Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘trans’

Book Review: trans like me – a journey for all of us, by CN Lester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why We Should Stand Up For Trans Rights and Recognition at the University of Toronto

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

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

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.

 

 

On ‘Straight Acting’ and Stonewall.

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

Michelson makes the point that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Miss Major – Photograph credit to Annalese Ophelian.

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

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

TV Review: Boy Meets Girl

*This review may contain plot spoilers for the first episode of Boy Meets Girl*

I just watched the first episode of the new romantic comedy show Boy Meets Girl which aired on BBC 2 on 3rd September 2015. The show had already been acclaimed for the first UK show to contain a major transgender character, played by a transgender actress (Rebecca Root).

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Now whilst those who know me might suspect I would rave about anything with a positive portrayal of trans people in the media, even well intentioned shows and films can easily receive scathing criticism for their ignorance (for example, the transgender writer Julia Serano makes important points about how transgender characters have historically been portrayed as ‘deceptive’ or ‘tragic’ in the book whipping girl, even in films otherwise praised for positive portrayal such as Priscilla Queen of the Desert). Thus I am actually quite cautious of watching trans focussed media, for the fear of disappointment and having to deal with cheap, stigmatising laughs. However, the first episode of this show was, in my opinion, nigh on perfect – let me explain.

We’re introduced to Leo (played by Harry Hepple) who lives with his mum, dad, and brother James, and has just lost his job. In order to get away from their mother’s exasperation, James drags Leo to the pub where over the evening he meets Judy, a ‘beguiling older woman’ as iPlayer’s summary tells. They hit it off, and arrange a date for the next day. The show manages to do something very difficult, in that it weaves a humorous but believable narrative, critically without relying on Judy’s transgender status for laughs. Nor was dramatic tension created through characters being positioned as transphobic – whilst there might be space for that aspect of reality to be explored later in the series, the way the main characters were introduced was not rushed, nor were individuals set up to represent particular tropes. This is hopefully a sign that even the side characters will be fleshed out in interesting, idiosyncratic ways.

However, the difficulties that transgender people can face were not erased. There was a clear and relatable anxiety portrayed by Root as she tried to come out to Leo (which involved humour, but in a witty and clever manner. No overblown clichéd reactions). Further we also receive hints over Judy’s painful past rejections from men, and see some realistic vulnerability. The show teased its audience by hinting at disappointing moments that many trans people will be all too familiar with – a date running out at the first chance after coming out, being outed to other people without consent – but curves away from these at the last minute which is both refreshing and often quite heart-warming.

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That this show made the effort to cast transgender talent (and even from this single episode I believe Root to be very talented indeed) really helped to support the writing. The language used was realistic – the families we see are working class, Newcastle locals – it would be stilted if terms like ‘assigned male at birth’ or ‘gender binary’ were used, as let’s be honest, a large number of people are not familiar with these terms. People still say transsexual, people still say ‘she used to be a bloke’, and it would also be overly simplistic to suggest that all trans people necessarily find such language offensive when that can be how gender is relatable with friends and family. Much as it has been criticised (and rightly so) in some activist circles, the ‘trapped in the wrong body’ trope can still have its uses for some trans people. The show does not tiptoe linguistically and thus become unrealistic, but also strikes an intelligent balance in not engaging with slurs. Again there might be space for addressing this intelligently in future episodes, but it didn’t get ahead of itself.

The BBC didn’t make a song and dance of advertising this show as ‘the trans show’. Indeed, the point of interest is as much how romance is negotiated between a younger man and an older woman, and the stigmatised nature of this is reflected particularly in the incredulity of Leo’s mother. There’s also something inherently feminist about a romance narrative that challenges the ‘older dominant man/younger naive woman’ industry base. There were other small aspects to the production that were also positive. Standing out to me in particular was the physical affection between James and his dad, with despite being men in their 20s and 50s were cuddled on the sofa – a simple family act that is so rarely seen because of how masculinity can be constructed within the media. Nothing was made of it, but it showed on another level ‘there is nothing strange about this’.

Positive trans representation is always something to be celebrated on some level. But this show goes a way further – providing visibility to trans talent aided in reassuring the audience that the script hadn’t been written in a bubble, and nor was this aspect relied upon as a novelty. One can watch, enjoy, and learn from this show without any knowledge or even interest in gender, which is so great in bringing awareness to a wider audience through quality entertainment.

See here for more information about the making of Boy Meets Girl.

Non-binary gender identity negotiation – My PhD explained!

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

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.

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