Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Teaspoon Politics

This piece originally appeared in February 2013 in the LGBT+ student magazine No Definition. The full issue, with the theme of "Politics", is available in PDF format here.

“All I ever do is try to empty the sea with this teaspoon; all I can do is keep trying to empty the sea with this teaspoon.” – Melissa McEwan, founder of[1]

I never used to have much interest in being “political”. For me, “politics” just meant an argument that you dusted off once every four years at election time, neatly compartmentalised off from “real” life, boring and safely ignorable.

But politics doesn’t just mean which party you vote for. It has another, much broader definition. Coming from the Greek “polis” (city), it encompasses all aspects of being a citizen - part of an organised social grouping of individuals, a society. How any given society organises itself can vary enormously, but it will always have to settle on a system for allocating its collective power.

Politics, or power relations, is everywhere. And being queer can have quite some bearing on where we stand within the system of power.

In 1969, the feminist Carol Hanisch famously said “the personal is political”. The implication was that when we sit down and think about it, a lot of the ‘personal problems’ we suffer don’t just spring out of nowhere, but they have their roots in a wider social context - they are influenced by the politics of the day.

Marriage is obviously a political issue, under the more popular definition of the word: some couples have the legal right to get married, other couples (or members of committed relationships involving more than two partners!) do not. But it’s also political in that it affects individuals’ relative levels of social power. Marriage is not just a personal choice, but something which comes with considerable fringe benefits. Obviously there are legal rights associated with it, such as custody and inheritance rights. But these rights have knock-on effects on other aspects of the couple’s lives. They are more financially secure; they have fewer worries in the way of getting on with their lives, advancing their careers, and so on.

A society which doesn’t allow gay couples to access the rights and benefits of marriage is making a statement: it believes gay people should stay at the bottom of the social power hierarchy, and it will make their lives more financially and emotionally difficult than heterosexual couples’, in order to ensure that they stay there. The same principle is at work in a society which forces transsexual people to go through the upheaval of dissolving supportive marriages made in their birth gender in order to access vital treatment, with no guarantee that they can restore these legal ties once their transition is complete. Societies can load the dice such that gay or trans* people have a harder time getting by, and then, when they fail or give up or break down, legislators can argue that they are clearly more fragile, less well-adjusted, than ‘normal’ people – and therefore less able to cope with, and less deserving of, the rights which they are denied.

But once we realise that our personal problems are so bound up in a wider political framework, we might ask ourselves: what can we do to ameliorate them? After all, electoral politics can seem impossible to change. There might be a hundred “political” issues we feel strongly about (whether clearly within the remit of politicians, such as who has the legal right to marry, or more subtle matters of power relations, such as how bisexual people are treated in society and culture at large). But when electoral politics is presented as the only way of making a “political” difference, we feel that we have to delegate our voice in all of these issues to just one person who, out of a mere handful of choices, looks like ey might do the least worst job of handling them. Thus it’s easy to fall into apathy, feeling as though we have no power.

But we have to remember that although very few of us have power in vast quantities, such that we could change our situation at the flick of a switch, we all have some power. Every day, in every situation, we’re negotiating a matrix of power relations – of politics! – where we can exercise an influence, some influence, however small. Where we can take out our teaspoons and bail out a few millilitres from the sea of inequalities in which so many of our LGBT+ companions are uncomfortably submerged.

For me, being openly transsexual is a political act. Power relations are inevitably tilted in favour of the ‘normal’, and when we as trans* people buy into the idea that being trans* – or ‘not normal’ – is something to be ashamed of, disguised, hidden, we reinforce that power relation within the culture. I’m certainly not denying that some situations are actively dangerous if you don’t try to disguise your trans* status. But boldly and shamelessly standing up and being counted at times when you’re expected to stay humbly silent – when acquaintances are making transphobic ‘jokes’, for example – can act as a reclamation of power.

The balance of power demands that we meekly and uncomfortably sit through these situations, because this is the fate we have earned by being ‘not normal’. But when we refuse, it makes people think twice about what they can get away with – about how stable the power they derive from being ‘normal’ actually is. Suddenly it gives a personality to the faceless mass of ‘otherness’ that they or their companions or the media they consume make jokes or comments or accusations about. And bit by bit, thought by thought, person by person, the “accepted” power hierarchy of ‘normal > not-normal’ changes. Teaspoon by teaspoon, the political landscape changes.

And when a society (which starts from a person, which starts from a thought) accepts a minority group as legitimate, full, equal, well-rounded members, that’s when electoral politics are likely to change in their favour. One day, if our society gradually grows to view transsexualism as no big deal, just one of those quirks of human variation, a personal handicap easily resolved by simple procedures, then the pathologizing hoops we have to jump through to access treatment will start to look unsuitable and outdated. It will seem only common sense to allow all trans* people the right to bodily autonomy, rather than only permitting it to those who have been psychologically assessed, who have survived a stressful and potentially life-endangering extended period of living (and therefore dressing, and ideally also finding employment) as their chosen gender, who happen not to transgress their clinicians’ (sometimes simplistic, sometimes binary) ideas of what makes someone a man or a woman or neither. After all, it seems only common sense, these days, to allow gay couples autonomy over who they legally bind their lives with.

This is my manifesto: I will cling fervently to my teaspoon, and I will try to use it whenever I have the strength. I will stand up and be counted. I will never stop believing in the cumulative influence of the infinitesimal power of each action I commit. Because it is we who, if we give up and give in to political apathy, have the most to lose.

[1] Following the initial publication of this piece, I came across criticism of the sometimes problematic behaviour and attitudes of the Shakesville bloggers, including Melissa McEwan. I think the quotation is a useful one regardless of other things McEwan has said, but I understand the criticisms, I do not endorse Shakesville uncritically, and I want to warn readers that clicking through may be triggering.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Body of Evidence

"So then, one last question: What do you want us to do for you?"

The answer in my head was "I want you to help me work that out". But it would have been the wrong answer.

I was there for a diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria, and if you have Gender Dysphoria, then by definition, you must want gender confirmation therapy. You must want to do everything within your power to make your body conform to the right binary gender... no matter what the risks.

There was one question he hadn't asked me. In fact, there was one whole topic he hadn't even touched on. He hadn't asked me how I felt about my body.

He hadn't asked me if I felt nauseous, alienated, at seeing my naked female-phenotype form. He hadn't asked me if in glancing at my hands I subconsciously felt as though they must be someone else's - as though my hands, surely, would be bigger, hairier. He hadn't asked me if instinctively I reached for a penis that wasn't there, if I was overcome with fresh horror every month at the reminder of the thing between my legs that my brain just couldn't process.

In short, he didn't ask me - not even in crude, insightless terms like the ones above - he didn't ask me if I have body dysphoria.

On the whole, I don't. Not every trans* person does. For those that do, of course, gender confirmation therapy is a strongly desirable course of action - the bodies they have cause them genuine pain, pain which hormone therapy and surgery are extremely effective at relieving.

But me? Huh, well. Maybe if I had stubble, I'd get ma'amed less often.

I've blogged about this before; I've been wavering about medical transition for years. It always comes down to this: there's very little I think I'd miss about my female-phenotype body if I put it through a second puberty. And at times, that "very little" feels like a cheap price to pay to escape the pain of being constantly misgendered. But at other times, the scales tip the other way. And at those times, it seems frustratingly ridiculous that in order to be seen as my true self, I should have to change something - my body - which I just do not feel has any connection with my sense of self.

So that was the question I wanted to ask. What can I do? What should I do? How best can I navigate living as a man without having to break things that don't need fixing?

But I know what the answer would have been: if I have no desire to change my body to conform to the male phenotype, I have no business living as a man.

Popular conceptions of transsexualism are frequently - overwhelmingly - boiled down to issues of the body. In laypeople's eyes, "being transsexual" just means "wanting a sex change". (It never seems to occur to them to ask why one would want it. Funny, that, since it's by far and away the most interesting aspect of the thing.) Indeed, it's often argued (by people I have no desire to link you to) that transsexualism didn't, couldn't, exist before the development of medical techniques for gender confirmation. And, when you're a trans* person, the path is so neatly laid out in front of you - hormone therapy, chest/genital surgery, starting a new life and going 'stealth' - that you sometimes forget it can be (has been, might one day be) any other way.

Three days after those questions (the one that was asked, and the one that wasn't), I went on a walking tour of Brighton, focusing on its LGBT history. We heard the story of Dr James Barry, a celebrated surgeon in the 19th century, who travelled the world on army postings as a Medical Inspector, and performed one of the first known Caesarean sections in which both mother and baby survived. It was only when he died, and his body was - against his instructions - examined, that he was discovered to have been assigned female at birth. Had his wishes been respected, nobody would ever have realised.

Nobody would ever have realised.

And then there was the story of "Colonel" Victor Barker, whose exploits with the National Fascisti in the 1920s remind us that trans* people can be flawed human beings just like anyone else (and whose Wikipedia page genders him as female), but who played the role of a retired colonel like such a natural that his peers never suspected that he was legally female until it was revealed during a court case. And those are just the famous stories - the ones where the "truth" was uncovered, the ones where the person involved was important or notorious enough for the story to hit the news. Who knows how many other lives have been lived contrary to assigned gender?

What it means to be trans* has changed a lot over the years. For untold centuries before our modern, medicalising era, it could simply mean putting on the right clothes and forging yourself a new life. That's if you were one of the lucky ones, of course - if you had the means and connections to start afresh, and if you 'passed' well enough to go unsuspected (which, I'm well aware, is often far easier for the male-identified than for the female-identified). But it's notable that after Dr Barry's posthumous outing, acquaintances were quick to step up and testify to his smooth skin and high voice. If his female-coded attributes were such a giveaway, how come nobody challenged him when he was alive? It's conceivable that back when gender roles were much more rigid and segregated, the idea of anyone female-assigned putting on trousers and going through medical school was so unthinkable that not even a whole host of 'giveaway' cues would arouse suspicion.

I certainly don't want to idealise the past with that observation, but it's intriguing in the light of the following: Gender confirmation therapy first started to become widespread in the 1970s, a time of unprecedented freedom of expression for both genders, and yet its gatekeepers would only treat those trans* people who rigidly conformed to "traditional" ideas of masculinity or femininity. Trans* women ran the risk of being refused treatment if they didn't attend appointments wearing skirts and makeup, a situation which persisted long after such sartorial expectations became outmoded even for cis women - and woe betide you if, in-role as your chosen gender, you identified as anything other than 100% heterosexual.

The simple fact is, a lot of people who like to consider themselves "normal" have a lot invested in the idea of the gender binary. And for them, the existence of transsexualism is scary: it raises the possibility that they might not be as "normal" as they thought. It makes them feel better if they can claim that only the manliest FAABs and womanliest MAABs ever want to transition; that everybody who transitions is at least upholding good old traditional gender roles in the bedroom; that nobody would ever want to admit to such a shamefully not-normal thing as having a trans* history; that nobody would want to transition to anything other than "male" or "female". For decades, gatekeepers have pandered to such people's gender anxieties when setting up the hoops for transitioners to jump through. And slowly, slowly, many of these requirements have been eroded away, as even the gatekeepers admit that they're starting to look outdated. But it's too late for anyone who, in the seventies, desperately needed relief from eir body dysphoria, and was faced with the choice, for one reason or another, between lying or losing out.

We can't say for certain whether Barry and Barker were "actually" trans men. "Trans man" is a label which, like many others ("lesbian", "genderqueer", "asexual"), belongs to our time - it only makes sense within the context of modern (and Western!) ideas of "man", and of "transness", and of the interplay between them. We don't know their motives, we don't know their true desires, and we don't know how they would have identified, or what steps of transition they would have taken, if they had lived today. All we can say is that they did what they felt they had to in order to forge out a satisfactory life within the society they had to live in.

And that's all that anyone who's lived contrary to their assigned gender has ever done - whether they took hormones or not, whether they had surgery or not, whether or not they [would have] identified with the label "trans*" (or "fa'afafine", or "hijra", or any of the dozens of other non-Western cross-gender identities). If I did undergo medical transition, I'd undoubtedly feel more comfortable within the society I have to live in (and, note, that is definitely not to be sniffed at). But I would always be uncomfortable knowing it's not the society I want to live in. I would always, deep down, rather live in a society where the phenotype of my body mattered as little to other people as it did to me; one where I could politely explain I was a man and that was that. And I would always worry that our society might never reach that stage without reckless self-important idiots people like me choosing the road less travelled, swimming stubbornly against the tide, expending the energy they are lucky enough to have in politely explaining, again and again, until that is that.

As my clinician was fond of mentioning, he's been "doing this" - that is, diagnosing people's genders - for 25 years. (I doubt he would have taken the point that so have I.) But in that 25 years, much has changed. And - with any luck - I'm going to be living as trans* for another 25, 50, maybe even 75 years. Do I really want to sacrifice my voice, my surgical virginity, my comfortably post-pubescent hormonal cycle, on the altar of what cis people expect of me now?

Some men have breasts. If I can't get over that, then who will?

Monday, 22 April 2013

Life through a lens

I've spent the past year and a half internalising what behaviour is expected of a man. At first, it was entertaining; it was amusing to rewire my conditioning, to project somebody different. I was, possibly for the first time in my life, "performing gender".

I'm starting to get sick of this performance.

Some demands of masculinity I just refuse to comply with - the conscious, nagging, self-second-guessing ones. For instance, being socialised as female, I never learnt to suppress the instinct to flail and squee. Now that I live as male, I will not police my expressions of happiness and excitement simply for fear of looking effete. (While I was living as female, I never much wanted to flail or squee, so I'm damn well going to do it now.) But others have taken hold of me by stealth: insidious, subconscious.

There should not be a social pecking order for who is expected to move out of the way of whom on a stairwell. I should not think of it as reflecting on my gender if I move or if I stand my ground. I absolutely should not start instinctively assuming that if a woman's coming the other way, the cultural onus is on her to move.

I'm not performing masculinity. I'm performing being a dick.

Maybe I'm doing it wrong. It would be nice to think so. But I know that we all grow up surrounded by gendered expectations, expectations which can't help but have some kind of an effect on how we behave. I know, because I spent my entire youth picking them out, and stubbornly rejecting them.

If I hadn't been raised as a girl, I might never have come to experience myself as a man.

I have always hated being seen as something I'm not, or being seen distorted through the lens of one aspect of myself. I hated that the ways I behaved could be written off as not simply me, my marvellous unique personality, but as "typical for a girl". So I changed how I behaved, determined to defy expectation. I exaggerated everything about myself that was "tomboyish"; I worked on it, I performed it.

I don't know how I would have turned out if I hadn't been born with a vulva. I honestly don't know what's "inherently-male-me" and what's just the byproduct of rebellious reverse conditioning. I was shaped by gendered expectations: so determined not to be seen through the "girl" lens that I pushed myself to its edges, let myself become distorted. Those lenses will get you in the end.

And now it's happening again. There's a tension between my desire to hold on to my true self, and my painful awareness that my masculinity is, culturally, somewhat lacking. I want to prove that you can be a man without being A Man (TM), but I'm constantly tempted to tone my effeminate self down by way of overcompensation. Same shit, different lens.

Everything I do, I can feel the lenses flipping. Say one day I feel like wearing stockings. That makes me a saucy vixen. No, flip the lens. It makes me an outrageous cross-dresser. Better, or worse? Say I break out in road rage while cycling over a dangerous junction. That makes me a pre-menstrual bitch. Flip the lens. That makes me a macho arsehole. Better, or worse? How about now?

How about no?

Can I not just be a person who likes the feel of stockings? (The long answer is no, I can't: I'm a person who, due to long years of conditioning, derives a sense of daring thrill from wearing an item culturally coded as feminine and therefore implicitly degrading. But let's not worry about that right now.) Can I not just be a person who gets pissed off at getting cut up? The thing is, I can't. Society doesn't work that way. And whether I stay like this, with my feminine face and high-pitched voice, or whether I go through second puberty, I'm still going to be read through one lens or the other, all the time, whatever I do. Subtly, innocently, subconsciously, maybe - but everyone I meet will pick a lens.

I wonder, when you get right down to it, whether transition can help me at all. My objection is to being seen as what I'm expected to be, not what I am. But surely it's churlish to expect to be seen always and solely as my true self? It is, after all, a luxury that's afforded to few. Who doesn't have to negotiate being seen as "short", "pretty", "Asian", "wheelchair-bound", "middle-class", "fat" (etc, etc, etc) first and having a personality second? How many of us don't get so used to being seen through the same lens, time and time again, that our interactions get coloured by our expectations of how other people will respond to us?

Some time ago, I learnt the phrase "social dysphoria". As I understand it, this refers to the aspect of gender dysphoria which involves intense dissatisfaction with the gendered way one is treated in social interactions. But I couldn't help wondering where the line is drawn between "social dysphoria" as a manifestation of trans*-ness, and simply as a reasonable reaction to REALLY FUCKING STUPID social conventions. Are women who dislike being subjected to sexual innuendo in the workplace suffering from "social dysphoria"? Are people of colour who dislike being randomly stopped and searched suffering from "social dysphoria"? Are disabled people who dislike being ignored and talked past suffering from "social dysphoria"? Is the solution for everyone to "transition" to being white, male, heterosexual, neurotypical, able-bodied? Or - here's a novel idea - is the solution maybe for society to sort its fucking shit out?

I don't feel as though "female" is what I am. But my identity has been shaped by the pressures of being "female". And everyone's identity is, to some extent, shaped by "who they are" - by how they react to the lenses through which they're seen. Do they try to fight it, or fit it? Do they try to become as "normal" as they can, or do they wear their difference like armour? Do they play up to the stereotype, seeing its advantages or hoping for a quiet life, or do they do their darnedest to smash it? And how can they possibly be sure what's "the real me" in amongst all that?

I look back on myself, and see a childhood and pubescence littered with smashed lenses. I forged myself in the heat of blind fury against all I was "expected" to be. Perhaps, for me, with my nebulous sense of "subconscious sex", turning out as cis or trans* wasn't a matter of my "innate gender", but of whether I buckled down or whether I rebelled. And boy, am I a stubborn fucker.

Defence mechanisms. Attack mechanisms. Safety mechanisms. All these conditioned, mechanised behaviours overriding spontaneous expressions of our "true selves" - until they become our true selves. This is how the lenses burn us. And only after eighteen months living full-time as male am I starting to see my scar tissue. To wonder what's really underneath. To question whether my transition is an act of empowering rebellion, or yet another step along a path of twisted conformity, bending under the unbearable pressure of social expectations.

Given that my first Gender Identity Clinic appointment is in a week and a half, it's not the best timing.