Monday, 10 December 2012

Narrative, Imperative

Stories have power.

The stories we tell about ourselves ("I was born a girl, but I've always felt like a boy"). The stories we tell to ourselves ("I used to live as a girl, but that doesn't make me any less of a man, because I wasn't doing it right"). The stories others tell about us ("she's some weirdo who thinks she's a boy"). The stories society tells us ("transitioning is difficult and shameful and a Big Deal"). The stories society tells others about us ("trannies are freaks").

And then, there are the stories we tell each other, about ourselves.

When I was growing up, it was TV that told me stories; more specifically, it was sitcoms that told me stories, about people in general, and men and women in particular. They were glib, lazy, stereotyped stories. With every poorly written female character, they told me "Girls aren't funny". With every cheap smutty joke, they told me "Men only think about sex". With every hetero-domestic scene of a nagging girlfriend and henpecked boyfriend, they told me "All relationships are like this". And with everything they missed out, every character, every characteristic, every mode of being or doing or relating, they told me "The world is narrow, and there's no place for you in it".

The world I saw in stories was so much narrower than the world I've grown up to live in.

We all absorb stories like this, stories about a world that isn't quite our own. (If this didn't happen to you when you were growing up, please, tell me how you managed it.) Mainstream media, popular culture, is hard to ignore - even if you don't have a TV - and it shapes the way we see the world, the way we see ourselves. Stories are what give us the power to imagine what paths our lives might take. If you're an outsider of any stripe, if you don't see yourself in any character in any story, you can feel horribly alone. As a girl, I could only imagine myself growing up to be a poorly written, humourless, nagging stereotype. As a trans* boy, the only story I saw reflecting me was that of Brandon Teena.

But this is changing. There's a whole world of new worlds out there being storified, making their modest way into the undercurrents of popular culture, a broad world of broad stories composited together from the worlds of all the minorities who are seldom given a voice by the mainstream media. When I was growing up, it was TV that told me stories. But now that I'm grown, it's the Internet. (Who else?)

The more I discover about fan-fiction, the more I fall in love with what it can do. Fanfic, or "transformative works" - taking an existing plot, character, framework, and transforming it into a completely new story. Sometimes it's faithful to the original creator's intent, but sometimes it utterly turns it on its head - and when the intent was dubious, that can work magic. A good work of fanfic can make you realise that there were more sides to a story than the creator ever explored, or even thought of. It can elegantly point up the utter failures of imagination or empathy or tact that a mainstream writer can perpetrate. What's more, the body of fanfic taken as a whole contains absolute shitloads of porn, and THIS IS AMAZING, because there is space for every predilection, every orientation, every fetish, every harmless little fantasy or desire for a consensual act that any lost, lonely, "freakish" pubescent has ever spent needless hours shamefully anguishing over.

Even within a fandom like Red Dwarf (a show where - much as I love it - the girls aren't funny, the men only think about sex, and the writers once had a thankfully-never-used plot idea for a "gay ray"), you will find queer gems, and plenty of them. In the Red Dwarf universe, the charismatic space hero Ace Rimmer roves the dimensions rescuing and then bedding swooning damsels-in-distress. In the fanfic universe, his character is the jumping-off point for a humorous parable about asexuality. In the Red Dwarf universe, a male-identified mechanoid with no (count 'em: no) genitalia is classified as female (wahey, definition-by-absence!) for bunk allocation purposes, and, um, hilariously decides to make himself an animatronic penis in order to get reclassified as male. In the fanfic universe, this plot arc (minus the animatronic penis part) becomes an apt metaphor for gender dysphoria. (And as for the absolute shitloads of kinky multi-orientation porn, well, someone's currently writing a multi-chapter male-on-male epic called Fifty Shades of Smeg. I'll just put that out there...)

Even more important than the stories which rewrite a narrow universe to give a place to the overlooked outsiders, though, are the ones which turn on their head a negative portrayal of these outsiders. (My own modest contribution to Red Dwarf fanfic came about from a burning desire to do just that, and I must say that writing it really helped me work through the simmering resentment.) Take Natalie Reed's mind-blowing transformative essay about the vile Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. As the reader comments testify, this film was many trans* girls' first exposure to anything resembling a story "about them"; unsurprisingly, for a lot of them it contributed greatly to a sense of internalised transphobia, set them several steps back in their decisions to transition, and/or was a horrendously triggering experience requiring extensive repression. Reed retells the story from the point of view of the transsexual "villain", and the perspective shift creates a masterwork, helping trans* and cis* readers alike to fully work through and be justifiably outraged at the film's assault on their childhood consciousnesses, and showing up exactly how much of a hideous affront to decency we can be persuaded to swallow when we're fed it as a "story" by the mainstream media.

We instinctively hold up those whose work makes it into the mainstream as "special", talented, obviously superior by virtue of the fact that they've "made it". This, of course, ignores a million issues of fluke or zeitgeist or opportunism or systemic oppression or just plain stubborn determination that might have started them higher up on the playing field. It can take decades before we learn that the story-world is narrow because it only reflects the worlds of a very narrow set of people: the largely Straight White Able Cis Guys TM who "make it". At last, with growing Internet communities, we have the tools to learn this before the narrowness does us too much damage - not just fanfic, giving a voice to people from broader worlds who might be just as talented, but also fora where we can discuss and deconstruct problematic story elements the moment they're broadcast. Fanfic and other transformative works help to reinforce the lesson that not everything is black and white, that every story can be seen from another perspective (a perspective that's just as valid), and that we don't simply have to accept the boundaries Straight White Able Cis Guys TM impose on the world.

Mainstream writers have immense power: they are the only ones who are allowed to tell our stories (if they choose to tell them at all) where they will be heard. But engaging with fanfic, taking the products of these writers' cultural power and twisting them, is empowering. A cheap joke targeting a minority group has the power to reach maybe a million viewers, make a subset of them chuckle for a few seconds, and infinitesimally reinforce their already-sturdy prejudices before being forever forgotten. But a transformative work overturning that joke has the power to stay with its hundred or so readers for a long, long time, fondly remembered as their comforter in a time of need, the one friend who stuck up for them when nobody else would, who reassured them "hey, you're not the only one who thought that wasn't cool".

Once a story's told, once it's out there in the public domain, we can do anything we like to it, original authorial intent be damned. (I believe that's called "the death of the author", and it would certainly be rather enjoyable to imagine you were killing whatever moron wrote Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.) Lots of mainstream writers aren't happy with that, of course; George R. R. Martin is quoted in Time magazine as saying "My characters are my children ... I don't want people making off with them, thank you. Even people who say they love my children." But, as the (highly readable) article concludes, that's what happens to children - they grow up and move on. They fall in love with people you wouldn't approve of. They follow career paths that aren't what you hoped for for them. Above all, they grow up in a different generation, a different era from yours, subject to different influences, in - perhaps - a more enlightened time.

Children are our future, as the cliché goes. And transformative works certainly give me hope for the future.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Mindset Entitlement

When I was at school, we had a debating society. Whenever the motion was "x should not be compulsory", I would be in favour. And whenever I spoke in one of these debates, I would lose. Combined Cadet Force should not be compulsory? Nah, why not? You get to fly planes and shit. It's cool. Therefore everyone should be forced to do it. Sports lessons should not be compulsory? Nah, why not? You get to play hockey, and I like hockey. Therefore everyone should be forced to do it.

I always made the same points: something not being compulsory didn't mean that you wouldn't be able to do it if you enjoyed it; some people don't enjoy it and they should be spared that pain. And the debate always played out the same way: an audience where the majority enjoyed the activity under discussion sat, listened, and gave a collective "meh" of approval for dictatorship.

In my post reviewing three works of trans* literature, I touched on Julia Serano's theory of "gender entitlement" - the tendency (in trans* as well as cis people) to assume that everyone's experience of gender is the same as yours. I'm starting to wonder whether a lot of prejudiced behaviour in other contexts stems from a similar tendency to project one's own experiences onto everyone else - a sort of "mindset entitlement", if you will.

The most common examples of this tendency are relatively harmless. If, say, somebody really hates the idea of having to sing, and has gone along with some friends to a karaoke bar to be companionable and watch and drink and chat, it's really not fair for eir friends to start trying to coax em into doing a song. And because their mindset entitlement tells them that karaoke is fun, singing's not a big deal, they might compound eir discomfort by repeatedly trying to persuade em, or by incredulously asking em why ey doesn't want to join in, or - cardinal sin - by just ignoring eir protests and putting in a song request on eir behalf.

It's easy to fall into this trap of mindset entitlement - to kid ourselves that the odd-person-out wants to join in really, or that ey'll enjoy it when ey finally tries it (asexual people get that one a lot!), or that the enjoyment we feel from being part of a big group with everyone joining in with what we love has greater priority than the discomfort ey feels from being made to join in. And if ey points out to us how upset we've made em feel, it can come as a real shock.

It's understandable, it's only human, to feel shocked when we realise we've unintentionally been hurtful or disrespectful. Having one's mindset entitlement challenged can provoke painful cognitive dissonance - if everyone doesn't see things in the same way as we do, then perhaps we're the ones who are "wrong", or "crazy", or "mean". We set up powerful buffers of denial in our heads to try to avoid confronting these horrible possibilities; this usually results in us making matters worse by trying to protest our innocence (which, in these matters, implicitly means protesting the injured party's guilt), or by deciding that everyone is so damn over-sensitive and "politically correct" these days that it's hard to say or do anything without being lambasted for it, so we might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. (And thus a troll is born.)

Okay, it's hard to say sorry, and it's even harder to admit - to ourselves - that we might have done something wrong. But where mindset entitlement is coupled with privilege, it can have horrendous effects on the people who are further down the privilege scale.

Take "invisible disabilities". Someone who doesn't suffer from depression, Asperger's or chronic fatigue (for example) can't possibly understand what it's like to feel so down that ey literally can't get out of bed, or to find public spaces so overwhelming with stimulus that eir system basically shuts down, or to be able to walk for 200 metres but then be so exhausted by the effort that ey later on collapses immobile and sleeps for 16 hours straight. But there are two possible responses to not being able to understand something like that. You can accept that, although it's totally outside your experience, it's true for some people. Or you can let mindset entitlement instinctively kick in, decide that these people must be "faking it", and (egged on by the current Tory climate of "burn the benefit cheats") contribute to the massive rise in scapegoating and harassment of disabled people.

It's bad enough when this "entitled" view of other people's mental states just leads to ableism from the general populace, but when entitled people are put in charge of official bodies, that's when the issue becomes one of accessibility. Mindset entitlement creates accessibility problems when, for example, the people in charge of making forms, or arranging toilet facilities, have no idea of how much it hurts some people to be forced to choose a binary gender box. Everyone makes mistakes and it's hard to remember to consider every possible accessibility barrier all of the time; if somebody doesn't think to set up a ramp at a venue and a wheelchair user complains, you'd expect em at the very least to apologise and ensure that the (obvious, visible) mistake was rectified. But when a person's accessibility difficulties are not apparently physical or visible, it's easy to let mindset entitlement prompt you to tell em to just "deal with it" or "get over it". Like, for example, if ey requests that you use trigger warnings in things you post or share.

As with all the other examples, mindset entitlement leads people to think they can guess what it's like. When told that mention of certain distressing topics can "trigger" certain people, they imagine that being "triggered" is just like being offended or being nauseated or being scared - feelings that they've manfully (I use the term advisedly) learnt to sit through or push down, because nobody likes a crybaby, and it's just making a fuss over nothing, isn't it? They don't for one second imagine that being triggered can involve a full-blown episode of post-traumatic stress disorder.

It's natural, when attempting to understand someone's feelings, to look for a probable analogue in feelings one has had oneself. But sometimes you just can't understand... and people who behave with mindset entitlement would much rather make false assumptions, and be offensive and disrespectful and dismissive and hurtful and mocking, than admit that there is something in the world that they can't understand. Sometimes you just have to look at a reported experience, and go "Huh, I can't even begin to imagine what that must be like," and take the reporter on trust, and support em when ey says that certain things, certain little things that you take for granted your ability to overcome, hurt em deeply.

And sometimes - often, in fact - that involves admitting you're wrong, and realising you've been an arse, and feeling like shit. Sometimes you'll be tempted to duck out of those painful responsibilities, and write it off as "just a little thing", you "didn't mean to", the other person "shouldn't have taken it so seriously". But remember that if you let yourself be guided by your mindset entitlement in the little matters, the seemingly harmless matters, you run the risk of behaving in an immature, entitled, privileged, prejudiced way where the bigger matters are concerned. Accessibility, ableism and acceptance shouldn't be treated like motions in a school debating society. We are old enough and mature enough to start trying to accept the mind-boggling truth: other people's perspectives can be different from ours, and just as valid.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Male Privilege for Speakers of Other Languages

It's difficult, questioning one's gender. So many different things are thrown haphazardly together under the label "gender" that it's hard to disentangle the parts that are really you. Is it in the way you behave? Does a long-held disdain for pretty clothes and dollies prove that you're "really a boy" - or does it only prove that you're scared to be seen to like anything "girly"? Does the fact that you are softly-spoken and sensitive mean that you could never become a "real man" - or does it just mean that you were never taught to choke back your vulnerabilities as a child? By the time you start to realise that so much of your "outer" gender was carefully, unconsciously constructed while you grew up, you can no longer tell which aspects of your character would have been different if you'd been encouraged to behave in different ways. You can no longer be sure where your "outer" gender ends and your "inner" gender begins.

So you conduct experiments. I've gradually been teaching myself male privilege. Since I began experimentally identifying as transmasculine, I've been experimentally adopting more masculine-coded behaviours. It's partly to see if I'll pass better, and partly to see if it feels more natural, and partly to find out just how easy it is to re-train oneself in all of these "innately" binary characteristics. And I'm inclined to conclude that outer gender - the way you behave and express yourself when you are conscious of other people's gendered expectations - is not innate, but learnt... and with practice, you can learn a new one. Having been taught "female" as a native gender, I'm slowly becoming fluent in "male".

The thing that's changed the most is my confidence - or, more specifically, my ability to act as though I am confident. I always struggled with a lack of confidence growing up, which was deeply linked to a fear of failure or criticism. Finally finding safe and supportive spaces went a long way towards mitigating these tendencies. But I still worried about what people thought about me, even within my safe spaces, surrounded by friends who loved me for who I was, whatever my flaws. I was still scared to behave in certain ways, selfish or careless or impulsive ways, in case people thought less of me.

It wasn't until I started consciously trying on some male behaviours that I found the freedom, the confidence, to do that - to be selfish, to say thoughtless things, to make jokes that might fall flat, and to not care. Obviously, these are character traits that aren't very positive if you take them to an extreme. But they're all about daring. If you dare to be selfish at the times when you really just can't cope with being selfless any more, you might save yourself from a breakdown. If you dare to make a questionable joke, it might fall flat, or on the other hand, it might get the biggest laugh of the evening through its sheer edginess. If you dare to do something impulsive, it might go badly wrong, or it might be a genius move. And, of course, it's about daring to be a flawed human being. We are all flawed, we are all selfish sometimes, we all say rude things or behave thoughtlessly sometimes, and yet the people who matter love us all the same. Not all of us have the confidence to believe that's true.

Who dares wins. And, in our culture, it's boys who are taught, gradually, incrementally, cumulatively, to dare. The proof is found in sociolinguistic evidence that male-assigned people tend to interrupt more than female-assigned people; in the overwhelming gender disparity in fields such as comedy or politics where the risk of being shot down is high; in the way that seminars about "unblocking creativity" and "finding your voice" are attended overwhelmingly by female-assigned people.

Some might see that as "proof that men and women are different" - proof that inner gender is binary in just the same way as outer gender. But would that make sense, given that I could never have found the confidence to risk behaving like a bit of a dickhead when I was presenting as female? Or that I, who used to be incredibly emotionally over-reactive, have drastically reduced the regularity with which I cry about things, simply by wondering what it's like to have internalised the mantra "boys don't cry" and seeing what happens if I don't allow myself to let go? (Compare the trans women who have the opposite experience, and find that, long before any hormone therapy, they are a lot more able to let themselves cry.) I've even had to stop myself on occasion from being borderline misogynistic: I could get away with idly objectifying female-presenting strangers, or steamrollering female-identified friends in lively discussions, just because it's expected of men and allowed for, and that's a temptation that's difficult to fight.

Try consciously learning to speak a foreign outer gender for a few months. See whether you manage to re-condition yourself; see whether that "proof" that inner gender is naturally binary still holds up. And if you don't manage it, ask: what's stopping you? Who's stopping you? The deeply-ingrained fear of social opprobrium is a very powerful force. People who don't live up to gender norms - men who don't dare, men who don't "banter", men who don't push themselves forward - are subjected to it. People who live up to the wrong gender norms - men who cry, women who interrupt - are subjected to it even more forcefully. And if you're a man who's crying, you're not just a person who's been overcome by a strong feeling (it might be justified, or it might be a bit over-dramatic, but it's generally acceptable) - you're a pussy. If you're a woman who frequently interrupts, you're not just a person who's a bit irritating (the interruptions might be amusing, they might just be asinine, but they're generally tolerated) - you're a ball-breaker.

Perhaps I would eventually have learnt to be confident, learnt to dare, if I had stayed thinking of myself as female. But it's easier to dare when you don't risk as much. It's easier to dare when you're expected to dare, and it's easier to cry when you're expected to cry. Both behaviours are healthy, but not all healthy behaviours are equally permissible to all people. And that's the injustice that I'm thinking about when I declare that I'm a feminist. That's the depressing reality that makes me want to "smash the binary". People can keep their inner genders, be as binary or non-binary as they want, be men or women or neither or both or manly or effeminate or butch or feminine or sensitive or selfish - but outer gender has to go.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Mx-ing it up

Mx (title, pronounced /məks/, by analogy with "Ms", or /mɪks/, as in "mix"): a handy alternative to those peskily gendered and status-specific titles "Mr", "Mrs", "Ms", "Miss". Variant form: Misc (from "miscellaneous").

I'm due to give blood again soon. So, like a good person, I went to and tried to book myself an appointment via the webform. Then I remembered what the webform looks like:

Note that mandatory field right there. If you want to cut down on faff (both for you and for the blood service) when you give blood, you have to - have to - be comfortable being addressed by one of Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss or Dr.

I think I'll just drop in and hope they've got a bed free. And so, I expect, will any Professors, Reverends, Sisters or Imams who turn up.

This might sound petty or facetious to you. After all, not many people feel distressed to the point of self-exclusion by being forced to identify themselves as either Mr, Mrs, Ms or Miss (even if they're actually Dr). But I, as it happens, am one of them. We're a minority, but there's quite a lot of us. We even have our own national campaign.

Here's a fun fact: in the UK, your title has no basis in law. If you're male-assigned, you're not legally obliged to call yourself "Mr [Surname]", just like female-assigned people can request to be referred to as "Miss" or "Ms" according to their preferences; what's more, they can adopt the title "Mrs" even if they're not married, and vice versa. Therefore, all these thousands of organisations who have mandatory title fields on their webforms are gaining essentially zero information by it. I strongly suspect that it's only requested (or rather, demanded) so that they can painlessly auto-fill the greeting "Dear [Title] [Surname] on their automated email replies. This can lead to hilarity when an organisation tries to be inclusive but doesn't quite think about it hard enough: a (binary-identified, incidentally) friend of mine selected the helpful option "Other" on a webform once, and got the response "Dear Other [Surname]"...

Mr, Miss, Mrs, Ms (etc.) are known as "courtesy titles"; that is, by saying "Dear Mrs Exampleface" instead of "Oi, Vera", correspondents (even automated ones) are supposed to be being courteous. But for many trans* people, it ends up being the other way round: we have to do the organisations the courtesy of selecting one of their woefully inadequate options. And while this is a minor annoyance on a webform, when individual correspondents know someone's trans* (like, for example, when they're the psychiatric "professionals" who are meant to be objectively reviewing someone's suitability for referral to a gender identity clinic), the "courtesy" title can become a vicious, disgusting weapon for making their prejudices clear.

The gender-neutral title "Mx" (or "Misc") won't solve all of these problems. But the more widespread and well-known it becomes, the more it can help English-speaking society to become more inclusive. Simply including it on a webform will help gender-variant people, or cis people who are uncomfortable with being asked for unnecessary personal information, to feel more accepted. Meanwhile, those people who are blithely ignorant of gender issues are more likely to learn about them, and become more sensitive towards them, if they regularly encounter this strange new option on the drop-down menu and it piques their curiosity.

And, importantly, "Mx" doesn't have to be - shouldn't be - a title reserved only for non-binary-gendered people. It would actually be an incredibly useful resource at times when you're corresponding with a stranger and you're not sure whether ey's Mr or Ms. (This happens an awful lot in my office, and some of my colleagues waste ridiculous amounts of time googling "[foreign first name] gender" just so they can send a flipping letter.) We've all had someone take a punt and address us as "Miss" when we're actually "Ms", or as "Mrs" when we're actually "Dr" (or as all manner of things if we're called Sam, or Chris, or Alex, or...), and we smile, correct em and move on. If everyone who was unsure defaulted to "Mx" on first contact, it would work exactly the same way, but with a lower embarrassment/faff factor.

What's more, the receptionist at the medical institution who loudly calls out "Mr [Patient]?", when ey knows full well that the patient is, or might be, a trans woman, would no longer be able to innocently declare that ey "wasn't sure" or that the patient's first name "sounded like a man's name". Because in that case, ey bloody well could have, and should have, defaulted to Mx. Out of courtesy. And everyone in the waiting room, and at the institution, and who responds to formal complaints against receptionists, would know that.

But this will only happen if the gender-neutral, status-neutral, assumption-neutral title "Mx", or its variant "Misc", or both, becomes more widespread. And as a linguistics graduate, I can assure you that the way to make a new word widespread is to use it. The UK Deed Poll Service has already started accepting it. The more examples we can give of it being used in official documents, like bank statements or council tax bills (I treasure mine proudly), the more leverage we have when trying to convince other organisations to include it in their databases.

I'm slowly beginning the long and irritating process of trying to get my title changed in all my records to Mx (and complaining when I can't). It's the teaspoon effect - it's a tiny action, and it's a drop in the ocean of the status quo, but every drop has ripples. If you're a binary-identified ally reading this, what are your teaspoon options? Well, there's a petition you could sign, for a start (incidentally, the petition claims that Mx is short for "Mixter", which many people dislike somewhat or suspect to be unfounded, but I'd sooner sign a slightly dubiously worded petition than none at all). But since you're not legally obliged to use a title which reflects your gender, or your marital status, or anything else, you could always consider doing the same as me.

Think about it. Think hard, and fully explore the vague, irrational discomfort you feel when you imagine calling yourself Mx [Surname], and getting letters addressed to it, and and having it called out in doctors' wating rooms. Now reconsider whether I'm really being so petty.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012


1. ( To write or print (a letter or word) using the closest corresponding letters of a different alphabet or language.
2. (adj., also "trans-literate") Well-versed in transgender theory and/or experiences.

OK, I made that second one up. I like wordplay. But it strikes me that trying to write intelligibly about trans* experiences bears some similarities to transliterating text between one alphabet and another. Being trans* is one of those ineffable personal experiences that are very hard to wrap one's head around without direct experience. More than that, there's such a vast range of differing trans* experiences (as I always encourage readers of this blog to remember: YMMV) that it's often hard for trans* people to understand each other's experiences. All one can do is try and decipher little snatches of one's own vast and indescribable depth of feeling, and then attempt to re-encode them in a way that speakers of a completely different language might possibly begin to understand.

Thanks to my excellent local LGBT+ library, I've recently been trying to improve my trans-literacy, starting with three books that between them emphasise the YMMV principle: Jamison Green's Becoming a Visible Man, Julia Serano's Whipping Girl and Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw. These are the kinds of books that I wish (hope?) "gender professionals" would read, if nothing else so that they could recommend them to trans*/questioning individuals seeking counselling. It's vital (and difficult) to realise, as a trans* person, that there is no one way of being trans* - that one doesn't need to compromise or bemoan one's personality, sexual orientation, or even physical body, in order to accept and own a trans* identity.

Becoming a Visible Man is a "this is not just an FTM transition story" kind of book, written in an accessible style by a thoughtful, sensitive trans man whose experiences have fed into his belief in treating all people with dignity and respect. Whipping Girl, meanwhile, is a searing manifesto of trans-feminist theory, written with devastating insight by a trans woman biologist with a talent for seeking-and-destroying bullshit and hypocrisy. And Gender Outlaw is a form-echoes-content patchwork of ruminations, reminiscences and penetrating questions from a happily-transitioned MTF who is now coming to identify as genderfluid.

All three work hard on challenging and taking apart our tangled societal assumptions about all things gender, repeatedly making the point that physical sex, social gender, sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity are not necessarily connected. Many parents worry that because their son likes pink things he might grow up gay, and many adolescent FAABs who have a penchant for masculine clothing think that perhaps they must be lesbians (even though they're not actually attracted to women), and great swathes of people will boggle at the concept of an androsexual FTM or a gynesexual MTF. This assumption that gender expression = sexual orientation (= gender identity) is deeply ingrained into our culture, meaning that anybody who varies even slightly from the prescribed scripts of "manly straight man" or "girly straight woman" or "flamboyant gay man" or "ultra-femme 100%-androsexual trans woman" etc. immediately has a whole heap of internalised everything-phobia to deal with.

You don't have to have done a lot of untangling of all this bullshit in your head to become a happy self-accepting trans* person, but it helps. And it's exceedingly useful (to anyone who struggles with gender norms, not just trans* people) when such people write books about their untanglings that articulate what you were sort of thinking but just couldn't put into words. Serano insightfully pins down a widespread cultural devaluing of feminine qualities as being at the heart of a vast number of these assumptions and prejudices (from gay male fetishising of "butches" over "femmes", through feminist disdain towards women who enjoy expressing femininity, to the massive over-representation by science and the media of trans women over trans men). Meanwhile, Green opens with a knife-sharp chapter mischievously knocking down accepted ideas about "the two biological sexes" (a large portion of which is available on Amazon's "see inside this book" function, and I encourage you to have a read of that if of nothing else I review here).

What's more, you don't have to be a trans* person to have untangled some of this bullshit, but again, it helps: experiencing life "from both sides" (as it were), and needing to come to an unusually clear understanding of what it means to be a "man" or a "woman", have given these authors particular insights into the mechanisms of social, hormonal and psychological gender, and allowed them to think critically about which gendered expectations they do and don't wish to live up to. Or, sometimes, it doesn't: Bornstein struggled to understand the ineffable concept of gender all her pre-transition life, and although she loves her female body, and feels solidarity with those who experience the world as women, she still can't come to terms with gender other than as a social phenomenon, and a dubious one at best. Seeing it as a quietly insidious form of class-based oppression, she encourages us all (gently) to do as she does: to transgress it, thumb one's nose at it, ask it awkward questions, and point out that it (like the proverbial emperor) is wearing no clothes, at every possible opportunity.

I have great sympathy for Bornstein's position, which is why I was particularly intrigued to read Serano's theory of the "subconscious sex": an individual's mental sense of what form eir body ought to take. This subconscious sex is separate from the societal pressures that can affect a person's relationship with eir gender or gendered body; it is just there, effectively existing in a vacuum, a quiet insistence that there ought to be a vagina there, for example - whether or not there actually is a vagina there, or whether or not the person in question identifies as female-gendered. I'm not sure I have a subconscious sex, and it seems from Bornstein's writing that she probably doesn't either;. While people like us, the gender-bewildered, have many valid things to say about the negative aspects of social gender, we must remember that our insistence on destroying the binary can offend or alienate those people (cis or trans*) who do have a subconscious sex. In Serano's terminology, we must avoid behaving with "gender entitlement": the unconscious tendency to project one's own individual experience of gender onto everyone else.

In trans* people, the subconscious sex can be a massive source of physical dysphoria. In cis people, it can be a massive source of gender entitlement. Cis people, Serano reasons, usually have a subconscious sex - they just don't notice it, because it aligns more or less perfectly with their physical sex (and, to a greater or lesser extent, their social gender). Therefore, having no experience of gender dysphoria, they may be unable to understand or believe trans* people when they insist that they are a gender other than the one assigned to them. It can also lead to fractures within the trans* community, based on entitled assumptions of "my experience is the transsexual experience - your experience does not match mine - therefore you are not a true transsexual".

In both cases, the entitled behaviour can stem from an underlying insecurity in one's own gender, a fear that the way one experiences one's own identity might not be "valid". However, those who are brave enough to put aside these layers of defensiveness and try to empathise with other people's perspectives can gain a great deal from it. The initially reluctant Green gradually became deeply involved in the evolving FTM community of the 80s/90s, during which time he got to know (either face-to-face or via correspondence) more trans* people, each with a different trans* experience, than most gatekeepers would ever meet. The result is a text which is imbued with a deep consciousness of and respect for each individual's perspective on gender, and is richer for it. Very few of the (numerous) books, scholarly articles and scientific studies about trans* people have this level of real understanding of their subjects, Serano argues. Most of the "gender professionals", theorists or polemicists who wrote them didn't actually bother to properly get to know any trans* people, and this is why she feels that books like the ones I've discussed here, books written about the trans* experience by trans* people, are so important if we want to come to any meaningful conclusions about gender and those who struggle with it.

Transliterating between alphabets is not the same as translating between languages: all it does is make the words legible, rather than comprehensible. Some extra work is required by the reader if ey is to understand their meaning; ey must try to learn some elements of the writer's native language. Therefore, while I heartily applaud these three authors' prodigious efforts at transliterating their unique experiences into relatable stories, the onus is now on us to become trans-literate.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Gender in theory and in practice

Drafted on 26/3/12

My GP is an exceedingly nice guy, and he's not - can't be expected to be - a trans* expert. He performed the last(?) of his gatekeeping duties for me this morning with endearing humility, constantly apologising for being so "challenging" as he asked me probing questions. As he explained, in future referrals, people were going to be similarly challenging, trying to make sure that I wasn't making a bad decision.

Although I can just about get my head round a world in which this has to happen (so what if I made a "bad decision"? why would it matter if I stopped taking testosterone after a few months then spent the rest of my life as a slightly hirsute woman with a low voice and clitoromegaly?), I was somewhat perturbed by the thought that, in order to access treatment, I would have to have my identity, my confidence in myself, constantly "challenged", and to constantly defend it. No wonder the referral process is so emotionally draining for the more fragile of us (and bear in mind that our experiences are likely to have made us fragile).

But what disturbed me more was the idea that the healthcare "professionals" who stand in our way might have such a simplistic, unprofessional idea of gender as was displayed in his questioning. I have been thinking about my gender for over half my life, off and on; as remarked an FTM acquaintance of mine (who on the face of it is the most masculine-conforming obvious candidate for the treatment), you have to deconstruct the binary before you can work out where you stand within it (and then, if appropriate, you put it back together with yourself firmly in the "other" bit). I have read blogs, books, resources, theory; I have answered for myself to my own satisfaction nearly all of the questions that feel relevant connected to the decision to "change sex".

I do not count among them the question "so if you're not planning to have surgery, what would happen if you started a relationship with someone?"

I am a very lucky person. I have an "alternative" worldview and I live in an "alternative" world which supports, celebrates and nourishes it. Very rarely does the "real" world intrude, the one where people aren't broad-minded and over-intellectualising, the one where people eschew critical thinking in favour of shocked instinctive reactions when faced with a "she-man". I've brainwashed reeducated myself more than sufficiently in matters of queer, [a]sex-positive and feminist theory to conclude "instinctively" that all relationships are different, all people are different, all genitalia are different, and there are a million and one ways of having sex, or not having sex, or having a relationship with a person primarily and eir genitalia second. The "professionals" who gatekeep gender have, in many cases and within the confines of what their job description demands of them, thought about these things only so far as concluding that they don't want to accidentally create freaks.

Perhaps it's unreasonable of me to raise an eyebrow at the question; I'm sure there are plenty of candidates for medical transition who don't want to be turned into freaks, or who honestly haven't thought about these things, or who would respond with an "unhealthy" plan for how they'd deal with such matters. But I would really hope that, rather than just being rejected for referral (which might seem to the "professionals" like the "safer" way of dealing with "confused" people, but in actual fact might lead to much greater distress and confusion than an ill-advised partial transition), such people would be given access further down the line to appropriate counselling. And by "appropriate", I mean "grounded in queer-positive theory": giving them the tools to accept that their genital configuration (whatever it is currently, whatever they would like it to be, and whatever it's likely to actually end up as) doesn't make them "freaks", doesn't mean they won't be able to have successful relationships, and doesn't make it "wrong" for them to obtain whatever sexual pleasure is available to them.

Easier said than done, perhaps, if said people are surrounded by that tiresome "real" world in which acquaintances disapprove of their actions. But even if they come to an understanding of themselves, their genders and their bodies which the "normal" people around them will never take the time to understand, it might be the key to their own self-acceptance and self-confidence - things which, if they've reached a point of suspecting themselves to be trans*, might otherwise remain a lifelong problem for them.

I freely admit that I'm an idealist, and perhaps naive with it. But that's because, in some respects, I live in an ideal world. By lucky chance, I've landed in a life situation where, as yet, my trans* status has not once caused me to be harassed, lose a friend or family member, or encounter friction or prejudice at work or in other social groups. I hear about less fortunate people, am "challenged" by my GP to consider how I'd feel if transition led me to encounter one of these negative scenarios, and I'm determined to prove that trans* life doesn't have to be like that. Maybe it won't happen; maybe I will get knocked back by a homophobic (or acephobic, but I've had relationships with men, so in their eyes, who's counting?) consultant, maybe work colleagues will start to swallow their acceptance once they realise it comes with facial hair. But that's the "real" world, and I never liked the sound of it much. I've already proven that, with a measure of good fortune and some boldness in seeking out progressive people, a trans* person can build eir own little world in which ey can live out eir gender happily.

Who really lives in the "real" world, anyway? We must pander to its demands and live under its conditions, and we can desire to change it or try to change it, but all of our happiness and security, all of our meaningful encounters, all of our little everyday triumphs and despairs that together mount up to "living", come from our Own Little Worlds. And the best we can possibly hope for, regardless of what the "real" world thinks of us, is to seek out or build or stumble upon a little world which feels right. I like mine. And if one day someone wants, really wants, to come and live in my corner of it with me, I guarantee that ey will not care about the shape of my genitals.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Where does the money go?

I recently got signed up to a company pension. I was given an appointment with a financial adviser, and presented with reams of documents to read through (if I chose - most people didn’t) beforehand. The documents were full of “tech specs” about the different pension schemes, likely growth and returns, projections of how much the pension would be worth on retirement under a myriad different conditions, financial jargon aplenty.

But there was one piece of information I couldn’t find, no matter how hard I tried: Where, exactly, were they going to invest my money?

I read through all the factsheets, found portfolios with names like “Sustainable” and “Ethical”, tried to work out what the words “Sustainable” and “Ethical” meant (short answer: they won’t invest in companies that gain more than 10% of their profits from arms dealing), went to my appointment, got talked at for five minutes about how much my pension would be worth when I retired, and the adviser was on the point of signing me up for the standard “new graduate who knows nothing about finance” package before I said “hang on a minute, I have ethical and sustainable priorities” and ey let me get a word in edgeways about what sort of scheme I actually wanted. And even then, ey couldn't really answer my question: where were they going to invest my money?

Banks like to tell you a lot about what you’ll get back if you invest with them, but they’re less keen to tell you what’s in it for them. As we’ve discovered in recent months, years even, the answer is often “quite a lot”. They’re even less keen to tell you how it all even works. And as I discovered, the answer is often “nobody knows”.

The bank will invest your pension money in whatever stocks and shares are likely to get you the best returns. They can't tell you what companies your money will be invested into, because even they don't know from day to day. This means it could be going virtually anywhere. It means it could be funding virtually anything. And the more of your money that goes into some promising new up-and-coming arms dealership, the more said dealership will be able to expand its business, and it’ll become even more promising and up-and-coming, and even more banks will invest even more of even more people’s pension pots into it, and...

In the “About Me” section of this blog, I state that I’m an anti-capitalist. That’s not entirely true. In the purest sense of the word, the non-ideological sense, I’m a capitalist.

My pension money (capital) is being loaned to businesses, who knows which, could be Vodafone, could be HSBC, could be Prudential*, and this capital is allowing them to expand their activity and make more money in turn, and they’re thanking me by giving me returns on my capital. In fact, if you have any form of savings (and I’m pretty sure most people reading this will, even if they also have a far greater amount of student debt), you’re a capitalist too. Your money, whether you like it or not, is being reinvested by your bank in whatever industries they think best. (Protip: these will be the ones that create lots of wealth for their customers and keep them from all walking out in search of a better interest rate. Conscience be damned.)
*all of these were among the top holdings last year for the pension scheme I now have; judge their sustainable and ethical credentials for yourself.

You might be the type to boycott Nestle or Unilever or Shell, or to buy fairtrade products when you can, but your money might be supporting all those companies and enabling unfair trade practices behind your back, to the tune of a lot more profit than you're withholding from them with your consumer choices. Even if you’re not the type to do any of those things, your savings money is probably one of your greatest sources of consumer power. If you’re investing it blindly, concentrating only on which investments will get you the highest returns (which is the only thing banks encourage you to concentrate on), you’ll gain marginally more interest, sure. But you’ll be contracting out your (small but significant) individual power to another much bigger, much more powerful entity - which can use your power, combined with everyone else’s power, to do basically whatever the fuck it likes.

Then again, once you start thinking about this, you realise that actually you do have a small but significant source of power which you never really thought about before. And that’s where being a capitalist becomes fun.

Around the same time as I was badgered into getting a pension of questionable ethical credentials, it was beginning to dawn on me that, for the first time in my life, I had regular income in excess of my outgoings. As a hopelessly naive idealist with a fuckton of middle-class guilt an aspiring young ideological anti-capitalist with a social conscience, I wanted to dispose of the disposable portion of my income responsibly. Giving to charity is what usually comes to mind for people of that inclination; microloans are another canny idea that’s been floating around my social network.

But what I was really excited to learn was that there are banks, proper banks, that offer a limited but functional range of common or garden personal savings products, and only invest your money, transparently, into sustainable, ethical, socially positive industries and charities. That way, once the capital’s been used to help one loan recipient get one project off the ground, and they’ve paid it back, it can be reinvested in another project, and another, and another... Why just give your money to charity when you could invest it in charity as well?

We're currently halfway through Move Your Money Month (okay, more like three-quarters - I'm sorry, I had a busy March...). The campaign is designed to harness the collective hacked-off-ness of everyone outraged by the recent (and not so recent) banking scandals, encouraging them to show their banks who really holds the (small, but collectively very significant) power, and vote with their feet, moving all that lovely capital to a more ethical alternative. Ethical Consumer, which has detailed reports on many companies' social and environmental impact but unfortunately charges a subscription fee to access them, has even joined in by giving free access to their Banking Special Report until the end of the month.

It would be great if this campaign meant more power to the elbows of Triodos, Shared Interest, or Charity Bank (to name a few). But it would be equally great if it also encouraged people to think about their own consumer power. The dominant narrative in our culture is that money gives you power to improve your own quality of life - which, of course, it does. But it's a very individualist, limited view. Once you get past a certain level of income, there's really not that much more improving you can do - would you really like to think that the only significant power or influence you could exert in the world was to buy yourself an iPad 2 to replace your iPad?

Personally, I'm happier forgoing that 0.25% extra on a competitive interest rate from a high street bank (which I think would translate roughly in buying terms to one bonus bottle of gin per year - 70cl, mind, and not the good stuff), if it means I can use my savings, my capital, my power, to enact my principles in the world and support the things I believe in. And that doesn't just go for charities - there are also crowdfunding websites springing up which let you "invest" in awesome projects your friends are working on. That's real consumer power, right there - directly funding the kind of arts and entertainment you'd like to see get produced. 

It's real capitalism, too (albeit with somewhat non-traditional returns on your investment). No indeed, there's nothing wrong with good old-fashioned, non-ideologically-perverted, base-form capitalism... (as for the kind of capitalism that I do think there's something wrong with? that'll be a whole 'nother post...)

As Move Your Money Month draws to a close, the end of the financial year approaches, and we continue to reel in shock after the Budget, why not have a think about what your money's doing behind your back, and what you'd like it to be doing? An extra bottle of gin per year, or the chance to reconnect with your neighbours (both local and global), play a part in shaping society and culture, and know that you are in control of all that hidden fiscal power... the choice is yours.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Why not just STFU and get on with it?

A friend of mine commented, regarding my post on [a]sexuality and self-identification, that ey thought the world would be better all round if people spent less time banging on about What They Like To Do In Bed (or similar), and more time just doing it.

Ey has a point. It prompted me to wonder why so many of these self-identification labels do revolve around What People Like To Do In Bed (bisexual, asexual, "sexual", pansexual, panromantic, aromantic, polyamorous, monogamous, sex-positive, kinky, vanilla, heteroromantic, gynesexual...). Why should What One Likes To Do In Bed be of anyone else's concern apart from the other person[s] in the bed?

The ones that don't (genderqueer, transmasculine, butch, femme, neuro-atypical, cisgender, feminist, neurotypical...) seem to have the broadly unifying characteristic of describing What You Are Like (stop me if I've missed something here). Presumably, if these labels describe What One Is Like, one spends most of one's time being like that - so why should one need to wave around a label proclaiming that One Is Like That?

Maybe there's a label to describe what the people are like who spend most of their time using labels to proclaim what they're like. That would be enjoyably meta.

The answer I came up with:

Actually, the sexuality labels don't just tell you what the person likes to do in bed. They tell you how ey negotiates some of the most intense and complex relationships someone can possibly have with [an]other human being[s]. They tell you, through eir choice of label (pansexual over bisexual, gyneromantic over homoromantic, "sexual" over "but... I'm not like that...!"), how ey views these other human beings, on what levels ey chooses to interact with them, and how ey responds to the ways eir sexuality is perceived in society at large.

In short, they tell you an awful lot about the most intimate facets of the person's character. In this way, they're just like the What You Are Like labels. If someone chooses to identify as genderqueer, ey's making clear the angle from which ey approaches interactions with other people, the way in which ey responds to the pressures and perceptions of society at large. If someone identifies (positively) as cisgender, ey's sending a message to other people that ey recognises the diversity of human experience and identity, and is willing to engage with them on a deeper level than would, say, Simon Hoggart.

It's funny that these issues of (largely) gender and sexuality are, essentially, the last great taboos* - in that even in These Enlightened Times TM, the vocabulary to describe them is mushrooming year on year, as people finally find the courage to try and express who they are. And, no, they shouldn't need to, it should be obvious from "what they're like". But it's not. If people don't stand up and wave their labels around, their true personalities will be ignored, drowned out by the default white noise of Everyone Is A Monogamous Heterosexual Man/Woman Who Behaves Exactly Like This [In Bed].

Sure, it saves time and effort. You're more than welcome to go with it. But personally, I prefer my interactions with other human beings to be more intense, complex, and rewarding - cos, y'know, people are fascinating!

And that's said as a true a-romantic. :)

*Okay maybe they're not I don't know I hope I haven't horribly offended someone with my sweeping ignorance please don't flame me :S

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Neuro-atypical Prophet

Image-editing competence provided by EHM :)
 Yes, that's supposed to be me.

Yes, I'm just as arrogant and po-faced as Morpheus.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The social model of social disability

Or: Neurotypiconormativity.

If you've seen my previous posts on the subject of Asperger's Syndrome (and autism spectrum conditions more generally), you'll know I'm exceedingly sceptical of the "science" behind it. You'll also know I'm fond of impressionistic ranting. :) Here, I'm attempting to set out my case in a slightly (but only slightly) less ranty and slightly more objective fashion.

[Mild] Asperger's could be described as a social disability: it hinders effective communication and socialising between those who have Asperger's and those who are neurotypical. And, indeed, that is the main way in which it's "disabling". When Science tries to quantify such conditions, it's taking the side of the medical model of disability - the model which says "Something is wrong with you and needs to be fixed".

I think that Asperger's (like many other "neurological conditions" and mental illnesses) desperately needs to be viewed using the social model of disability - the model which points out that if society happened to be organised differently, your disability wouldn't be a problem - i.e., functionally, you wouldn't be "disabled" (here's a primer on the pros and cons of both models, for those who would like more eloquence). Because, in my opinion, the medical/scientific model not only causes needless distress to the people it identifies as "disabled", but it also, well, just doesn't really make much sense.

Let me explain...


- The central tenet of an Asperger's diagnosis is this: "your brain is Wired Differently [from those of neurotypical people]".

- Therefore, even if you have improved in leaps and bounds since childhood to the extent that you have learnt (albeit with difficulty) most "normal" social skills, you still have Asperger's - you never grow out of it, and if you exhibited it in your childhood then you will always still have it, even if it no longer impedes your daily or social functioning.

(- Side note: Asperger's does not solely affect your social functioning, but in dealings with neurotypical people it's the aspect that's likely to cause most distress; all the rest is just internal quirks. After all, I lived quite happily for 24 years without realising that I have "impaired (social) imagination", i.e. although I can be quite creative and I write a lot, I can only really invent variations on themes I've already encountered, rather than pulling plots out of thin air.)

- My argument is this: Humans do not come in one-size-only. We all differ from the "template" (and I use the word in a loose sense) in various ways: different height, different hair colour, different nose shape, different IQ, different motor skills. I believe the label "neurotypical" means about as much as the label "brunette" - brown may be the most common human hair colour[1], but it comes in many subtle shades, and it isn't inherently "better" or "more normal" (the latter implying the former) than, oh I don't know, ginger. :)

[1] It isn't. Black is. At least, according to a Wikipedia article with no concrete references (apparently the Wikipedian has a vague memory that it was in National Geographic once). Sadly there is no cute word for "black-haired", so poetic license reigns.

- Furthermore, there are many things problematic about the diagnostic criteria for Asperger's. Each one of the Asperger's traits is also found to some extent among the neurotypical population - it's only when they occur in combination that they lead to the diagnosis of a "syndrome". I reckon that's only to be expected, when everybody's brain must vary infinitely in the way it's wired. We all know someone who's bad at reading people's moods, someone else who gets upset when eir routine is disturbed, someone else who has a remarkable memory for car numberplates, someone else who has a favourite subject about which ey will not shut up... so it's actually quite common for someone who would not achieve a professional diagnosis of Asperger's (i.e., someone who'd be labelled "neurotypical") to score within the autistic-spectrum range on Baron-Cohen's classic test (which is why it's not a reliable tool for self-diagnosis).

- However, the way "Asperger's Syndrome" (and other autism-type conditions) is presented is as a binary distinction. There are only two kinds of brain: "neurotypical", or "on-the-autistic-spectrum". Asperger's is at the high end of the spectrum, near "neurotypical". Except "neurotypical" isn't on the spectrum, because it's on the other side of the binary. Um, the binary between one thing, and another thing that's a spectrum. Yeah. Right. Isn't it likely that "neurotypical" is also a spectrum, going from "outgoing and bubbly" to "shy and geeky" to the point where the "shy and geeky neurotypical" would score highly enough on the AQ test to self-diagnose (incorrectly) as neuro-atypical? Isn't it likely that the spectra blend in the middle to make one big spectrum of just people?

- Well, no, it can't be, because of all that concrete neurological evidence about neurotypical brains and neuro-atypical brains, and the obvious ways in which they're different. Right?

"Unlike many other brain disorders..., autism does not have a clear unifying mechanism at either the molecular, cellular, or systems level." (
Right. Okay. So there's actually nothing that researchers can point to in the way of brain structure or brain functioning that says "Yep, that's an autistic-spectrum brain, and that's a neurotypical brain, and never the twain shall meet". This is why my assessment involved not one speck of empirical measurement of brain activity (e.g. MRI scanning), and relied solely on a neurotypical (we presume) clinician chatting with me and interpreting my responses. There's actually nothing that gets around the fact that all through your life your brain is changing, developing and creating new neural pathways with the result that perhaps one day, with lots of hard work reinforcing those brain connections that govern social interaction, the Asperger's child will grow into a neurotypical adult.

And yet they tell me, they told me to my face, that I've "clearly spent a lot of effort learning to function socially", to the extent that I'm "masking who [I] really am inside". In other words, I haven't learnt anything - I'm still a socially hopeless Asperger's case, and any appearance of being friendly, sociable or empathetic is just me blagging it.

Do not we all spend a lot of effort learning to function socially? Do not we all have to mask, to some extent, who we are inside? Do not we all regularly have to swallow down our impulses to be impolite or uninterested or self-obsessed or introverted, in order to make sure the social wheels stay oiled? Seriously. Neurotypical people may find it easier and more intuitive to learn social interaction than Asperger's people, but the way Asperger's is presented borders on implying that all neurotypicals are homogeneous saintly paradigms of effortless social perfection...

- So in essence, this is how Asperger's was discovered:
  • Ooh, that kid's a bit odd. So's that kid. That kid too, although at least he talks to people and doesn't just sit in the corner rocking all the time. In fact, he talks a hell of a lot, in a really boring way. How odd he is. He probably has a Syndrome.
  • Lots of people have this Syndrome! It causes them not to be able to interact properly with normal people like us.
  • This Syndrome must be caused by something in the brain! Let us hypothesise that Normal brains are inherently different from Syndromey brains, and look for what the difference is.
  • We haven't found anything in the actual brains yet, but it must be there. And if it's there, that means it'll never go away. What a shame. I'm so glad I'm normal.
(Fun game: substitute in the words 'male' and 'female' for 'normal' and 'syndromey', for hours of weakly-argued, poorly-thought-out satire on social constructs of gender!)

Whereas this is how it's presented:
  • We know for a fact that there is something weird about your brain. We say this with a conviction that implies that we've measured it empirically. The weirdness will never go away, and any attempt you make to interact properly with normal people will always underlyingly be inauthentic.
I could live with that diagnosis (although it would be fairly upsetting, see previous post) if it weren't for the fact that it's so obviously based on a medical model of disability (i.e. "if you are not normal, there's something wrong with you that needs fixing, um, except we don't know how to fix it, whoops") rather than a social model (i.e. "the difficulties encountered by people who are 'not normal' are a product of the way our society constructs 'normality', not of an inherent inferiority").

Show me something that's concretely, unchangeably unusual about the wiring of my brain, and I will accept your diagnosis without fuss. Show me that I don't fit into society right and claim it's neurological, and I'll show you something that's wrong with society.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Let's talk about sex(uals)

or: The self-definition problem.

I am immensely proud of my friend Jenni, who is on the BBC News website! Well, in the Magazine section, but that's still nearly news. ;) The article's mostly cut together from her segment in BBC Three's tiresomely-titled documentary "How Sex Works" - she's on at ~18 minutes in, talking about defining as asexual, in her usual articulate and incisive way. Asked to sum up what being asexual means, she helpfully soundbites:
"For me it basically just means that I don't look at people and think 'hmm yeah I'd have sex with you,' that just doesn't happen," says Jenni.
I don't do that either; as someone who defines as asexual (although is willing to consider that actually ey's just repressed ;) ), I've been reliably informed that Normal People Do, so I'm happy with that definition.

But some of my 'sexual' friends (yes, that's the converse of asexual - it means you do experience sexual attraction to people) are less happy. Fair play, they agree, it's a good job of summarising a complex concept in 5 seconds of a BBC Three programme which is mostly about twentysomethings getting off with as many people as possible. But even so, they say, I'm not like that, it's not just about that, I don't objectivise people like that... the unspoken subtext is "I'm not one of those sexuals".

And thus we find ourselves with a fascinating problem: when faced with the concept that asexuals exist and therefore by process of elimination they belong to the group "sexuals", some people suddenly realise that they're not comfortable with the way their group - the majority group - is portrayed in the media.

Usually this only happens with minority groups; one parallel is gay men in earlier decades potentially feeling dissuaded from coming out because of media-based assumptions that all gay men are ridiculously effeminate (Elton John, Julian Clary, Graham Norton, the guy from Will and Grace, Mr Humphries, any character James Dreyfus has ever played). Or perhaps they have come out and then well-meaning(?) friends have said "But you don't seem like a gay... are you sure?" But... you can't not come out as sexual, because the default assumption is that everyone is sexual. And the default portrayal of, well, everyone in the media goes roughly as follows:


This freaked me out rather when I was growing up, as did the accompanying incessant teen badgering of "who do you fancy? who do you fancy? would you do Jonny Wilkinson? you wouldn't do Jonny Wilkinson? you don't fancy anyone? then you must be a lesbian!", facilitated by magazines like J17 for girls or GQ (which sadly isn't short for "GenderQueer", but I like to amuse myself by pretending it is) for boys. Don't tell me it's not pervasive; don't blame me as a poor confused asexual for thinking you guys are all trying to shag each other right, left and centre (which is, incidentally, a fun party game). I've been reliably informed, remember? By... um... the media! They're reliable, right? You must all be like that! You mean you don't run around rubbing your thighs and panting as soon as you see someone hot? You can't really be one of those sexuals...

And this is why I'm incredibly excited (not like that) to see asexuality (finally) being discussed in the mainstream media. It's not just because greater visibility will benefit all those who haven't yet heard of the label and don't realise that it would fit them, that they're not alone, that there's a lively support network they can access. It's also because those who wouldn't self-define as asexual will be prompted to think more deeply about their orientation, and perhaps start to question the way SEX is dealt with in the media, and perhaps feel less ashamed to speak out as "different" the next time they're stuck in a game of nervous, exaggerated, face-saving sexual one-upmanship with friends who worry that not thinking about sex every seven seconds will make them look "gay". As the article mentions near the end:
The question that fascinates [University of Warwick sociologist] Carrigan is the future effect of a visible asexual community on people who are not asexual. [...]
Right on. But the self-definition problem crops up everywhere: discomfort with giving oneself a certain label because of the people you're then implicitly associated with. For example, until I was nearly in my twenties, I wouldn't have been caught dead calling myself a feminist, because the only "feminist" I'd met so far (protip: she really wasn't one) was a daffy female teacher who was obsessed with putting down men and provoking tiresome arguments about battles that had already been won. I've now learnt more about proper feminism and am proud to call myself a feminist in a bid to reclaim the label, but lots of people shy away from it for similar reasons.

Some deal with it by calling themselves something new (like "equalist"), which doesn't have the baggage of the past, but will never have the weight of history. I've just dealt with it by declaring that my "feminist" teacher wasn't a 'real' feminist - by denying her her self-defined identity. Is that allowed? Probably not; people do similar things all over the place. Another way of dealing with it is to sub-categorise yourself: for sexuals who aren't "that kind of sexual", or asexuals who aren't sure exactly which side of the "line" they are, there are conveniently divisive terms like demisexual and grey-asexual to help you narrow down your potential network of peers even further. Or, just don't label yourself at all... which works fine, until you find yourself labelled by implication ("if you aren't asexual, you must be sexual").

Fact #1: people will always try to label you. Fact #2: whatever label you end up with, you'll always be sharing it with a certain proportion of dickheads. In my opinion, the best thing you can do is choose your labels with care, and then BE AWESOME so loudly that you drown out the dickheads. So, my sexual friends, go for it: tell the world that you're sexual and proud, but that:
"I have never been obsessed with sex. I've not been one to have to go out at night and have to have someone to have sex with, because that's what people do… so I'm not all that concerned about it". [Jenni's partner Tim]
For every "label" you can think of, there are a million people using it who come in a million different shapes and sizes. Our society is starting to recognise inter-group variation to a much greater extent than only a few years previously (adding and accepting new labels like "asexual", "heteroromantic", "genderqueer", "neurotypical"), and this is frickin' awesome, but it's just the beginning. The much-needed next step is to come to recognise intra-group variation: whatever labels we take, we flavour them with our own uniquenesses.

Maybe society will gradually learn to accept that everyone, male or female (or, obviously, anything else), gay or straight (or... etc.), neurotypical or neuro-atypical, sexual or asexual or somewhere in between, is just part of a big lovely spectrum - no, not even that, a big lovely infinite space on twelve axes[1] - of people. A big ask, and hard to keep one's head wrapped around 24/7, so let's keep our labelly crutches for now. But let's never be afraid of them, ashamed of them, or constrained by them.

[1] Yeah I know. Shuddup.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Just Diagnosed: a post-assessment rant

This follows on from Autism: The Extreme Male Chauvinism Theory, and this post will make more sense if you've read that one. For the record, not once in my assessment was my genderqueerness mentioned, not until the very end when I brought it up after the assessor talked about some of my traits being characteristic of "females with Asperger's", and even then she had little to say about it - in fact, wasn't even aware of the FTM/autism research I quoted in the other post.

(What she did have to say was that, although The Research points to autistic spectrum conditions being more common among "males", she's seeing more and more "females" coming to be diagnosed, and had been chatting about this with Baron-Cohen. "Do more research then, I guess," I said. "Yeah, Simon, there's your answer," she laughed.)

Again, this is not a sympathy-post, this is a "this is what it's like, guys" post. If your immediate reaction is to post a comment saying "But that's really sad, cos I think you're awesome!", then a) I love you dearly, b) don't feel you have to bother, and c) I'd just like you to stop and think about why that's your reaction, and what the implications are for all this...

:) xx


I'm proud of who I am and I wouldn't want to be any other way - if this is what mild Asperger's Syndrome looks like, well then, sucks to be neurotypical, I reckon. A long time ago I decided that "being me" wasn't easy in some ways, but in other ways it made things so much more awesome that it more than made up for it. I wouldn't like to be like the people I don't understand, the people who don't get me, the neurotypicals, I suppose.

But what upsets me is the idea that all the great stuff I have in my head just comes from being on the autistic spectrum... because it implies that all this great stuff will only make sense to 'other neuroatypicals'.

I love looking at the world at a slant, I love taking my big hammer of overanalysis and smashing apart received opinions, I love being able to see that the world doesn't make any sense and it's all silly and arbitrary and ideas like gender and money and, uh, neurological conditions are just random social constructs.

But more than that, I want to be able to explain all this great stuff to other people, tell them my so-crazy-it-just-might-work ideas of a better world. And if it just-full-stop-won't make sense to neurotypical people... then there's no point trying to explain, and there's no argument I can make to say e.g. "binary gender doesn't exist" which wouldn't just come out as "neuroatypical people don't understand binary gender", and there's no hope for my better world, because it's so crazy it just won't work.

This is what I've always feared, since way back when "I might have Asperger's" wasn't a credible reality, it was just my mother's parrotted obsession. I've had periods when I've become upset and frustrated and depressed to think that nobody will ever understand what I have to say; not on my own behalf, because I have an amazing support network of the most fantastic friends I could ever have hoped to meet, but, well, on behalf of everyone else who can't understand, I suppose. I know this all sounds horrendously arrogant, and I apologise, and if you are reading this I fully expect you're the kind of person who can understand, whether you're "neurotypical" or not - I'm just processing all these thoughts within the framework of the classic binary "neurotypical vs on-the-autistic-spectrum" distinction, partly to make the point of how it's total bullshit. But now I'm arrogant and digressing.

So after over a decade of thinking "I might be Asperger's" and understanding all that it entails and watching myself incessantly to make sure I learn, to make sure I try not to be "too Asperger's", to make sure I practise until I can actually connect with neurotypicals and make myself understood... after all that... what has a positive diagnosis done? It's taken away my motivation to try, to learn; it's presented me with the bold fact "Your brain is Just Not Like Normal People's", it's made me give up trying to understand these weird 'normal' people because apparently my brain makeup means I never will.

After years of trying my best to work on my socialising and my communication, in the dim awareness that I might have a neurological condition which hampers socialising and communication, I've been told that, yes, I actually do have a neurological condition which hampers socialising and communication... and so, what's the point of trying my best to work on my socialising and my communication?

I will accept that I fit the diagnostic criteria of mild Asperger's Syndrome. But I will not accept that these criteria make any sense within a social model of disability. Because to do so would be to give up hope. And that would be really, really stupid.