Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘privilege’

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.

 

 

Insider/Outsider – The Politics of Who to Listen to

As someone who works on non-binary gender identities without unequivocally being an in-group member (though as previously discussed, it’s a little bit complicated), this is an important issue for me. There’s a long and unpleasant history, and not just relating to gender, of people speaking over the voices of groups they are not members of. Of speaking for or about people in ways those people did (or do) not like. This article is not a debate about whether this is a problem or not: it is. Recognition of privilege is something that everyone has a moral imperative to engage with – in part to simply avoid being an ignorant arse who doesn’t recognise hardships others face that they don’t, but also because oppressions are intersectional, which is best illustrated by the comic below – originally posted by Miriam Dobson here.

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However, whilst it’s a good rule of thumb to listen to in-group members telling you things about their group, especially when you’re not a member of that group, there are additional complexities that are worth recognising.

People within marginalised groups disagree.

This should be pretty obvious. Any population big enough to be associated with a social oppression (be that people of colour, queer people, trans people, women, etc.) is going to contain vast swathes of differing opinion. This raises two important points, that may seem a bit contradictory. Firstly, marginalised people can be wrong about things that pertain to the group they’re a member of. Secondly, issues can easily become complex enough that claiming there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ becomes simplistic or troubling all on its own. It’s important to add that the *possibility* of error on the part of a marginalised person doesn’t mean it’s okay for someone to use this to conveniently dismiss claims they don’t like. Especially those claims that come from direct experience. Experiences of different people can contradict, and don’t respectively erase each other. It’s a complex world we live in.

People new to marginalised groups don’t magically become experts immediately. Some never do.

I heard one transgender activist put it this way: ‘coming out is like saying you want to do a GCSE in maths, but then people start asking you advanced calculus all the time and expecting you to know the answer’. Each person is the authority of their own life. But that’s different to being equipped with an arsenal of political, academic, or activist language and nuanced understandings of what things can mean to different people. It’s different to an awareness of historical or cultural contexts, politics, precedents, or social structures. In some cases, it’s vital to remember that a marginalised person doesn’t need any of those things for their voice to still carry a weight and value that a non-marginalised person’s cannot – such as voicing experience. It’s also a problem to expect everyone to be an expert, as not everyone is or wants to be a scholar or an activist.

Whilst I would suggest most people don’t believe you need to be a member of a demographic to study a particular demographic, it’s a good rule of thumb that lived experiences trump theoretical awareness. Experiencing something doesn’t make someone an expert, but there’s a reason why many people who do experience an oppression do become experts – because they have a particularly powerful motivation to do so. We could of course ‘what does ‘expert’ even mean anyway?’ but that’s a different discussion.

Marginalised people can’t speak for all members of the group they occupy, because no-one can. But…

If a marginalised person says ‘we want this’ or ‘we experience that’, it is more likely to be a slight simplification, or a political statement with a particular purpose rather than something hugely problematic. Their social positioning to the political meaning of the statement is changed and charged by their in-group status.

Experiencing one oppression doesn’t mean someone is sensitive to other forms of oppression, necessarily.

You find racist gay people. You find homophobic disabled people. You find transphobic women. This can often have troubling implications, as if they’re highly politically motivated to fight for the rights and well being of their group, they’re almost certainly leaving someone out in the cold.

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Often, if a scholar does work on a particular group of people, and many members of that group take issue with what they’re saying, it’s extremely pertinent to listen to the actual people, rather than the theorist. This is illustrated rather perfectly not just by history (it was the highly qualified, expert doctors who decided that homosexuality and transgender were mental illnesses, no?) but also by the continued work hate speech of scholars polemicists such as Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys.

Ultimately, knowing who to listen to can sometimes be a complex ethical process, dependent on collecting and processing lots of information. But if in doubt (or even if not, in fact), listening to voices of experience is your best bet. The devil can be in the detail where contradiction comes up, but this only heightens the importance of education.

Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival – transphobia in feminism

Every August since 1976, a music festival has taken place near Hart, in Michigan. This festival is organised, built, staffed, and attended exclusively by women, and over the years has grown in size. It now receives a turn-out of thousands of women each year.

(Brief aside): The festival uses the word ‘Womyn’ rather than ‘Woman’ in order to reflect the feminist idea of female independence from patriarchal language structures. That ‘man’ is still used as an indefinite pronoun (eg. ‘It’s one small step for man’), alternative spellings such as womyn, wimmin, wom!n, etc., both highlight and resist reference to women from a male baseline or norm.

Sadly, due to the way the festival is run, what could be an empowering event for all women is actively discriminatory. The Michigan Womyn’s Festival is for ‘womyn-born womyn’ – excluding women who were DMAB (designated male at birth).

How do the organizers of the festival justify this? Below I tackle some of the most common arguments I found for the trans woman excluding policy.

Photograph by James Cridland

1. ‘Trans women don’t grow up being read by people as girls, and so don’t have an embodied experience of the patriarchy in the same way as womyn-born-womyn.’

One woman’s experience of oppression is never going to be the same as that of another woman, I think we can agree. Everyone’s life experiences are unique, and there is no clear, unifying ‘female experience’. The closest thing one could reasonably claim to be shared by all women is the possession of a female gender identity – which trans women have. Many trans women indeed have declared that they have felt their gender identities in this way for their entire lives, though I think it’s important to note that one’s gender identity isn’t made ‘less legitimate’ through being questioned by oneself at any particular time (would a cis woman be any less of a woman if she has questioned her gender identity at any point in her life?). Women of colour, disabled women, and other groups besides will experience ‘being women’ in different yet entirely valid ways to the white, upper-middle class, cis, educated narratives that dominated much of the discourse of second wave feminism from whence such a philosophy originates.

Also, many trans women do have much direct experience of sexism and patriarchy, through being read as cis women by those around them. Based on the arguments above, this should not be read to imply that a more normative, ‘feminine’ appearance is to be viewed as a more legitimate form of woman. Trans women often face horrendous barriers to being taken seriously as women, which involves interplay between patriarchy and cissexism. This cannot be meaningfully separated out, and thus there is serious room for the argument that all trans women have an acute embodied experience of the patriarchy.

2. ‘Trans women have experience of male privilege.’

So do trans men, and yet they are welcome at the MWMF. Oh yes. These are individuals who identify as men, present as men, are men, and are afforded male privilege, yet still have access to the festival. This not only makes the claim of the festival being for ‘womyn-born womyn’ downright false (at best, it’s for ‘womyn-designated anyone’) but also firmly undermines the arguments put forward in points 4 and 5.

Experience of a particular type of privilege isn’t someone’s fault, it is simply something to be born in mind. A white womyn should bear in mind her race privilege. Able-bodied/minded womyn should be aware of their privilege compared to disabled womyn. If a person was not always (seen as) disabled, does that make them ‘less disabled’? No. This is an imperfect comparison, and is purely illustrative – certainly one cannot simplistically claim that how a person has been viewed by others strips them of the legitimacy of their identity. This is to erase their identity, using one’s own privilege to do so. Does the genital configuration of one womyn give her the right to claim womyn who are different to her are not womyn? No. And indeed, doing so is the very definition of ‘cis privilege’ – where sex designated at birth is presumed more legitimate than that which is identified, and lived.

3. ‘Oppressed people have the right to make their own safe spaces in the way they wish, without explanation.’

Well, that depends on where you are and what you’re doing. For example the extreme-right wing, racist, sexist, and homophobic UK political party the BNP was forced to change its constitution to accept people of colour. This was an obvious example of a group discriminating (illegally) against racial minorities. Whilst MWMF may not have breached Michigan or US law, this is still an example of a privileged majority (cis women) excluding a marginalized minority. The fact that cis women experience marginalization and discrimination doesn’t justify their performance of oppression in the name of safe space creation. The argument rests on viewing trans women as not being ‘real’ women. The very existence of the identity category ‘womyn-born-womyn’ makes the political statement that there are womyn who weren’t ‘born womyn’, and that they are therefore ‘other’. This ‘othering’ sets up a false dichotomy, that there are two distinct categories, those ‘born womyn’ and those not, and that your validity as a womyn is decided based on which category you fall into. I have written about the flaws with attempts to define identity based on biology here.

Lisa Vogel, the founder of MWMF has said this about the festival:

Supporting womyn-born womyn space is no more inherently transphobic than supporting womyn of color space is racist.

Except this draws a false parallel… unless you refuse to accept trans women as being women at all. It’s more like supporting a women of colour space that decides that women of colour with one white parent don’t count, because their appearance and experience may be different. Attempting to say ‘oh you are a woman, but you don’t fulfill this sub-definition we’ve created for inclusion in our space’ fundamentally discriminates against a minority, rather than providing a safe space from a majority, or oppressive influence.

4. ‘Many womyn-born-womyn have been the victims of sexual assault and rape at the hands of men. These women may feel threatened by the presence of trans women.’

This argument could implicitly rest one any of several potential meanings. One interpretation may be ‘these women may feel threatened by trans women who possess penises and are capable of penetrative rape, or cause triggering  simply through the presence of the organ’. At MWMF, phallic sex toys are visibly for sale, and there are workshops pertaining to much sexual activity, ranging from masturbation to fisting. As has already been mentioned, trans men are allow allowed to be present who not only may possess a penis but may also present entirely unambiguously as male. What this therefore says is that trans men are not a sexual threat in terms of their ‘maleness’, but that trans women are. This erases the legitimacy of both group’s gender identities – trans men are ‘other’ from cis men by this understanding.

This claim could imply that a cis woman’s discomfort is more valid than a trans woman’s right to be recognised. This would sound utterly unacceptable if presented in terms of race – ‘a white woman who has received abuse at the hands of a black woman may feel threatened by the presence of black women’ is not a reasonable argument for the exclusion of black women, and that’s without the fact that one is implying that trans woman = man = rape.

Is the implication that one can ‘spot’ a trans woman through their appearance, which could be ‘male and threatening’? I’ll let the images below cover this one.

            

Jenna Talakova, and Buck Angel. Guess which one would be allowed entry to Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival? Hint: it’s not the woman. How the festival actually establishes the men they allow entrance are trans, I have no idea. Also to my knowledge, neither Jenna nor Buck have ever had any association with MWMF, and this point is purely illustrative.

Note: I’d like to reiterate that appearance is not a good justification for legitimizing or erasing a person’s gender identity. The images of the people above who experience and exhibit being female and being male in visually normative ways simply help to highlight the absurdity of the classification system used by the organizers of the festival.

The account of Alice Kalafarski tells of a trans woman’s experience at MWMF, highlighting how upsetting and offensive WBW arguments really are – and can be read here.

5. ‘Allowing trans women to enter would allow men to put on dresses and claim a female gender identity and enter the space.’

Men already enter the space. This is apparently okay though, simply because they were designated female at birth. Accommodation is also (rightly) made for male children, so long as they’re 10 years old or younger. Crucially though, this argument rests upon a ‘slippery slope’ based logic (or lack thereof). This is the assertion that:

If we allow A to happen, then B will happen too! Therefore, A should not happen.

This does not address the issue at hand, but derails the voice for trans women to be recognized as much as cis women by shifting attention to a hypothetical claim with no basis for concern.

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As Alice Kalafarski’s account details, MWMF does seem to form strong, laudable policies regarding acceptance and awareness of race and ability. That there are apparently plenty of people who attend the festival and make a point of sporting ‘Trans Women Belong Here’ T-shirts and buttons doesn’t seem to have changed the situation, and in my eyes only problematises the sincerity of a trans ally who will declare a disgust with policy and yet still willingly engage with it. I will leave you with a powerful quote from the ever-eloquent Julia Serano:

My female identity is regularly reduced to a “debate” by non-trans queer women who would rather spend a week with their friends in Michigan than examining their own cissexual privilege. What’s even more disappointing to me is that there are a lot of FTM spectrum people out there who do the very same thing. They hypocritically expect their friends, families and co-workers to respect their male- or genderqueer-identities for 51 weeks out of the year, then for that one week at MWMF they take advantage of cissexual privilege (which presumes that one’s “birth sex” is more legitimate than one’s identified and lived sex) in order to enter women-only space. Their insistence on “having it both ways” marginalizes me as a trans woman: it delgitimizes my female identity in both the lesbian and the transgender communities of which I am a part.

Book review: Gender Outlaws – The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation is a collection of essays submitted from a wide range of people with very different experiences of gender, and very different things to say.

This book is brilliantly original. Never before have I read a book that blurs the boundaries between academic discussion, activists talking about their causes, artists talking about their passions, and humans talking about their pain, love, and needs. This coupled with things like comics, recipes, and poetry mixed in, and the introduction formed entirely of an online conversation between Bornstein and Bergman themselves. The tone struck is witty, thoughtful, relaxed, and (certainly in my case) draws the reader in.

Obviously in a work with contributions from…*counts*…52 different authors, some styles and content will speak more to any individual than others. Despite this large heterogeneity, I found the ‘tone’ of the book remarkably cohesive. Not because what the different writers say is necessarily over-similar, but virtually all inspire a wonderful state of thoughtfulness.

Each submitted piece stands alone, and all are short (2-7 pages each). This makes it extremely easy to dip in and out of, but the organisation of the essays is such that one can read straight through and stay gripped. Even accounts that may be very abstract for some readers – for example, the negotiation of gendered experience whilst being in an all-women Roller Derby league – contain powerful insights into the treatment of other people, and I would suggest offer at least a wonderful set of alternate perspectives and empathy-inducing thought patterns.

Some of the writers speak to me more than others, and I mean this to mean how much I enjoy and respect what they’re saying and their style and clarity – rather than necessarily a direct resonance with personal experience. Indeed, many of the articles are so interesting because they can cause you to think about experiences you may never have considered – but this can then shape how you consider gender in your own life. I didn’t find terminology confusing despite much specific ‘gender language’ being used by lots of different people, but this could reflect my academic privilege. I imagine this is a book that will speak most loudly to people with either an active interest in gender or those who have experience of being a gender or sexuality minority – rather than as a present for grandma. Though I would love to be wrong about this. I would imagine that not that many straight and cis readers would pick this book up of their own accord, but that the world would be a better and cooler place if more did.

The wide range of topics covered does involve a range of areas that may be distressing for some readers. As one might expect, the submissions from writers often discuss some of the post poignant (and difficult) occurances in their own lives, which may be triggering for some readers – and unfortunately each chapter does not come with trigger warnings or particularly indicative titles. Eating disorders, gendered violence, experience of chronic illness, and racism are all themes that are touched on. Though despite this, the book didn’t leave me with a sense of heaviness. Many of the writers imbue their pieces with valuable humour.

A point that may cause some controversy and disagreement very early on in the book (which is a point raised by Bergman in the introduction) is their use of the word/slur ‘tranny’. I think they produce some valuable discourse around this important and sensitive topic, but at the same time you may not like it. If the following quote gets your brain fired up, then you will probably find the book stimulating.

S. Bear Bergman: I can see the argument for outlawing “it’s so gay” better. They’re trying to outlaw bullying, but “don’t be mean” isn’t – evidently – an enforceable school rule, so they list particular meannesses the young people are not permitted to engage in.

Kate Bornstein: But look at what happened a generation after people were damning the word queer. Now it’s something you can major in, in college.

SBB: The think I just thought is: people are who are super-protective to police the word tranny have no real confidence in the cultural power of transpeople. They police it because they fear that if not-trans-identified people get hold of it, their power will make it always and forever a bad word. And I, we, feel find about it because we have a lot of faith in the cultural power of transfolks – of trannies – to make and be change.

If this tickles your imagination, then bearing in mind some of the other essays are about:

  • The insights being trans gave one writer into corporate politics
  • A love affair with a non-binary bathroom
  • Christian anti-gay and anti-trans actions in Singapore and activism against this
  • The experience of being a Drag Queen having being Female Assigned at Birth
  • Queer sex as performance art

I would hazard you’ll be very stimulated indeed if you pick this book up.

Can a man be a feminist?

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute” – Rebecca West

I have never really been able to find out precisely what feminism is either. I’m inclined to think this is because it isn’t ‘one thing’, any more than being a woman is. Personally, I like to think of feminism in its most simple terms – that people defining as women should experience the same rights as people defining as men. Thus I can sometimes find it difficult to understand why anyone would not define as a feminist. Yet, it would be at the very least inflammatory for many to suggest that the antonym of ‘feminism’ is ‘sexism’. Of course it’s pretty obvious why the majority of feminists are women, but it’s interesting to consider why many men do not identify as feminists (other than simple lack of awareness, or sad, persistent misogyny) and indeed, whether they can.

Bill Bailey

Photograph credit: Fawcett society

It has been argued that being a feminist is more than an intellectual agreement with a set of principles that then influence a person’s behaviour. It has been argued that having not lived a woman’s experiences, and/or the fact that men possess an inescapable degree of social privilege makes it impossible for men to truly identify with female struggles. Some also consider that for a man to take the label of feminist allows for the co-opting of a feminist identity, potentially resulting in less power for women themselves and the silencing of female voices. This has led to some men taking on the moniker of ‘profeminist’- agreement with feminist goals and politics, without claiming inclusion within the group of ‘feminist’ themselves.

Problems with this arise in several ways. Firstly, this understanding rests entirely on a binary model of gender with no obvious way to resolve the inclusion or exclusion of those who exist outside of this framework, or have moved transitioned from one group to another. Trans men have often lacked male privilege and have experienced a ‘female’ narrative based on how they have been treated before transition, yet do not identify as female. Likewise trans women will be experiencing a female narrative after transition, but have also arguably been privy to male privilege at some point in their lives. This reduces acceptability into the group of ‘feminist’ based on both bodies and on how gender is expressed (that is, whether one appears adequately ‘male’ or ‘female’ to ‘pass’) which is clearly problematic as infertile women, ‘masculine’ women, and indeed any other variation one cares to mention does not in any way invalidate their membership of the identity category.

One can call into question whether this argument of needing to have direct experience of ‘a woman’s narrative’ is indeed valid, as what is a woman’s narrative? As the feminist writer bell hooks (deliberately not capitalised) points out that “the insistence on a “women only” feminist movement and a virulent anti-male stance reflected the race and class background of participants”, that whilst bourgeoisie white women experience sexism, they still retain more social privilege and particularly in historical contexts would be less likely to be exploited than poor, uneducated non-white men. To attempt to simplify narratives such that the intersectionality of race, class, and sexuality aren’t considered to shape the idiosyncrasies of identity experience may only serve to alienate various (poor, non-white, etc.) women from such a feminist movement. A blanket-exclusion of men also implies that experience of male privilege by men is a homogeneous thing, as is enforcement of patriarchal systems, both of which are (hopefully) patently untrue. Men (and sometimes, women) can repress and marginalise men, too. Power is sourced in more than sex.

An interesting historical perspective can be considered when examining the quest for women’s rights and recognition before feminism was established as a term or identity. The philosopher John Stuart Mill co-published the paper ‘The Subjection of Women’ with his wife in 1869. His empathy, intentions, and actions were not invalidated by his gendered position. Likewise the acts of the male abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Lenox Remond, Nathanial P. Rogers, and Henry Stanton to sit silently with the women (who were forbidden to speak) at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1849 was a clear refusal to accept this element of male privilege, challenging the patriarchy in a way that is not dependent on gendered identities or bodies of the social actors.

Parker Pillsbury, 1809-1898. Pillsbury was another important early male feminist, who co-edited the women’s rights newsletter ‘The Revolution’, founded in 1868 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

There also exists the problem that the exclusion of men from the group ‘feminist’ places the tasks of this movement as an exclusively feminine task, arguably a hypocritically sexist circumstance. This argument clearly cannot be extended to the occupation of women-only spaces by men, as marginalised and oppressed groups have a requirement of, and a right to safe spaces. However, men certainly have at least as much responsibility in battling sexism and patriarchal structures as women, and to attempt to do this in a political environment with an extremely dubious (as race relations have taught us) ‘separate but equal’ policy, does not best serve either group.

The distinction then, between profeminism (or pro-feminism) and feminism is a construct that arguably echoes an inflexibility regarding the nebulous nature of gendered identities, as well as the interplay that exists between different facets of an individual’s personal, social identity. The complexities that exist in then grappling with the differences in stance that various interpretations of feminism can hold are another question entirely. However, I am proud to call myself a feminist, and accept with the use of that label the social reactions and judgements that follow.

The essentials – Trans 101, but not as you know it

This post is particularly exciting for me, because of how important I feel it is. Also because of how unexpected its formation has been.

The other day, I was talking to one of my queer companions-in-arms about an idea I had. I expressed how keen I was to write a piece explaining what ‘transgender’ actually is. I wanted to carefully explain out definitions of words and terms like ‘MtF’, ‘FtM’, ‘cis-gendered’, and other terms that may leave the average Jo(e) mystified. As I try my best to be a good ally to the transgendered population, I hoped that my little platform might be good in raising some awareness, and I expected my friend to agree with me.

I was being a bit mentally lazy at the time, and rather narcissistically was looking for a verbal pat on the back, but this wasn’t what I got.

I was a little surprised when she ‘ummed’ at me, and seemed rather uncomfortable about the idea. Her concern was that in speaking about trans people, for trans people, I risked preaching in a way which didn’t offer room for variation – seriously problematic for any trans person who could have a hypothetical problem with what I might’ve said. I’m not trans. I’m not a member of that group of marginalised people. I possess what is termed ‘cis-privilege’ – certain automatic social advantages simply due to not being trans.

It’s not up to me just to do a job of writing. It’s up to me to do a good job. Or I just put stuff out there that it’s then up to someone else to fix.

This obviously isn’t something I have any control over. It also isn’t something to get upset about if someone points out that it’s something I possess and should bear in mind. Indeed, the usefulness and fairness about what is said about trans issues by a non-trans person can only be improved by the recognition of cis-privilege. Whilst LOADS of people still don’t know about this sort of stuff very much, I’m sure there are plenty of trans people who are pretty tired of non-trans people trying to tell an audience who and what they are – either because they do a crappy job, or because of the principle of having someone speak as though they are ‘the expert on you’ – when you might want, er, a voice of your own, thanks.

This made me really worried! I didn’t want my good intentions to go unrealised because of a property about myself that I cannot help. So I decided to change how the post was going to be written. Welcome to the first collaborative post on GenderBen!

Below you will find two accounts, submitted very kindly by Amy Boyd (whose G+ page can be found here), and Jack Pinder, who is also one half of the up-and-coming Indie Rock duo Silence Kid. You can check them and their music out on Facebook, Tumblr, and if you like what you see and hear and wish to support some young, impoverished, queer musicians, they have a kickstarter project here.

Everything written by these individuals is entirely their own, and has not been edited by me in any way.

First, we have Amy’s post.

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What Does “Transgender” Mean?

At first, I didn’t know where to start. How do I explain to people who might never have heard of transgender people what it is like to be transgender. I thought, “I don’t know what it’s like to not be transgender!”.

And it’s true. Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt unhappy with being male.

To not be transgender, like the vast majority of people, is just how life is. They are born with male genitals and assigned male. They are born with female genitals and assigned female. They grow up as that gender assigned to them on day one. For them, everything is great and nothing feels wrong.

Transgender people aren’t like that. Nobody stops to think, “what if the baby has male genitals but actually has a female brain”? For millions of people, this isn’t a “what if” scenario. It is reality. Transgender people have the brain of the opposite sex. Brain scans show it. Those unlucky babies are brought up how society expects them to be brought up, based on their genitals at birth, not their brain.

Some feel from a very early age – 5 or less in some cases – that their brain is different to their body. For others, it takes a while for the feelings to develop – as late as the teenage years.

It’s not OK, says society, for a boy to want to be a girl or a girl to want to be a boy… It’s not OK, says society, for a boy to play with barbies or a girl to play with action men… It’s not OK, says society, to be different to everyone else…

So we hide those feelings, or try to for as long as possible. Hiding these feelings hurts. To the average man reading this: imagine being expected to play with dolls and try out for cheer-leading squad and read Vogue and wear dresses and date boys. Can you imagine doing that? To the average woman reading this: image being expected to jump in mud and get dirty and play football and lift weights at the gym and date girls. Can you imagine doing that? Would you do that? Would that hurt?

Trans-girls and trans-women are born with male genitals and a female brain, assigned male, later feel these feelings of not being right, and finally transition to female. Trans-men are the opposite case: babies born with female genitals and a male brain, assigned female, and transition to male.

My Transition

It took a while for me to understand that I was transgender, because until I was 19, I didn’t know what the word meant. Sure, I have saw drag queens, and what movies and TV shows portray as “men in dresses”. But a man actually becoming a woman? That is such a taboo topic that nobody ever speaks about it. Certainly, nobody spoke about it in front of me.

It was my luck, I suppose, to stumble upon an article about transgender people. Suddenly I realised, I’m reading about myself. The people in the article echoed my own thoughts: “I hate manly things. I hate sports. I hate cars. I hate getting dirty. I hate not being able to express myself in the way I want to because I’ll be laughed at and told to stop, I hate having this stupid penis attached to me… I hate being male. I’m not even tall enough or strong enough to be considered a man. My name “Michael” doesn’t suit me. Everyone is Michael. I want to be unique. Why can’t I have a nice short feminine name? I like feminine clothes. I liked those two guys at school… wait, am I gay? Were those feelings of attraction? I thought I just liked them because they were nice people. I always wanted to be a girl anyway.”

And that was when it stuck me. “I always wanted to be a girl anyway.” So why wasn’t I doing anything about it?!

I needed more information first to be sure I wasn’t utterly deranged. I needed to know that being transgender was different to being a drag queen or a cross-dresser or one of those people you see on Britain’s Got Talent with 10-foot-high hair and a dress and a full beard.

I turned to Google searches, Wikipedia, YouTube and studies. They all confirmed that how I felt is a real thing – Gender Identity Disorder, or Gender Dysphoria. And the only “cure”, if it can be called as such, is transitioning.

Within a few days, I ordered hormones drugs over the Internet. About three weeks later they were delivered and I started taking them.

It only took a few weeks for me to notice something amazing: the suicidal feelings I had been feeling, dating back to when puberty began, disappeared. Actually, nobody knows this, but before I started “hormone replacement therapy”, I was completely suicidal and had only two options left: kill myself, or travel the world for as long as possible on my savings and then kill myself at the end. I was going to do the second option. I got passport photos taken. I printed out the passport renewal form. I had figured out to where I would go first: Khao San Road, Thailand. Thank you, luck, for letting me run across that article on the Internet about transgender people before I followed through. I have those passport photos in my safe at home. Every time I look at them, all I see is an extremely depressed version of me.

Transition – It’s A Gradual Process, Not An Instant Change

I would like to think I had a realistic timeline of how long it would take to “pass” as a female. I’m still not there yet, but 14 months of hormone replacement therapy has had a big effect, physically and mentally.Mentally I am much happier, more stable, more confident and stronger. On the flip-side, I cry more and have mood swings. Hormone replacement therapy really is like going through puberty a second time.

Physically my face and body have changed to have female “secondary sex characteristics” like fatter cheeks, wider hips, needing to pee every five minutes, softer skin, less body hair, lighter body hair, and so on.

I’ve also done things that drugs can’t do like permanent facial hair removal (expensive!), growing my hair out, making my eyebrows more feminine, generally taking care of myself, making my wardrobe more androgynous, and most of all learning. There is a lot to learn about this whole “being female” business.

Today, I am 20 years old. I recently moved back to London and since then have felt free enough to try making lots of progress in my transition.

I don’t know how much longer it will take. 14 months of hormones got me to the androgynous phase. I hope another 14 months will get me to the “definitely looks like a girl” phase.

And then I can be Amy.

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Transgressive Gender for Dummies: An Anti-“Trans 101”

Hey! My name’s Jack, and I’m a 22 year old trans guy from Baltimore. Ben asked me to write a “trans 101” of sorts for this blog, so here goes.

There are probably a million and one reasons why someone would want to read, or find themselves reading, a “Trans 101”, or an introductory guide to transgender issues. Maybe you’re grappling with, settling into, or exploring your own gender identity. Maybe you’re a confused parent, or a friend of a trans person who you want to be a better ally to. I’m hardly the first person to create an introductory guide like this but the way I’m going to go about doing this isn’t exactly typical. I don’t plan on making an easy list of definitions of jargon or some kind of handy cheat sheet to refer to when you forget what MtF means. Instead, I’m going to strike at the root of the problem, the very reason you don’t know these words in the first place: everything you know about gender is fundamentally wrong.

Sex=/=Gender=/=Sexual Orientation

First, let’s talk about why sex and gender are not the same thing. Here is an example of a well-intentioned but misguided and incorrect understanding of gender:

Sex is what’s between your legs, and gender is what’s in your head!

Sex is biology; it’s what you were born as, what chromosomes you have and what genitalia you have. On the other hand, gender is whatever you “feel” like you are.

 

People say things like this with the best intentions, and probably genuinely believe that this is a progressive framework for understanding gender identity. Really think about this, though. How many variables make up what we think of as sex and what we think of as gender? Biology itself doesn’t even play by the rules of the gender binary—check out Ben’s amazing post about the genetics behind intersexed individuals. There’s your internal genitalia, external genitalia, chromosomes, and hormones, the pitch and tonality of your voice, your wardrobe, hair, mannerisms, and a million other factors that decide whether or not the guy at the deli calls you “sir” or “ma’am”. If every single one of these variables lines up as exclusively “male” or exclusively “female”, you are cisgender and pretty dramatically socially privileged over people who are not because of that. If not, congrats! Your very existence reveals the fallacy of the socially constructed gender binary. You can call yourself whatever you damn well please, but others in this category use words like transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, ftm, mtf, mtm, ftf, genderfluid, agender, pangender, and neutrois. This is hardly intended to be an exhaustive list on non-cis gender identities; the point is that if you aren’t cis, and even if you don’t think of yourself as male or female, your identity is legitimate and real and it is up to you, and only you, to label it.

Now let’s talk about gender versus sexual orientation. To put it simply, gender is what you are, whereas sexual orientation is about who you like. Sexual orientation can of course be extremely complex and nuanced and a ton can be written about it, but that’s not what I’m talking about here, because an individual’s sexual orientation has NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH THEIR GENDER IDENTITY.

I make this point because you may be approaching this Trans 101 with the idea that trans-ness is some sort of extension or expression of homosexuality. This isn’t true but it’s a pretty understandable misconception, thanks to what has become the generally accepted lexicon of these issues. When people talk about LGBT (that is, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) issues, 99% of the time, they’re really only talking about the LBG. The word “queer” also has a tendency to complicate and confuse things because it is an umbrella term that encompasses both non-heteronormative sexuality (Queer for You-The Degenerettes),and gender expression. Personally, it’s a word that I like and identify with because I’m queer in both senses of the word.

Another reason why I’m abstaining from creating a list of definitions with this post is that when it comes to gender, words are personal and powerful. To define the term FtM, for example, as “Female to Male”, or “an individual who was assigned female at birth who now identifies/has transitioned to/lives as male” is terribly incorrect and erasing to people who identify with that term but that definition does not apply to, as well as people who that definition applies to but do not identify with that term.

Think about every film or tv show you’ve ever seen about a transgender person. They all had the same plot, right? We’re used to hearing transpeople say “I’ve always known,” and something about this seems to be comforting to cisgendered people. If you’re cisgendered, chances are that YOU’VE always known what you are, so this makes sense to you. The expectation of gender consistency throughout one’s life is easy to take for granted. It’s a part of the trans narrative, and it’s actually pretty harmful and repressive. Cut-and-dried definitions of very nuanced and complex human identities reinforce this oppressive narrative.

Consider all the ways it is possible for a non-cisgendered person to deviate from this narrative! Anyone can discover new things about their gender identity at any age, and one’s gender journey need not fit cleanly into a Lifetime movie storyline. Put yourself in the shoes of a non-cis person the next time you question the validity of their identity based on the way they’ve chosen to transition or express their gender. Could you afford a $7,000 surgery? Could you ask your family to refer to you by pronouns besides the ones you’ve used since birth? Would you be okay with the side effects and risks associated with hormone replacement therapy? If you realized you weren’t cisgendered, would you come out about it immediately?

As someone who deviates from the gender binary, the trans narrative kept me from coming out to my friends and family and getting the therapy I needed for entirely too long. My fears were completely justified; when I did come out, friends and family refused to believe me and treated my transition like some sort of passing phase I was going through. This is the social function of the trans narrative, to create “symptoms” that are so specific that hardly anyone could fit the bill.

If you want to be a better ally to a trans person, this is what I have to say to you: do everything you can to not reinforce this narrative. Never assume anything, and never police anyone’s gender journey.

Yes, there is jargon you should probably know, but to paraphrase your sixth grade English teacher, if you don’t know what something means, look it the fuck up. More important than words, though, is attitude and understanding, and I hope I was able to at least lay the groundwork for that with this post.

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I was going to add my own two cents on this topic, but I really feel like Amy spent one cent and Jack spent the other far better than I could. I hope you found these heartfelt and eloquent accounts as informative and important as I do.

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