When I wrote about Caitlyn’s coming out last year, there were two points about the future I was keen to see pan out. The first was that her reality TV foothold gave her a valuable platform despite not becoming a well-informed activist overnight. The second was hoping that she inspired more and better quality allyship. The latter point is unquantifiable, and I remain hopeful that this is the case (although this is the direct the world is slowly moving in anyway). The former… well, it’s time to review.

It’s timely, as the premier of the second season of I am Cait, and it’s fair to say that Jenner is clearly willing to engage with members of the trans community beyond her political position as a conservative Republican. The inclusion of Kate Bornstein is a delight for many, as her books Gender Outlaw and Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation among others have embraced and supported a diverse cross-section of the trans community.

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As Jenny Boylan put it “The Ingenious, Subversive thing is, @IAmCait is not actually about her”. Productive dialogue between left and right wing people is incredibly hard to foster, because no-one wants to change their mind. Everyone holds their views because they feel they are right, or better, or most useful. Stepping out of the echo chamber is hard. I can definitely imagine commenting more on this show, because there seems to be an emphasis on growth through conversation.

Jenner’s own position however – she’s quite recently declared extremist right wing presidential candidate Ted Cruz as “very nice”, and wants to be his ‘trans ambassador’. This is despite the fact that Ted Cruz views the support of trans students as “lunacy”, and that a trans student using a space “inflicts” them on others using that space. Cruz also has associations with Kevin Swanson, an extremist pastor advocating that gay people be put to death, and has associated himself with the support of extremist anti-abortionists who are associated with murder and attempted bombing.

Brynne Tannehill has given an excellent reasoning for Jenner’s seeming ability to doublethink away Cruz’s bigotry. She articulates how conservative trans people such as Jenner:

don’t have skin in the game. They were ultra-conservative before transition, and remained so after transition because a Cruz presidency doesn’t endanger them personally. They live in safe places, with a safe income.

escape cognitive dissonance in a lot of ways. They don’t believe that Ted Cruz would do all the horrible things he and the FRC have promised to do. They believe that the most important thing to transgender people is “a good economy” that gives us more job opportunities. They claim to be “looking at the bigger picture,” or say that “I’m not a single issue voter,” with an implication of moral and intellectual superiority.

Tannehill explains how polemical anti-left understandings of Democrat policy lead them to the conclusion that they would be better off under Cruz. For those who are literal millionaires, in terms of taxation, they may well be right. But even if we ignore the tired discussion that illustrates how right wing economic policies favour businesses and the wealthy, Jenner fails to recognise how:

Ted Cruz has promised to force the world’s largest employer of transgender people (the DoD) to hunt down and fire all of its transgender employees. Never mind that if the FRC’s plan is implemented, transgender people would not have access to correct government ID. Nor would they have legal recourse when discriminated against in employment. Nor when refused service, nor when tormented by religiously motivated co-workers, nor when school administrators can legally refuse to provide an education to transgender students.

This would obviously hit poorer trans people, trans people of colour, disabled trans people the hardest. Caitlyn has wealth, glamour, and a platform – but her lived experience doesn’t bring much to the table. She doesn’t have experiences of marginalisation that have sharpened her consideration of social issues, nor is she a scholar. She has said how she would have “all my girls to advise him” – she might be able to wield the social capital to protect those near and dear to her, but what about everyone else? In my article last year, I quoted S. Bear Bergman postulating “wondering who else should get 2 hrs on prime time TV?” Innumerable trans people with a spectacular range of stories and expertise to share come to mind, some have appeared on TV, some have not. I would find it alarming if anyone with the platform of Jenner were to normalise a radical, hateful extremist such as Cruz, despite the potential laudability of what she might be trying to do through her show.

To be clear, I applaud attempts by Jenner to engage outside of a conservative echo chamber. So why don’t I want to talk about her anymore? Because she’s not who we should be listening to. Some of her friends, and her critics, and the community she wants to represent, are.

5 Ways to be Kinder as a Gay Man

It can be easy not to care about politics and activism – and even easier to not care when people try and tell you that you should. This isn’t a post about that, but being kinder has significant impact on peoples’ lives. Everyone knows the sensation of dwelling on someone having done or said something really unnecessary, unhelpful, or mean, and how it can leave you rubbed the wrong way for the rest of the day. Hopefully you might also be able to think of a time when someone said or did something they really didn’t have to, but which stuck out, and made you feel good about the world for a moment. Being gay often situates one within a community – or at least a population – who can and do still experience rejection, hostility, discrimination… though increasingly, happily, many also don’t. In some particular ways, the gay community doesn’t necessarily recognise the ways in which it now has it good, and how the things we say and do can be unintentionally damaging. But what can an individual do about it? Especially without getting caught up in a world of politics or social justice that might not be at all for you? I would say – think about how you can be kinder. Below are some examples I think are important.

1. Avoid expressing your sexuality as ‘liking penis’ (or hating vaginas)

‘How is that unkind, I just do!’ You might say. But… not all gay men have a penis. If you’re a gay, transgender man trying to make your way in a community that situates your sexual desirability around something you may not have, then that can make you feel pretty excluded. There are of course, gay cisgender men who absolutely can be and are attracted to, have sex with, fall in love with trans men without fetishising them – without positioning them as some kind of exotic sexual curiosity. No-one is saying who you have to be attracted to, either – though taking a moment to ask yourself how central genitals are to your sexuality (if they are) and why, might be an enlightening exercise. Either way, this simple bit of awareness can go a long way to making gay communities a bit kinder for trans guys.

2.  Think about the broader implications of having ‘no fat’, ‘no old’, ‘no camp’, ‘no asian’ or other categories on your dating/sex apps

This is a predictably polarising point, with some arguing ‘it’s just a preference’ and others making arguments that it represents serious problems with hierarchies in the gay community, and how these are examples of racism, ageism, and other serious issues. Again – no-one is saying that you have to be, or can be, attracted to everyone. But there is a really significant difference between ‘having preferences’ and articulating that there is zero, absolutely zero possibility of talking to a person because of their occupation of a particular category. People ignore people, or say ‘no thank you’ all the time on these sorts of platforms. By doing the romantic or sexual equivalent of a 1930s style ‘no coloureds’ sign in a shop window, what this says is that no matter who you are, no matter how nice you are or whatever, your race/weight/presentation/age comes first. You are reduced to that thing – which makes people feel horrible. People don’t have direct control over who they find attractive, but again, there is value in examining why it is you feel the way you feel about particular groups of people. Giving someone a sign that you’re not interested without making it about a trait that can be the source of all kinds of degradation or exclusion is simply… kinder.

3. Respect campness

There’s a lot that can be said about this, but something I’ve definitely heard is gay people who feel that camp or effeminate gay men ‘are embarrassing’ or bring the gay community into ‘disrepute’. The first point I’d like to make in relation to this, is if this is about fear of association? That you don’t like the idea of mainstream society looking at you as a gay person and thinking of feather boas, drag queens, and high heels ? If so, then you have to accept that what you’re doing is saying to those who are far more likely to be victims of homophobia that they should simply stop doing what ‘makes the bullies bully’, rather than challenging what bullies do as wrong. Further, if we look at history, it wasn’t ‘straight acting’ gay men who did the terrifying, life-endangering activist work of activism such as Stonewall – it was transgender women of colour, effeminate gay men, and butch, queer women for the most part. The people who couldn’t hide. Some camp people will of course be shallow, bitchy, loud, annoying. Others will be deep, sensitive, quiet and delightful – in which case what you’re objecting to isn’t actually campness, but a construction that attempts to excuse the policing of femininity within men. Also, your masculinity (if you identify as such) shouldn’t feel threatened by camp, fabulous queens! If femininity threatens your masculinity through association, then perhaps your masculinity could benefit from being reconstructed in terms that aren’t oppositionally opposed to, or propped up by the denigration of femininity.

4. Try and empathise with those in the closet

‘It’s 2016, no-one cares, just get over it already’ – It can be so tempting to feel this way, especially if your own coming out was a bit of an anti-climax, either an affair of celebration, or indifference amongst those you know. Also as time passes by, it’s easy for any anxiety up until that point to be dismissed – ‘oh I was so paranoid but I really had nothing to worry about really, I should’ve known’. It might seem obvious to say, but not all circumstances are the same. There are still people who get kicked out by their families, have people change how they see you, change how they treat you. People deal with this in all kinds of different ways. If someone says they’re ‘straight but just like guys’, I might be thinking a couple of things, likely sympathetic things. No-one gains anything from saying ‘yeah right, face the facts buddy’. A community that engages sensitively with those who probably need it most is kinder and more supportive than one that doesn’t.

5. Don’t assume that a guy with a boyfriend is gay (or a guy with a girlfriend is straight)

There might be a fair old likelihood, but you know, bisexual people exist. Pansexual people exist (though not according to spellchecker). All kinds of sexuality and gender configurations exist. What about the queer guy who ended up in a relationship with a transgender woman, accepts her womanhood, but doesn’t identify as bi, or pan? There are lots of relationship experiences where the boundaries of sexuality labels breaks down a bit. Avoiding assumptions generally is a good way for people to feel like you’re considerate of their potential to exist.

Some thoughts on the intersections of class, femininity, and transgender

In preparing for class, I read a chapter of the book Formations of Class and Gender by Beverley Skeggs (chapter 6, ‘Ambivalent Femininities’). In it, she begins by giving some historical background where she argues that signs of femininity are always classed.

By this, Skeggs is referring to history. Being ‘feminine’ was, and is, constructed to be fragile, delicate, dainty, pretty, small, thin, submissive, and charming. Of course, this has been challenged, resisted and re-negotiated through feminism, but bear with me.

This traditional notion of femininity was and is “a projection of male fantasy”. It is assigned to those women who have ‘proved themselves’ through the way they interact with people and present themselves in the world. Such attribution has been tied not just to presentation and interaction, but also to work – think of the ‘respectable housewife’ image, the epitome of a 1950’s femininity.

Skeggs explains how “working class women were coded as inherently healthy, hardy, and robust (whilst also paradoxically as a source of infection and disease) against the physical frailty of middle-class women. They were also involved in forms of labour that prevented femininity from ever being a possibility.”

Let’s consider the experiences of transgender women. Trans women can experience pressure to ‘pass’ as female (that is, be socially read as if assigned female at birth through appearance, mannerisms, and behaviour). We can see how the same set of problematic norms that dictate what femininity traditionally is in relation to class can be used to exclude transgender womanhood. In this context, femininity is conflated and confused with ‘femaleness’. That is, in order to be viewed as a ‘real’ woman, one has to successfully perform a very constrained and normative interpretation of femininity. Again, this is quite fortunately being challenged, but those trans women who reject traditional/stereotypical femininity and gender roles can and do experience stigma because of it.

What about the intersection – what about working class transgender women? Cisgender working class women can, arguably, struggle to be recognised as feminine due to femininity’s class construction. Trans working class women thus can experience a double bind – exclusion from femininity for working class norms and practices instilled through environment and interaction throughout life, and a likely more difficult battle to perform a middle class femininity adequately in order to be taken seriously as a woman.

Also, putting in ‘too much effort’ can also lead to stigmatisation and be seen as a sign of deviancy! Think of the prevalent and toxic ideas policing women who ‘wear too much make-up’ or ‘try too hard’ – these narratives become connected to the notion of ‘deception’, which then strikes doubly hard for transgender women whose authenticity as women is already under question due to biologically essentialist transphobia (the idea that ‘being female’ is rooted in genitals, chromosomes, etc.)

This one particular example is, I would argue, representative of a systemic problem, whereby class dynamics and economic inequality undermine the fight for LGBTQ rights and gender equality. This also emphasises that any attempts to position feminism and transgender rights as somehow at odds with each other are at best, an erroneous relic. Trying to separate them out will only create an under-nuanced model of the society we desperately need to improve.

 

On ‘Straight Acting’ and Stonewall.

Yesterday, I came across an article written by Noah Michelson provocatively titled ‘If You Think ‘Straight Acting’ Is An Acceptable Term, You’re An A**hole’. I would say the article is well worth reading, as it evocatively considers some of the concerns with Roland Emmerich’s new film ‘Stonewall’ – namely the accusations of historical inaccuracy, whitewashing, and homonormativity¹ in order to try and bring the film to a wider audience.

Michelson makes the point that:

Being “straight-acting,” for a gay man at least, is directly related to how convincingly he is able to present traditionally masculine mannerisms. The term is so markedly offensive because its very existence insists that there is a particular, instantly identifiable manner of being gay (defined by effeminacy). And what’s more, those qualities are seen as patently unattractive, undesirable and wildly dangerous.

He discusses his own experiences of policing his forms of self expression to articulate a more normative masculinity, in order to protect himself from queer bashing. He remarks how he regrets this, but poignantly asks whether he’d even be here to regret it if he hadn’t – emphasising increasingly how ‘same-sex’ attraction in and of itself doesn’t render one a victim, but the expression of transgressive masculinities and femininities amongst women and men respectively (and those who cross over or identify as neither in particular) puts one at risk. Now, there are those queers who, in the interests of their own safety, or their own ability to socially navigate the world they’re in with the least possible hassle will engaging in ‘straight acting’ actively. Then there are those who simply find that their default state of being is to articulate themselves in an unremarkable, normative manner. There is of course nothing wrong with that. I would however encourage those who have identified or do identify with the term ‘straight acting’ to ask – why do you? How is this identification situated within a larger social narrative and context which shapes who each of us are and how we feel? If you are concerned with how others perceive your masculinity in relation to your sexuality, why is that? Given that masculinity and femininity have large, complex narratives, can you see that when you say you’re ‘straight acting’, what people take from this will never be as simple as pure, value-neutral description (whether they realise it or not)? This can be articulated by different people in different ways to serve very similar ends. A common example being dating app profiles with caveats such as ‘not as camp as I look’, pre-empting judgement from a gay audience which has a clear hierarchy of value.

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Emmerich inserts the fictional protagonist Danny into the narrative of the film in order to “provide a very easy in” for a straight audience. One can understand the desire to want your film about an incredibly important civil rights event to reach and educate as many people as possible. There’s two important problems with this however. 1 – It didn’t remotely happen that way, and 2 – It throws the non-normative queers who were there doing what they did under the bus in order to pander to those potential viewers whose acceptance comes with terms and conditions of palatability. It also raises the very important question – have queer people moved so far away from the scary, dangerous activism of the past that is now spoken of reverently, these brave heroes, that we daren’t tell the story how it was for fear of making less headway with creating queer acceptance than we could?

I would say that if LGBTQ support is *dependent* on whiteness, normative masculinity, middle-class status, conventionally attractive embodiment – all the checkboxes of Danny that make him the least marginalised of the marginalised – then it is worth very little. Further, it’s 2015. Shows and films with casts not centred on whiteness, cisness, etc. have demonstrated their ability to be both commercially and critically successful – one needs look no further than Orange is the New Black. I believe that the film would actually have had a better impact on queer rights and empathy for oppressions faced in terms of sexuality and gender if Emmerich had dared to be more accurate, rather than worrying about the most socially conservative end of the spectrum. The comparatively slow limp of transgender rights and protections demonstrates exactly what happens when we try to gain acceptance by sweeping the more difficult queers under the rug. The irony that the charity ‘Stonewall’ only added trans to its remit this year is ridiculously long overdue, but not surprising due to this homonormative precedent. The very fact that Emmerich has been so heavily criticised is evidence that a mainstream audience could handle the more complex intersections of marginality the real historical figures experienced.

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It’s a fair question to ask what the problem with Danny’s role in the narrative is. Stonewall is famous for being a turning point, the explosive tipping point for LGBT (but let’s be honest, mainly G) rights. Therefore it’s easy to assume that the ‘mainstream gays’ who are visible and in many Western contexts doing relatively okay were also there. Not so. Those men and women with same-sex attraction in the 1960s who could hide it, often did. The straight actors were only to peer out of their closets after the radical queers had fought for some space for them. Emmerich would’ve done well to realise this, and recognise that his film had a duty to the queers still most marginalised today who fought *because* they had no other choice. Stonewall is a story for all queers, for all people to be inspired by, but not at the expense of de-centring the real, brave people who fought.

It’s very important then, to recognise the difference between what being ‘straight acting’ can mean in the world, and what it means when it’s inserted into this film which will be taken by many people as a representation of what happened. This may explain then, why when a historian of Stonewall, the only surviving member of the Stonewall  Street Youth, and other queer writers and experts were asked what they thought of the premier – the results were overwhelmingly damning. Emmerich has also said “as a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay”. Maybe, just maybe, this film wasn’t about you, Roland. Maybe it also wasn’t about potential audience members who would deem The Stonewall Riots unacceptable if they saw them led by (as Michelson says) “non-white transgender people, genderqueer individuals, drag queens, butch dykes and sissy men”. Maybe that’s why Miss Major Griffen-Gracy, one of the few survivors of the Riot itself, said “How dare they do this again” of the film.

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Miss Major – Photograph credit to Annalese Ophelian.

It’s ironic that the historian David Carter explains that whilst he liked the characterisation of Ray, in reality Raymond Castro was “a very masculine guy, a generous guy – and very conservative-looking. He wasn’t effeminate – he never went in drag. He didn’t prostitute himself, either”. Emmerich had an opportunity to include a character who embodied a normative masculinity, whilst retaining historical accuracy – a bit of a godsend given that was important to him in this historical sea of queers that were more difficult to market. Why that wasn’t done is open to speculation. But if telling the story of Stonewall was important to Emmerich, as he says it was, but positioning the trans women of colour who were absolutely central to the events (Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Riviera, Stormé DeLarverie, and the aforementioned Miss Major) as the *main* characters, the central narrative, was too difficult… then maybe he shouldn’t have been the person to make this film.

1 – Whilst this term has been used in different ways in different contexts, the most common, and how I use it here, was popularised by Lisa Duggan in unpacking how heteronormativity can be assimilated into LGBT culture, practices, and identities. Heteronormativity is (often insidious or unconsciously manifested) practice that positions straightness, cisness, and normative gender and sexual roles as ‘normal’. That isn’t to say there is necessarily an explicit articulation of homophobia etc., but that in positioning particular qualities as normal (rather than common, or relatively frequent) one includes a moral dimension to the description – that positions particular others as ‘not normal’. Heteronormativity can manifest in such simple interactions many non-straight people will have experienced – an acquaintance say, asking a guy ‘do you have a girlfriend?’ or a girl ‘do you have a boyfriend?’ – the assumption of heterosexuality. In a sense then, homonormativity is exemplified by, for example, gay white men who have a distaste for campness, drag, gender-bending, and other aspects of queer culture that are distinctly un-normative. Plus of course, it’s never as simple as saying that a person *is* or *is not* hetero/homonormative – people articulate multiple and complex views, and may comfortably celebrate radical queerness in some contexts whilst wishing to distance themselves or tactically ‘tone it down’ in others. What this means for how queerness is considered by the wider population is an interesting point to consider.

A Response to the Idea ‘It’s Time to Take the T out of LGBT’

On Thursday 10th September 2015, Katie Glover (who is transgender) wrote an article for the Independent titled ‘Why it’s Time to take the ‘T’ out of LGBT’. I think that this article is misguided and unhelpful for different aspects of queer communities, and I will spell out why.

The article starts with discussion of the idea that people can get confused by LGBT, due to confusion and conflation between sexuality and gender identity (one simple, but useful one liner I’ve heard to explain this is “sexuality is who you go to bed with, gender identity is who you go to bed as” – later in the article, Glover misquotes this idea). This is a point dealt with by education, as the association between gender identity and sexuality has been around a lot longer than any kind of LGBT movement has. That association is in part because of how labels like ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ are understood with reference to an individuals gender, so as to understand whether they’re attracted to ‘the same or the opposite sex’ (imperfect though such language is). The article claims “being transgender is at the very least heavily associated with sexual orientation, when in fact it stands completely in isolation” – which is patently untrue. For example, if you are assigned male at birth, and you’re attracted to men, and are read socially as male, then you are going to be considered a gay or bisexual or otherwise non-straight man if you give off any social cues of involvement with a man. Even if you identify as a woman. If you are read socially as a woman, then you become read as heterosexual. Indeed, how an individual defines their sexuality may change with a gender transition even if who they’re actually attracted to does not. Also, to consider things historically, sexuality and gender identity were originally conflated under the idea of ‘inversion’, or a ‘woman’s soul in a man’s body’ as an explanation for same gender attraction – yet this narrative is now far more associated with trans.

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Glover moves to discuss how Caitlyn Jenner used to believe that marriage was defined as between one man and one woman, and suggests that because ‘gay issues aren’t trans’ people’s turf’ they won’t necessarily be supportive. I would argue that the vast majority of transgender people are supportive of sexuality minority rights (Glover keeps saying ‘gay marriage’, and even says “gay people… make up three quarters of the LGBT title”, such bisexual erasure is astonishing). The reason why is because trans people often have a first hand understanding of what it feels like to not be accepted, and face stigma and discrimination in various ways. There is a sense of empathy there, together with powerful historical context where the progress of LGB acceptance has moved faster than for transgender. This is ironic given the huge support that LGB folk have had from trans people. The Stonewall Riots are the best example of this, and have been much discussed given the critical response the upcoming film has received for its erasure of transgender women of colour. Reactions like Ellen’s – surprise that Caitlyn wouldn’t have a stronger voice supporting other marginalised people, given her relative privilege and platform – are to be encouraged.

Glover demonstrates a lack of nuanced understanding of queer politics or history in suggesting that the fracturing of the LGBT moniker is progress. The term obviously covers a very wide range of people, with views that can often directly contradict, and with wildly different views about how things ‘should’ be. It’s worth noting that being something, such as gay, bisexual, or trans – certainly does make you the authority on your own experience. It doesn’t make you an authority on the community. That tends to come with many years of work, involvement, reading, and listening. The vast majority of the time that comes from someone directly within a given demographic, but not necessarily. I know there are certainly straight trans people, indeed, trans academics, who have far more nuanced understandings of gay rights than the majority of gay people. Further, Glover makes the unsubstantiated claim that “In fact, it’s been estimated that the number of trans people who are gay is only about the same as in the wider population.” As an academic of gender and sexuality, getting numbers on this stuff is very difficult, and estimates can vary widely. However from my own fieldwork as well as the discussions from dozens of articles on transgender, it seems to me that flexibility and fluidity with sexuality amongst trans people is considerably more common than in the wider population (I can’t be sure that all references are accessible to everyone, but some material can be found here, here, here, and here). The potential reasons for this are beyond this article, though also we have to ask – does this even matter? If there were few non-straight trans people, would trans ignorance or ambivalence on issues of sexuality (which in reality is far less common than ignorance or ambivalence on trans issues from LGB people) not be something we should aim to challenge and rectify? As for all?

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In articulating that LGB and T might be getting “too close for comfort”, Glover reveals one of the most problematic and damaging things within LGBTQ community – that is, ignorance and distaste from some for those different from themselves, when we might otherwise be brought together over a sense of solidarity in seeking respect and equality. Some of the greatest successes of LGBTQ liberation have been due to cooperation – for example, whilst not decimated in anything like the same way, lesbian activists of the 1980s shouldered an enormous amount of the struggle in fighting for the HIV/AIDS crisis experienced by non-straight men to be taken seriously. And of course, how trans activists at Stonewall put LGB rights on the map.

We do find people who exist within LGBT who exhibit a self-interested, tribalist approach. Those gay men with zero interest in misogyny, racism, ableism or transphobia spring to mind with a wince, because they’re not affected.  Small minded identity politics which try to scrape acceptance by distancing from any other marginalised groups, in effect trying to get a ticket to ‘mainstream’ society by propping up a status quo which tells everyone that being straight is ‘normal’. Being white is ‘normal’. Being cis is ‘normal’ – positioning everyone who isn’t, as not quite as good. None of this provides a compelling reason for distancing LGB from T, but gives good reason for there to be more dialogue within LGBTQ about our different issues in order to improve society for all.

Non-binary gender identity negotiation – My PhD explained!

I gave this talk at the 2015 ESSL (Education, Social Sciences, and Law) conference at the University of Leeds. Enjoy!

The Power and Politics of Words: On ‘Shem*le’ and ‘Tr*nny’

Disclaimer: This is a big, complex issue. This post will never be able to do full justice to the topic, especially as I wish to remain accessible (which includes not writing a 20,000 word monster essay). I don’t intend to try and play an academic devil’s advocate, or create an argument where there isn’t one. The point of this post is NOT to ask ‘are these words okay?’ – large numbers of the trans community say no, and they deserve your respect. Nor is the point of this post to explain why they’re not okay – you can Google that though if you need to, as it’s important. Some members of the trans community reclaim the words as an act of empowerment, which I’ll come back to.

I had a really unusual experience of talking to a trans woman recently.  She referred to herself and all other trans women as ‘shem*les‘, and asked about the genitals of someone I know. For anyone in the know, you’ll know that when talking to trans people, both of these things are typically big red flags – offensive, insensitive behaviour. If she were cis I would have relied upon my educational privilege and assumed their ignorance, and called them out. It would’ve been an immediate moment of ‘ignorance alert! Need to set them straight in the name of challenging problematic behaviour!’. However, her transgender status changed the dynamic of the conversation, rendering me uncomfortable in putting on a teacher hat. Given that she’s trans, who am I to assume she doesn’t know the oppressive history of the word? Some transgender people (and other members of minority groups) reclaim words that have historically been used as insults, in order to empower themselves and challenge oppressive violence. Possibly the most famous word this has happened with is ‘queer’, which whilst still possible to wield aggressively, is used by many LGBTQ people to describe themselves. There’s even the academic field of Queer Theory. So because it would’ve been a very different (and problematic) thing for a cis(ish) guy to tell a trans woman how to use transgender-related language, instead I said ‘it’s interesting that you say X and Y, because I know many trans people who would have problems with this’.

It was clear from our conversation that her choice of language wasn’t a political decision, and that she wasn’t aware that the word is more often used to insult and oppress. Whilst many transgender people are very well read on transgender issues, as with any large and diverse group not everyone will be. It’s important to recognise that being trans absolutely does make that person the authority on their own experience of being trans, and that people should listen when they have something to say about how it is to be trans. But, being trans *in and of itself*, does not make an individual an ‘expert’ on transgender activism, politics, or language. It just so happens that, for obvious reasons, many people who experience social oppression of one sort or another (and their intersections) are motivated to learn about how to challenge it.

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It emphasises a point the wonderful Helen Belcher made in a talk I attended recently. She said (I’m paraphrasing) that ‘coming out as trans could be likened to expressing an interest in GCSE maths, and then having people assume you know degree level calculus’. In being an ally to transgender people, it’s important to listen. But assuming that one trans person can necessarily speak for all trans people not only isn’t realistic, but puts a lot of pressure on that person. I hold to the fact that it was impolite of the trans woman I spoke to to ask about the genitals of another person, close to me, who came up in that conversation. That conviction is informed by both lived, and academic experiences working with the transgender community.

I don’t want the take home message to be ‘trans people can be wrong about trans things, so listening isn’t all that important’. It is. The two points aren’t mutually exclusive – one can recognise that trans people are inherently the authorities on transgender experiences whilst recognising no one person’s points can ever represent what everyone thinks or feels. After all, plenty of LGBT people still loathe the word ‘queer’, and if one such person were to say ‘never use that word, it is always bad’, the queer people who do identify with the term (which includes me) could challenge that claim.

The slur ‘tr*nny’ is a very good example of vocal disagreement between different members of the trans community. For example in reference to controversies involving both slurs on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Justin Vivian Bond wrote how the policing of language is ‘trifling bullshit‘, and that there’s bigger problems to worry about. ‘Pro-slur’ arguments have been slammed – though with caveats pertaining to linguistic reclamation.

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There have been conversations about how the slurs are not RuPaul’s to reclaim as a cis-male drag queen, which emphasises how the queer community has changed since the days of the Stonewall Riots – when there was arguably less factionalism (and distinctions drawn) between L, G, B, and T. That may be in part due to there being less information and understanding broadly within society, with the oppressions still being experienced across the board. Now, it’s fair to say that gay and lesbian people have gained more ground with legal and social acceptance than the transgender community – and the differences between the political struggles and communities’ needs are a big conversation all on its own. One might raise an eyebrow at the seeming hypocrisy seen with RuPaul’s use of the above slurs, but then calling out Amanda Bynes for her use of the word ‘faggot’. If fag isn’t her word, tr*nny and sh*male aren’t his, despite the historical connection between drag and trans communities, from a time when there weren’t the words or identity categories for clear distinctions that there are now.

It’s complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. One can recognise that words have different meanings for different people, and use words in a way that is sensitive. I agree that only people who are oppressed by a word have the right to reclaim it, and that it’s insensitivity or ignorance when others play with such words. Words have the ability to oppress and to empower. If you feel strongly about challenging oppressions, then understanding the histories and conversations had about particular words can let you see the bigger picture.

Review: Louis Theroux Documentary – Transgender Kids

The Documentary Transgender Kids is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until 30th April 2015 – which can be found here. Apologies if you are outside of the UK and this link doesn’t work.

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On the 5th April, Louis Theroux’s latest documentary aired on BBC 2. To quote the BBC’s description of the programme: “Louis travels to San Francisco where medical professionals are helping children with gender dysphoria transition from boy to girl or girl to boy”. Whilst even this is an oversimplification (structuring transgender narratives as always having a binary ‘end result’, and also trans narratives or realities being dependent on gender dysphoric feelings, non-intuitive though this might be for some), the content of the program has been well received.

I agree with Paris Lees when she says that Louis excels at asking questions designed to aid the average viewer’s train of thought in understanding the subject matter. Whilst maintaining his position as ‘guy who doesn’t know much but wants to learn’, he also avoided tired issues of etiquette such as referring to people by the names and pronouns they identify with – as this is easily Google-able, but they moved through this in such a way so that viewers who didn’t already know this kept with the program.

The start of the documentary is strategically important and intelligent. We meet the parents of the little girl Camille, who iterate that their chief concern is doing right by their child, and learning how to best ensure their welfare – a position anyone can get behind. We are also introduced to Diane Ehrensaft who for me, was a highlight of the programme in demonstrating exceptional warmth, sensitivity, and wisdom. One would hope to see Diane’s approach in any professional working to support transgender and gender variant people, but which the voices of the transgender community tell us is sadly not the case.

People with little to no knowledge of transgender often ask the question ‘but how do you know’, and more so in the case of children. The anxiety surrounding the notion of supporting a ‘mistaken’ transition, of the risk of ‘getting it wrong’ is at the front of many people’s minds. It’s a big problem that many people (including medical professionals) can assume that it is ‘safer’ to prevent any kind of gender expression or transition that runs contrary to assignation at birth, because of potential risk. Louis raises this question (at 14.17 in, to be exact). Diane Ehrensaft is worth quoting directly in her response:

Is it a risk? Let’s call it a possibility. So with that possibility then we think, the most important thing is the same exact idea – to find out who you are and make sure you get help, facilitating being that person *then*. We have one risk we know about. The risk to youth when we hold them back, and hold back those interventions – depression, anxiety, suicide attempts, even successes – and if we can facilitate a better life by offering those interventions, I weigh that against there might a possibility that they’ll change later, but they will be alive to change. So that’s how I weigh it on the scales.

Bravo.

It’s also worth mentioning that whilst stopping or reversing transitions does happen, it is comparably rare. These examples shouldn’t need to be ‘hushed up’ because of the fear that they will be used to de-legitimise transgender people’s access to gender affirming services. Indeed one can see that being able to access such things and then stop can also be highly beneficial for an individual, to help work out who they are, and what they want.

The program didn’t make the mistake of trying to make a fictional debate about whether kids should or shouldn’t be given access – it was clearly sympathetic. I felt the show helped lead its audience to accept the importance of this point. It skillfully managed to do this without reducing the transgender voices on the program to one ‘line’ – there were definite differences between the children appearing on the show.

This was perhaps illustrated most clearly by Crystal/Cole, who exhibited a non-binary gender (although the show didn’t name it as such), sometimes expressing herself as Crystal and sometimes as Cole. They broached the fact that for some children (and indeed, plenty of adults as well) gender expression and pronouns could depend upon environment (‘he at school but she at home’) or on time (‘some days I’m Crystal but some days I’m Cole). There are also some conflicts within this particular narrative – Crystal’s mother (at 24.56) says that:

She has said in private with her therapist that she is a girl. Almost 100%. When I’ve sat down and had private conversations with her and said would you ever be interested in [transitioning medically], how do *you* feel about it? And her answer is ‘I can’t do that mommy, I have to be a boy’, and I enquire further as to why and she says ‘because I’m poppy’s only son, and it would destroy poppy’.

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This hints heavily at a father who isn’t supportive/understanding/accepting of his child’s gender expression, though we also hear Crystal herself say that she doesn’t prefer one name over the other, and later in the program says she wants to be male when she grows up (though for the very normative reasons of liking the thought of a wife and children, as if one must be male to have this). The show deals with this complexity well, and reflection upon Dr. Ehrensaft’s words are fitting. Crystal/Cole may be a transgender woman who, as a child, is navigating her father socially. They may be a non-binary person, with male and female identities, or some further understanding of themselves may manifest over time. I felt we were invited as an audience to recognise that ‘searching for truth’ is not the point of engaging with transgender people, but the most important factors are respect within the moment, and facilitation of what is needed for happiness and health. Which is not as complicated as critics might make it.

The mainstream media has responded positively to the documentary, although not all the conversations to have come out of it have been positive. For example, BBC Women’s Hour disappointingly attempted to create a very artificial ‘for vs. against’ debate’. Quite rightly, this inspired anger from transgender activist CN Lester, fed up of trans voices and narratives legitimacy being framed as a debate, as if each ‘position’ had equal evidence and importance.

Bottom line – this is a strong and sensitive documentary which I would recommend. Whilst obviously positioned within an American context (and the differences with the healthcare systems are important to consider), many people could learn from the compassion of some of the parents who recognise how important it is to become an advocate for their child. By challenging cisnormativity (the idea that identifying with the gender one is assigned at birth is ‘normal’ or ‘correct’), society is slowly dragged towards being safer and easier for those under the trans umbrella.

 

SuperQueers! LGBT+ in comic books

There’s been a fair bit going on recently. Transgender Day of Visibility was on 31st March, and the UK has seen the leader’s debates in the fretful warm-up to the general election. Therefore I wanted to write about something a little less serious, whilst still shedding some light on something not touched on much in mainstream outlets – LGBTQ comic book characters, which for me, shouts capes and spandex first and foremost. There’s been quite a few lists of favourite GSM (gender and sexuality minority) lists compiled by more expert comic book fans – but I’ll try and mix some slightly obscure and interesting examples with some well known classic heroes (and villains) who you might now see in a new light. So in no particular order then…

1. Mystique

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And pretty genderfluid too, but not in the way that normally means.

If (like me) your main familiarity with the X men was the film adaptations, or possibly the animated series of early ’90s morning kids TV – you’ve missed out on some seriously different character development. Amongst the most critical being the erasure of Mystique’s bisexuality. Besides originally being mother to the mutant Nightcrawler (that blue skin wasn’t coincidence) but also foster mother to Rogue (whaaat?), she was also over 80 years old by the millennium, with her shape-changing powers meaning her ageing is atypical also. As this article details, “Mystique’s character was not revealed as bisexual until The Uncanny X-Men #265, almost thirteen years after she originally debuted. This was due largely to the mandate by then Marvel Comics’ editor-in-chief that there would be no GLBT characters in the Marvel Universe.” Mystique’s début was in 1978 by the way, so not exactly the pre-legal days of Batman and Superman. Progress is slow though, and slower for letters other than G and L.

2. Batwoman

Delicious irony, in that she was originally introduced as a ‘no homo!’ love interest device, because it didn’t look very hetero when Batman and Robin shared a bedroom, even in the 1950s.

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Whilst like many of the big names there have been various incarnations, parallel universes, and all-round confusing re-inventions, Batwoman was rejuvenated as a Jewish lesbian in a slightly obvious move of clunky tokenism in 2006.

3. Northstar

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Important due to being the first openly gay Marvel superhero – though again, due to the policy of the then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter preventing any openly gay characters (along with the Comic Code Authority), despite debuting in 1979, he was only allowed to be explicitly stated as gay in 1992. With the ability to travel at near light-speed (and the associated resilience and strength), Northstar also got married in Astonishing X-Men in 2012.

4. Extraño

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An early DC queer example premièring in 1988, Extraño, meaning ‘strange’ in Spanish, was painfully stereotypical, though more explicitly ‘out’ before Northstar. Referring to himself often as ‘auntie’, he was confirmed to be HIV positive – possibly from doing battle with an adversary called Hemo-Goblin, who, I kid you not, was “a vampire created by a white supremacist group to eliminate anyone who was not white by infecting them with HIV”. In their own way, the comic book industry tried to engage with important political issues new to the world in the 1980s.

 

5. Wiccan

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A powerful member of the young avengers, Wiccan predictably has powerful magical abilities. With a backdrop that involved standing up to homophobic bullying, and a romance with fellow hero Hulking, this meant the character was particularly well received.

6. Alysia Yeoh

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Although not a superhero per se, Alysia is important as the first major transgender character in a mainstream comic (in 2013), as the roommate of Batgirl. Whilst there has been a few aliens who can morph gender around, psychics inhabiting bodies of different genders, and shapeshifters, this is the first time a transgender person (of colour no less, she’s Singaporean) had been naturalised and involved realistically.

7. Loki

Another huge character in no small part because of film franchises, and also with a complex, multi-incarnate history, Loki has a history of bisexuality and gender fluidity that has been promised to be explored more.

8. Sailor Uranus

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Although more well recognised from anime than from manga (comic book style serialisation in Japan), the Sailor Moon franchise was chock full of lesbianism, with Sailor Uranus having a relationship with Sailor Neptune. This was quite obvious in the originals through their flirtations – but in typical LGBT erasure/censorship, when translated for a US audience, the characters were positioned as cousins. Due to failing to remove all of the flirting however (either through sloppiness or a wish to actually be somewhat faithful to the original), it was accidentally implied not only that they were lesbians, but incestuous lesbians. Great job, conservative America.

9. Xavin

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Whilst we’ve already looked at Alysia as a sensitive and important example of transgender in comics, Xavin is something else. Quite literally, being a non-human known as a skrull who don’t experience gender in the same way. Xavin assumes male, female, and skrull forms. The character raised interesting interpretations of gender as for Xavin, this could be changed as easily and with no more personal significance than an outfit choice.

BONUS: The Young Protectors

Click to read the comic in full, for free!

Now this is something special. With an interesting, diverse cast of characters and a compelling plot, this young-superhero based comic has a gay-driven storyline, without reading like any kind of seedy knock-off. There’s a great balance between character development and action, and I only find it a shame there isn’t a more extensive serialisation to get one’s teeth into. And I’m not alone either. The creator’s Patreon backing is pretty huge. Well deserved, given the entire story is free to access.

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