Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘Transsexual’

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.

Facebook Gender Categories Explained

In case you didn’t know, Facebook allows for a user to fill in their own gender identity, rather than be forced to select ‘male’ or ‘female’. This is great news for everyone, including many people who ARE male or female. But what is meant by many genders can leave some people puzzled.

gender options

Oliver Haimson et al. has gathered some data which shows what people who use the custom gender option actually define themselves as:

facebook gender options

 

Whilst the numbers total over 100%, that’s due to there being no restriction on how many gender identity labels a person can hold. It’s a good graph to get a rough sense of the identity categories that people are using. There’s also many categories where the differences may not be clear. What’s the difference between transgender and transsexual? What’s the difference between ‘trans’ and ‘trans*’?

Of course, the meaning of a label can differ depending upon who you’re talking to – different terms resonate differently with different people, and two people’s understandings may easily contradict, so there is never going to be an easy ‘factual’ list that can be referred to. Identity is a highly personal thing, and can only be defined by an individual. This post simply acts as a guide to give some basic explanation of these categories. Some labels may seem to overlap completely in one person’s eyes (say, trans man and trans male) whilst highlighting an important difference to someone else. I’ll be grouping some identities together due to similarity, but it’s important to bear this in mind and that of course, much variation can exist between people who may identify with the same gender identity. I’ll also explain some of the differences between some of the labels.

It is important to remember – gender identity is not sexuality! A person of any gender identity may associate themselves with any sexuality (though of course some may be more common than others. Whilst a cisgender man would not identify as a lesbian, a transmasculine person may have a more complex relationship with this identity for example).

This list is not intended to be authoritative or exhaustive. No-one knows your gender identity better than you yourself! If anyone wishes to expand or add in the comments section, please feel welcome.
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 Genderqueer/Non-binary

Often used as umbrella categories, these terms both refer to gender identities other than simply ‘man’ and ‘woman’ – people who exist outside of the gender binary. Neither tells you much about a person’s gender besides that they’re not (exclusively) male and not (exclusively) female. Some genderqueer or non-binary people may embrace or express masculinity, femininity, both, neither, a mix, or vary depending on time, place, or people – regardless of the gender that person was assigned at birth. The possibilities are practically endless.

Gender fluid/Bigender

Being gender fluid can mean that a person sometimes identifies as male/man, sometimes as female/woman, or sometimes as androgynous other non-binary identities. Similarly, people identifying as bigender may experience two differently gendered personas, typically ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ which may change. Whilst not frequent enough to come up on the Facebook chart, the identity of trigender may be used by people who can change between male, female, and non-binary identites too. Note that someone may potentially have more than two gender identities and still identify as bigender – a person cannot ‘identify wrongly’. It is simply what a person feels fits with their sense of themselves.

Agender/Neutrois

Sometimes also described or understood as ‘neutral’ or ‘null’, some people may experience these identities as an absence of any gender, or, subtly different, as a neutral gender identity that isn’t male or female. This doesn’t tell you anything else, such as whether a person identifies as transgender, or has any wish to engage with a transition.

Gender nonconforming/Gender variant

These gender identities are quite self-explanatory, and broad. These labels don’t share information about the person’s relationship with maleness, femaleness, masculinity or femininity – but that their gender expression may not fit with cultural expectations of their gender assignation. Someone identifying as gender nonconforming or gender variant may identify as trans, or may not.

Two spirit

A non-western gender identity, two spirit is an umbrella term for gender identities associated with the cultures of some indigenous North Americans, such as the Oglala Lakota (note: I say ‘cultures’ rather than culture to avoid conflating different tribes and groups, which are distinct). There isn’t a simple way to generalise, though historically two spirit people often engaged in work or cultural practices not associated with their assigned birth sex. Called ‘Berdaches’ (a problematic term no longer used, and considered a slur) by western anthropologists, two spirit people may identify with both male and female gender roles and thus be recognised as a third gender within indigenous American cultural contexts.

Transmasculine/Transfeminine

A transmasculine person identifies more with maleness than with femaleness, but may not necessarily identify entirely as ‘a man’ (some however, might – and use this label as an indicator of their position regarding masculinity). Likewise a transfeminine person vice-versa – identifies more with femaleness but not entirely as ‘woman’. In accordance with the ‘trans’ aspect of this identity, transfeminine people are assigned male at birth and transmasculine people are assigned female at birth.

Androgynous/Androgyne

This is an identification with the mixture of masculine and feminine presentation so as to be a mixture of the two, and ambiguous in gender presentation. The terms can be used quite broadly, however.

Other

What can be said here? Other. Something else. Gender unknown space unicorn. Being deliberately vague is often a deliberate political decision.

Neither

Not male or female. If you know the person well you may know more detail (though you probably shouldn’t ask out of idle curiousity). The individual themselves may not have a clearer definition than this – sometimes it’s easier to know what you aren’t than exactly what you are, and that’s completely fine.

Intersex

Intersex people, by arbitrary medical definitions, may not physiologically fit into the gender binary in one way or another (most commonly, through having what are termed ‘ambiguous genitalia’ at birth). Intersex infants may be surgically altered without their consent, in order to assuage the  gendered anxieties of parents and doctors. Some people who may be ‘diagnosed’ as intersex may identify as men, women, or other gender identities, whilst some may feel their intersex status is something they identify with.

Pangender

Whilst pangender may imply an identification with all genders, more usefully it can be understood as fluidly experiencing a multiplicity of genders. A FAQ can be found here – where it is also clarified that appropriation of gender identities from other cultures (such as two spirit, or hijra) isn’t okay.

Gender questioning 

This is the process of questioning or working out one’s own gender, and may not be a permanent identity – though there’s no set amount of time someone might do this for! A questioning person may not be sure of what they identify with, and might not come to an answer – which is absolutely fine.

Transgender/Trans/Trans Person/Transgender person/Trans woman/Trans female/Transgender female/Transgender woman/Trans man/Trans male/Transgender male/Transgender man

Transgender people are people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Trans is a shortening of transgender. The differences between ‘man’ and ‘male’, and ‘woman’ and ‘female’ may be something an individual has a solid opinion on, or they may feel unconcerned about the implied difference, or not see one. By specifying ‘person’ in a Facebook gender identity, someone may be iterating that whether they identify as male or female or otherwise isn’t something they want to share there.

Trans*/Trans* Person/Trans* man/Trans* male/Trans* woman/Trans* female

Some people use the asterisk to specifically highlight they are using ‘trans’ as an umbrella term, rather than to refer specifically to (binary identified) transgender people. There have been discussions both for and against the use of the asterisk, further indicating how personal comforts are a big part of identity label choice.

FTM/Female to male/MTF/Male to female

Often used by binary identified transgender people, these identity labels are used as a shorthand way of indicating the gender the individual was assigned at birth, and what they currently identify as. The terms don’t necessarily imply ‘I was a man and I am now a woman’ for example, as many MTFs would also say that they were always women, simply assigned incorrectly at birth based on their genitals. Thus the implication of having changed from one thing to another is something some trans people have a problem with, whilst others still find the identity label useful.

Transsexual/Transsexual person/Transsexual female/Transsexual woman/Transsexual male/Transsexual man

Transsexual is now quite an old-fashioned term, most associated with medical language and discourses of the mid-20th century. Many trans people don’t like the term or may find it offensive, but others may embrace it, particularly older trans people. The term is also typically used in a binary fashion.  Transsexual females/women are women who were assigned male at birth. Transsexual men/males are men who were assigned female at birth. Some people make a distinction between transsexual and transgender based on whether gender affirming surgeries have been undertaken, but this isn’t very common and can problematically create some artificial distinction between men and women who have certain medical procedures and those who don’t.

Cis/Cisgender/Cis female/Cis woman/Cisgender female/Cisgender woman/Cis male/Cis man/Cisgender male/Cisgender man

Cis is simply short for cisgender. Cisgender is the ‘opposite’ of transgender, and is used to indicate that a person identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. So if at birth the doctor exclaimed ‘it’s a girl!’ and that person grew up to say ‘yes, I identify as female’ – that person is cisgender. Some individuals have claimed this is a slur, which is nonsense – the term exists as a neutral way to talk about people who are not trans, without positioning cisness as ‘the normal’ gender identity, or that ‘man/woman = cis man/cis woman’, which is the product of cissexism.

Book Review: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

So at the top of the GenderBen homepage there has been a forlornly empty tab dedicated to book reviews. Today marks the day when this emptiness is no more! This tab will be where links to any book reviews I write can be easily looked up.

It’s probably not normal procedure to open a review with a huge endorsement, but I will be very (and delightfully) surprised if I read any book as thought provoking, clear, useful, and important as this one for quite some time. With the subtitle ‘A Transexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity’, Serano utilises structural and stylistic devices in her book that make it a real breath of fresh air compared to many stodgy collections of gender essays and other works useful to scholars of gender.

An incredibly important element of the book which I thought was handled more masterfully than any other gender book I’ve seen was the clarity with which technical terms are used. Also the recognition of the different ways such can be used or understood by different people helps support not only her own robust arguments but also shine a revealing light on the assumptions, misconceptions and prejudices of others.

For example, very early in the book a distinction is made between transphobia, defined by Serano as “an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against people whose gendered identities, appearances, or behaviors deviate from societal norms.”  and cissexism, defined as “the belief that transsexuals’ identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than, those of cissexuals.” This allows for an analysis that recognises differences in experience based on whether individuals identify as or experience being transsexual as opposed to transgender.

Whilst these are terms that are often used interchangeably (as are cissexism and transphobia), Serano uses the word ‘transsexual’ to refer to individuals who specifically were assigned a given gender at birth, and wish to transition from this (most often referring to MtF and FtM transitions, though appreciation of non-binary identities is also given). Transgender is used as a more general term to allow discussion of issues in a broader sense that may impact upon individuals who may identify as a cross-dresser, as butch, effeminate, queer, or any number of other non-conforming gender identities. The point is made though that “The focus on “transgender” as a one-size-fits-all category for those who “transgress binary gender norms” has inadvertently erased the struggles faced by those of us who lie at the intersection of multiple forms of gender-based prejudice.” Lack of commonality between individuals who may be described by the same terms receives the important attention it deserves. Serano manages to carefully define a large number of gender terms to allow for construction of excellent arguments and observations based on this without simplifying or invisibilising individual experiences as caveats and clarifications are also abound in the text without becoming overwhelming.

The second chapter offers direct commentary on the portrayal of trans individuals in the media, both in fictional and non-fictional circumstances. With films and TV shows covered including The Crying GameAce Ventura Pet Detective, Jerry Springer and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a perhaps controversially critical analysis is given yet it’s very difficult to fault. The only criticism I have of this section of the book is a small factual inaccuracy made when describing what happens in Ace Ventura. It is claimed that a large group of police officers proceed to vomit after having it revealed to them that the film’s villain who is portrayed as female throughout the film  possesses a penis and testicles. They actually all begin spitting – the ‘joke’ being that they have all kissed her at some point, in reference to her having kissed Ace at an earlier point in the film. This hardly makes a huge difference to the nature of the analysis in pointing out unambigous homophobia, and portrayal of a trans individual as ‘deceptive’, and ‘really a man’. The analysis of media output in this chapter rests on trans characters usually falling into one of two patterns, either ‘pathetic’ or ‘deceptive’. Whilst such a binary analysis may seem simplistic, its impressive (and alarming) point is disappointingly supported by a good range of sources cited.

The book repeatedly draws upon the author’s personal experiences, in terms of both how other individuals have responded to her gender identity and gender presentation, but also her direct experiences of dysphoria and ‘gender dissonance’, and the sensation of one’s hormonal profile changing. These accounts are not only very brave (and indeed an honour for the reader – it is a privilege to know the intimate details of an individual’s transition experience), but also tie in important discussion of biological difference to produce an argument that “socialization acts to exaggerate biological gender differences that already exist”. Serano is not only valuably situated as having experienced different gender identities in her life, but also possesses great familiarity with queer theory and the social sciences literature AND a PhD in biochemistry and a scientific career. Such multi-disciplinary scholarship coupled with vital personal experience packs a serious punch. In saying this I of course do not wish to imply that Serano’s PhD and scholarship makes her accounts and arguments on transgender politics and experience superior to the experiences recounted by other trans people. Serano however occupies an uncommon position in possessing such awareness of intersectionality, plus personal understanding of disparate academic and gendered experiences.

The largest chapter in the book is titled “Pathological Science: Debunking Sexological and Sociological Models of Transgenderism”, and gives not only an excellent historical overview but also challenges some methodological problems with scientific modes of inquiry (such as disconnection of the author from work done, or the assumption that some kind of true objective position is actually possible). Discourse on medicalisation, the cissexist declarations made by various feminists, and how masculinity and femininity are considered are tied together in an accessible manner. This leads into a chapter dealing with the dismantling of cissexual privilege which I found provided more clarity and focus than I had achieved through my own introspection, even given that I am actively engaged with trying to be the best ally I can be.

All of this, together with a most original chapter where the appropriation of intersex and transsexual identities in art and academia is critiqued makes up part one of two of this book. The sensation I had from reading each of these two parts was rather different. Part one contained a greater range of material, and had more of an ‘academic’ structure – unsurprising as this half of the book was subtitled ‘Trans/Gender Theory’ – whilst the second section (Trans Women, Femininity, and Feminism) is pithier and contains a greater sense of polemicism. Three of the ten chapters of this section contain only 4 pages each, but each has its place and each makes a point. I had a small sense that some material was repeated, giving me the sense that some chapters were written independently from consideration of the book as a whole, and I felt I gained more from Part 1 than Part 2. This is a book where each chapter stands alone quite well – not quite separate essays, but not a book that necessitates being read linearly from start to finish. Maybe it’s only because I did read it through from start to finish that made me wish for more of a sense of ‘wrapped up conclusion’, but these are ephemeral concerns. In writing this review it was difficult to not write condensed, reworded versions of every chapter, such was the importance of their contents that resonated with me. This book is too important to not be more widely read. One becomes a better human for reading this book.

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