Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Archive for the ‘Socialisation’ Category

Book Review: Landscape for a Good Woman by Carolyn Steedman

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This is the first of two books I intend to review that look at womanhood and working class experience. In beginning to prepare for the term’s worth of lectures, I inherited slides from the previous year’s version of this lecture which positioned this book along with Democracy in the Kitchen by Valerie Walkerdine and Helen Lucey as landmark texts in the field. Published in 1986, Carolyn Steedman uses her own childhood (in South London in the 1950s) and her mother’s (Burnley in the 1920s – a town 20 miles north of Manchester) as case studies for psychoanalysis. Honestly, this approach leaves me dead cold. Neither the semi-frequent references to Freud’s work (particularly the case study of ‘Dora’) nor the figurative parallels drawn with fairly stories (The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen) assisted me with learning lessons from her story. However, I had been drawn into the story from the opening two-page vignette. Steedman writes of visiting her mother for the first time in nine years, two weeks before she died of cancer:

We’d known all our childhood that she was a good mother: she’d told us so: we’d never gone hungry; she went out to work for us; we had warm beds to lie in at night. She had conducted a small and ineffective war against the body’s fate by eating brown bread, by not drinking, by giving up smoking years ago. To have cancer was the final unfairness in a life measured out by it. She’d been good; it hadn’t worked.

Upstairs, a long time ago, she had cried, standing on the bare floorboards, in the front bedroom just after we moved to this house in Streatham Hill in 1951, my baby sister in her carry-cot. We both watched the dumpy retreating figure of the health visitor through the curtainless windows. The woman had said: ‘This house isn’t fit for a baby’. And then she stopped crying, my mother, got by, the phrase that picks up after all difficulty (it says: ‘it’s like this; it should be light this; it’s unfair; I’ll manage): ‘Hard lines, eh, Kay?’ (Kay was the name I was called at home, my middle name, one of my father’s names).

And I? I will do everything and anything until the end of my days to stop anyone ever talking to me like that woman talked to my mother. It is in this place, this bare, curtainless bedroom that lies my secret and shameful defiance. I read a woman’s book, meet such a woman at a party (a woman now, like me) and think quite deliberately as we talk: we are divided: a hundred years ago I’d have been cleaning your shoes. I know this and you don’t (pp. 1-2).

Steedman is efficiently telling of her intimate past and its shaping of her experience of always. The clarity of the imagery I constructed in my head when reading the childhood memories that are woven throughout this book was more educational in and of itself than the psychoanalysis, for the most part. In terms of theorists, there are many other than Freud referred to. Most helpfully I think were reflections and expansions on Gayle Rubin’s essay ‘The Traffic in Women’. To contextualise, Steedman’s parents were not married – her father had come away to London with her mother, but there had been another woman and child before. Steedman’s mother had attempted to seduce her father into marriage – in order to gain the stability, respectability and material benefits she felt owed to her (there is very little mention of love throughout the book). Steedman writes “years later it becomes quite clear… my mother set in motion my father’s second seduction. She’d tried with having me and it hadn’t worked’ (p.53). The relationship this has to Rubin’s work is Steedman’s assertion that her mother had “exchanged herself for a future” (p. 69): that women’s ownership of “their labour, and the babies they produce” (p. 69) alters the framework of patriarchal law – Steedman’s mother is both transacted and transactor. The circumstances of Steedman’s childhood meant that whilst her father was materialistically important (he paid the rent and bills, and gave her mother £7 per week for ‘housekeeping’), but functionally semi-absent and unimportant. The argument draws productively on Juliet Mitchell’s work to articulate the patriarch’s “presence even in his absence” (p. 77).

While considerably more time and detail is given to Steedman’s own childhood than her mother’s (due to drawing heavily on remembered anecdotes, and lacking first hand access to the latter), this does ultimately read as a book about her mother. Not a book written about a loving relationship – or, implication might suggest, an embittered or estranged one. Steedman writes in a cool and matter-of-fact manner about her mother’s frustration at having children not giving her what she had aimed for from the having. There is a continual emphasis on the ‘ordinariness’ of their lives, neither horrific (like a Dickensian representation of the workhouse) nor a heroic ‘salt of the earth’ pride of identity. Political analysis appears occasionally in the text, as Steedman reflects on her mother’s lifelong Conservative voting: “for the left could not embody her desire for things to be really fair, for a full skirt that took twenty yards of cloth, for a half-timbered cottage in the country, for the prince who did not come. For my mother, the time of my childhood was the place where the fairy-tales failed” (p. 47). In places like this, I could see how the narrative device of the fairy-tale did work, and tie things together. The use of quotation to open chapters is also extremely pertinent, my favourite being by Alice Schwarzer:

One can hardly tell women that washing up sauce-pans is their divine mission, [so] they are told that bringing up children is their divine mission. But the way things are in this world, bring up children has a great deal in common with washing up sauce-pans (p. 83).

There is also a brief but powerful reflection on state intervention in the validation of life in the 1950s: “I think I would be a very different person now if [free] orange juice and milk and dinners at school hadn’t told me, in a covert way, that I had a right to exist, was worth something” (p.122). This is deftly related back to the broader point that politics shapes the world of the child – and the argument that adults “consciously know and unconsciously manipulate the particularities of the world that shaped them” (p. 123). The book sugar-coats absolutely nothing – life can lack love, crush dreams. But we carry on anyway. I’m reminded of a quotation from my favourite play and mini-series, Angels in America. Fittingly, the character, Hannah Pitt, is talking to her daughter-in-law, and says:

At first it can be very hard to accept how disappointing life is, Harper, because that’s what it is and you have to accept it. With faith and time and hard work you reach a point… where the disappointment doesn’t hurt as much, and then it gets actually easy to live with. Quite easy. Which is in its own way a disappointment (Perestroika, p. 184).

Whilst the analytic style is, for me, rather obfuscating, There are some wonderful historical insights throughout. Maybe the freshness and originality of the work is lost to me due to it being older than I am – but at 144 pages it’s a quick and easy read. The value lies not in any particular theoretical perspective or analysis that can be applied to one’s own considerations of gender and/or class, but on hearing an underrepresented story in a (perhaps) unexpected way.

 

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How Saint Wilgefortis Came to be: The Saint of Bearded Ladies

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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.

Slurs – What they are not

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.

 

 

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.

On Caitlyn Jenner’s Coming Out as Transgender

(Note – at the time of writing, Jenner explicitly stated in the interview that she was still using male pronouns, however this has since been updated to reflect a respect for her name and identity).

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On 24th April, Caitlyn Jenner ended media speculation by giving an interview to Diane Sawyer with ABC, announcing to the world that she is a transgender woman. As of 6.00 am Saturday 25th April GMT 2015 the full interview is still elusive (in the UK), with this 15 minute poor quality excerpt the longest I could find. Some high quality, short clips are found here. However I’ll be commenting on and synthesising the various reports and clips on and from the interview available so far.

We still identify as female. And that’s very hard for Bruce Jenner to say. ‘Cause why? I don’t want to disappoint people.

 Caitlyn Jenner

There’s a range of different things we can learn from this interview. The first thing is that a lot of people don’t appreciate what a big deal medical transitions are for trans people – emotionally, physically, and in most of the world, financially. Jenner literally laughs off the fact that some ‘sceptics’ suggest that this coming out could be a bid for attention, related to her part in the reality TV series Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

Are you telling me I’m going to go through a complete gender change, okay, and go through everything you need to *do* that, for the show? Sorry Diane, it ain’t happening!

Caitlyn Jenner

In addition to this, Jenner revealed she accessed hormones and facial surgery in the 1980s – being trans is not something new to Jenner herself, putting such ignorant cynicism to rest immediately. Her transition was ceased in 1990, after meeting her later wife of 23 years, Kris Kardashian. And in terms of ‘why now?’, she states unequivocally how she couldn’t hide this any longer. Jenner also made the points that fears over hurting her children meant she lost her nerve with her first attempts with medical and social transition, and that she and Kris might’ve still been together (they divorced in December 2014) if she had been ‘able to deal with it better’.

Which brings us to another important point that Jenner clarifies – how her sexuality has nothing to do with her gender identity. That identifying as a woman does not mean that she is attracted to men. Sawyer slowly walks through the logic of this – ‘if you are assigned male… and you become female… but you like women… are you a lesbian? are you a heterosexual… who…?’ Brenner cuts her off brilliantly, saying ‘you’re going back to the sex thing and it’s apples and oranges!’.

Whilst not discussed, it raised the question – how does a person’s gender identity relate to the sexuality of their partner? The answer is that it doesn’t, because whilst sexuality labels are most often used to signpost who a person sleeps with, these *labels* are also about identity. For instance, not all men who have sex with men identify as gay, and this is very important to recognise, in terms of both respect, and when conducting studies on sexual health. As a further example, if a person assigned male at birth comes out to her wife as a transgender woman, this doesn’t retroactively ‘turn’ the wife into a lesbian (assuming she was straight in the first place, and not bisexual for example…!). Also if the wife is still attracted to her transgender partner, still in love with her, that doesn’t mean she’s attracted to other women. It is an example of a straight-identified cisgender woman in what could be viewed as a lesbian, or same sex relationship… even if neither person, given their histories, identifies as a lesbian. But as long as one grasps the initial point that sexuality and gender identity are independent, and that labels aren’t gospel and depend on the person and situation rather than being a ‘neutral’ expression of ‘fact’, the rest can be negotiated from there.

For brevity’s sake, I don’t want to focus on the reactions of Jenner’s family, or the story of Jenner’s youth and athletic successes. The negotiation of significant personal issues is never easy, and the horrific marginalisation and ‘joke’ status that transgender people can still be relegated to isn’t up for debate. Jenner’s wealth and celebrity privileges don’t negate that coming out was a very brave thing to do, and she also makes it clear that she wants to do some good and help people by being open about her transition. She makes the point that her foothold in the reality television world gives her a powerful tool with which to raise awareness, even if not becoming an expert activist overnight.

The Twitter responses to the interview using the hashtag #BruceJennerABC have been overwhelmingly positive, though as S. Bear Bergman poignantly put it, “wondering who else should get 2 hrs on prime time TV?” whilst linking the list of unlawfully killed transgender people on Wikipedia, undoubtedly a list that under-represents. It was also pointed out by Kate Bornstein how the interview didn’t mention non-binary identities at all. Whilst not necessarily part of Jenner’s experience of gender, such a powerful opportunity for visibility and education could have benefited from greater breadth of reflection on the multi-facetedness of transgender lives. Jenner’s fame, wealth, and success position her as amongst the least vulnerable of transgender people, who collectively are still in dire need of protection, representation, access to services, and understanding. Let’s hope that Caitlyn Jenner inspires increased and better quality allyship.

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.

 

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