Thinking about transgender

Most of the things I write about here are trivial, but I want to write about something that has been on my mind a great deal in recent months and is genuinely important: transgender. This post has had a long gestation, and I’ve debated with myself whether to write it at all. In the past week alone there must have been hundreds of blog posts written about transgender issues, and what can an outsider like me say of value on the subject? Wittgenstein may have had a point: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. But I’m doing it anyway because if by some miracle I manage to write something vaguely considered and insightful and it gets through to just one person who hasn’t thought about these things before, it will have been worth it.

Disclaimers before I start: I’m cis. If you don’t know what that means, you’re probably cis yourself. A cisgender person is someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. That’s most of us. I don’t claim to write here on behalf of anyone other than myself. I suppose if I have an imagined reader, it’s a cis person who is well disposed towards trans people but hasn’t thought about transgender in much depth. Whether you are this person or not, welcome.

In this post I will use transgender or trans as a shorthand for all non-cis people, for the sake of convenience. Bear in mind that trans men (who have lived in the past as female but now identify as male) or trans women (who have lived in the past as male but now identify as female) are not all there is. Many non-cis people identify as, for instance, non-binary, agender, genderqueer, because they don’t feel either ‘male’ or ‘female’ is a term that fits them. There’s a lot of vocab. Don’t let it put you off, you’ll get used to it very quickly.

I’m sorry this post is going to be so long and dense. As Pascal would say, I haven’t had time to make it shorter. There’s so much that needs to be said, and goodness knows I’m not the person best placed to say it, but here we go. Some discussion of transphobic attitudes follows.

***

The case of Caitlyn Jenner seems as good a place as any to start, given how widely her transition has been documented. If it’s passed you by, she had been known as Bruce, but confirmed recently after months of prurient press speculation that she was transitioning to female, and would be going by female pronouns and the name Caitlyn. Within weeks she was on the cover of Vanity Fair. You don’t have to be interested in her as a person (and I confess I’m not, particularly) to find Caitlyn Jenner’s liberation a heartening story, but it is not a typical one, and it may be illuminating to look at the ways in which her transition differs from those of trans people not in the public eye.

Cover

Perhaps unsurprisingly, because the media are more interested in how people look than what they’re like, a lot of attention has been paid to Caitlyn’s appearance. She’s had cosmetic surgery to feminise her face, not something a lot of people would easily be able to afford even if they wanted it. That raises questions of whether her transition has been more widely accepted because she’s ‘passing’, because she’s making an effort to appear feminine. There’s a thoughtful piece on it here. Passing is a horrible word because it implies gender inauthenticity, that a trans woman is merely putting on an act. It can be hard for us as Westerners to get past the idea of our bodies determining our gender, given how rigidly gendered our society is, but it’s something we have to do if we want to understand transgender issues.

The publication of the Vanity Fair cover, this unleashing of Caitlyn Jenner on the world, may have impressed some people because of its apparent suddenness, as though one minute she was a man, the next magically transformed into a woman. No transition is this speedy in real life, and a gender transition involves a number of stages of different types. It may involve changing your name and/or pronouns, meeting doctors, getting your new gender recognised by official organisations, taking hormones, having surgery, but doesn’t inevitably involve all of them, indeed often doesn’t. A transition may be a physical thing; it’s certainly a mental one.

It’s a social one, too. It isn’t possible to tell if someone is trans by looking at them. You may know people who are transgender but haven’t come out to you, or to anyone. Does that invalidate their gender? Caitlyn Jenner may be read more often as female now that she’s changed her appearance, but was she any less of a woman before? If you have a friend you thought was male who now announces she’s female, when is the point at which the switch occurs? When she changes her pronouns? her name? when she gets rid of her facial hair? The more you think about this, the more absurd you appreciate it is. There’s no hard and fast rule, and I think some trans people would disagree with this idea, but it may be useful to think that although the outward expression of someone’s gender may change, their gender doesn’t.

I also find it helps to think of gender identity as a continuum, with male at one pole and female at the other. Most of us accept our place without questioning it, without realising it even, but those who feel the cis male or cis female pole doesn’t fit them make a journey along the continuum, not knowing necessarily where it will lead, but hoping to find the place where they belong. When I read Jackie Kay’s novel Trumpet last month, which is about a jazz musician, Joss Moody, who has lived as a man but is found on his death to have a ‘female’ body, I found myself thinking that some of the transphobic attitudes of the other characters would probably have been less intense if Joss had had gender reassignment surgery. A transition all the way from female to male, physical as well as social, so as to fit neatly into a binary gender, would have suited their small-minded way of thinking. As it is, they see his life as a lie. Whereas the real lie would have been for Joss to have continued living as a woman in spite of his knowledge that he wasn’t one.

Peanuts

I think one reason some people are so dismissive of the idea of transgender is that they can’t admit to themselves, perhaps haven’t even considered the possibility, that they might be wrong; because if they are wrong, then the authenticity of trans people will mean the fuss of dismantling the preconceptions and prejudices bred in them since birth by this society with its binary system of gender. Far easier to fit everyone into their little box, either male or female. Or if they want to be a transsexual, they have to do it properly so I can tell what they are. This is how I see it, so it must be as it is. The world is everything that is the case. (Oh, that’s right, throw Wittgenstein back at me, dickhead.)

Haven’t these people lived? Don’t they realise that nothing is black and white? A friend is fond of quoting St Paul: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly.’ We don’t see things clearly, only distorted through the prism of our own minds, feelings, experiences. We don’t, we can’t know anyone else’s lived experience, we can’t tell what may be going on below the surface. We ourselves have all surely had times when we’ve made an effort to hide from others something we’re dealing with inside our head. Permit yourself to think that there may be something in someone that you don’t see. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Quite apart from all that, why should transphobes feel such a vested interest, as many appear to, in denying the gender of others? The validity of theirs doesn’t make your own any less real. If you ever find yourself thinking these thoughts, ask yourself: What does it matter to me? A view sometimes encountered today is that transgender is a fad, a reflection of our overly tolerant society, that people choose to be trans because it’s fashionable. Just why anyone would choose to be a ‘gender outlaw’, to use Kate Bornstein’s phrase, when you consider what thanks they get from society for it, constantly being scrutinised and questioned and misgendered and worse, having to justify their very identity to others every day, I’ve no idea. It’s not a choice any more than sexual orientation is a choice, it’s just the way it is. If there are more trans people who are out in society today, that’s a happy sign that understanding of trans issues is increasing. There have always been trans people.

The bottom line is, no one gets to decide anyone else’s gender. Ever.

Happily, if you have a problem accepting someone’s gender, there is a solution.

***

You may have seen transgender awareness campaigns by groups like LGBT rights charity Stonewall. It’s only recently that Stonewall’s started to include trans people at all, and that may be because the T in LGBT is an uneasy fit. LGB is to do with sexual orientation, T is to do with gender identity. There is no inevitable correlation between the two, and trans people have as wide a range of sexual orientations as cis people do.

Stonewall

They mean well, but I find the ‘get over it’ campaign annoying, certainly when applied to transgender, an area where ignorance still prevails. The implication seems to be, don’t make an effort to acknowledge your prejudices and change the way you think, just accept this as a fact and move on. And it is a fact; but a far more healthy approach would be to think about it, learn about it, try to understand as far as possible what it means to be transgender, what challenges trans people face, and what the rest of us can do to help out. It all comes back to education. I’m lucky to work in a university where there are a lot of students engaged with trans awareness. Maybe there are similar campaigns near you.

Perhaps this all sounds like a lot of work, and not much fun. It’s true that you can’t become a good ally overnight (I suspect it will take a lifetime, in fact), but learning about trans stuff is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done. I suppose my first engagement with transgender was about ten years ago when I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ engrossing novel Middlesex, which has an intersex narrator who transitions from a female to a male identity. Then, a few years ago, I read Jan Morris’s memoir about her transition, Conundrum, first published in 1974. It’s a moving and sympathetic book, dated now but still relevant. But it’s only within the past year or so, prompted by people I know coming out as trans, that I’ve explored more widely — films, TV programmes, fiction, non-fiction, comics, blogs and websites. There’s a lot out there.

There are plenty of websites offering cis people helpful resources — answers to frequently asked questions about transgender, lists of trans-related vocab, ‘Transgender 101’ as Americans would call it. This list of tips published by GLAAD is a good one. Here’s a useful piece on trans etiquette, and a list of things cis people can do to make the world a better place for trans people from the website of genderqueer musician CN Lester. A couple of pieces about life beyond the gender binary, one an interview with CN Lester, the other an article by Scout. Subscribe to RSS feeds of trans news on news websites. Follow trans people and charities on Twitter.

Most of my reading so far has focused on FTM (female-to-male) transitions, so apologies that this set of recommendations is so biased (I’m going to broaden my scope soon), but among the blogs I particularly enjoy are A Boy and Her Dog, Today I Am A Man, New Boy, Neutrois Nonsense and janitorqueer, all of them approachable regardless of your own gender. The website Genderfork is a warm and inclusive place.

If you feel like trying a book, I’d recommend S. Bear Bergman’s anthology of anecdotal essays The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You without hesitation. It’s written from a female-to-male perspective, but its subject matter is universal, and it is full of wit and wisdom and kindness and compassion. More than any other book this one has made me realise how much, as a cis person, I have taken for granted about gender. It’s also made me aware of the glorious richness of gender identity. Gender variance isn’t something to shrink from, it’s something we can and should rejoice in. I’m also making my way slowly through this. My short-term gender reading list:

Books

You can’t learn everything from books and websites, it’s good to talk to trans people too, but books and websites are useful resources because if you do have a trans friend then you may not wish to bombard them with questions about gender, both because you’re a nice and polite human being and because it’s wrong to imagine one individual can speak for all trans people any more than, say, a white middle-class librarian in his early thirties can speak for all cis people. There’s a wealth of experiences, so read lots of individual testimonies, not just one.

***

Having got to the end of this post (almost), I wonder if I still need to put the case for why it’s important to know this stuff. Well, because it’s a courtesy to the trans people you know (whether you know they’re trans or not) and to those you will know in the future. Because it gives us the wherewithal to support them if we need to (I’ve been able to contribute to conversations about gender with more confidence, and am getting bolder about stepping in when people say crass things in my presence). Because it makes us happier and better people. You might assume transphobia barely exists because you haven’t witnessed it yourself. To disabuse yourself of this notion, go to the comments section of any mainstream news story about gender (something I did with a Guardian article the other day; big mistake). It needs to be fought.

If you’re still here, thank you enormously for indulging me in spite of my shortcomings. Apologies if I’ve come across as preachy and patronising. It’s only because I care. If you take anything away from what I’ve written here, let it be this:

Someone’s gender is what they say it is.

Don’t let consideration of someone’s gender blind you to who they are. Gender isn’t the be-all and end-all. Trans people are trans, but they are also people, and they like the same things cis people like: music, pottery, reenacting the Battle of Marston Moor, etc. etc. We’re all the same, but different.

Education sets us free. Read, watch, think, talk. It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s not easy to unlearn things we have believed all our lives to be true, and it’s through making mistakes that we learn. The more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know.

Small things can make the world a better place for all of us. Pride, respect, and peace.

Transgender Pride flag

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4 Responses to “Thinking about transgender”

  1. Michael H. Says:

    Thanks for that most interesting and informative piece, Gareth. I’ve been alerted to transgender issues by your blogs over the past few months, before that I hadn’t,I confess, thought much about it, and indeed, following your recommendation I read ‘The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You’ and found it mind-opening. As far as I’m aware I don’t know any transgender people personally. Except years ago I knew Simon, who became Claire. And one of the female ushers at my local theatre used to be a boy. Have you read ‘Conundrum’?
    May I say, in passing, that I wish I lived closer to Cambridge and that I could invite you to lunch one day. I’m sure we’d have a lot to talk about. But I’m going to be 80 soon, getting feebler,and hardly travel anymore. And feel increasingly isolated since my partner’s death in 2006.
    It was a splendid post. Thanks. Michael

    • Gareth Says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Mike. Very glad to know you, albeit only online. I thought Conundrum was an excellent book when I read it, eye-opening, but wonder if I’d feel put off by the way gender is discussed in it if I reread it now. The way we think about the subject has changed a great deal in the last forty years. But Jan Morris is a great writer full stop, and should be read. I’ve got a book of her essays staring accusingly at me from a bookshelf.

  2. Belinda Atkinson Says:

    Thanks Gareth. It can start extremely young too. I work with a nine year old girl who began life as a twin boy. She has excellent support. Tom’s Jenny’s Mum.

    • Gareth Says:

      Very pleased to hear that. I’m glad trans children are being treated with more sensitivity than they have been in the past. Not in all cases, of course, but it feels like things are moving in the right direction.

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