I can’t remember how old I would have been when I realized that telling people I wanted to be a girl was not a wise thing to do.
Certainly I knew before I was seven. When the whole world is telling you that you’re a boy simply based on what’s between your legs, it takes a very strong-minded child indeed to stick to your convictions.
I wasn’t that strong-willed, and the physical evidence was hard to ignore. It’s why I’m so much in awe of those children who identify as trans and their parents who act constructively on it.
But that doesn’t mean that I was socialized as a boy. Instead I grew up looking in on the world as an outsider. I didn’t understand why things like football and climbing trees were supposed to be fun. I spent my primary school playtimes playing hopscotch, cats cradle and skipping games with the girls – until they decided that it wasn’t cool to have a boy in their group. I learnt to filter my responses, working out what I was supposed to say or do rather than following my natural instincts.
In my teens, the BBC broadcast a short series following Julia Grant through her transition. I was fascinated, but confused. The narration contained references to Julia ‘knowing she was a woman’, and I wanted to know how she knew. How does anyone know they are different from what the world unceasingly labels them as? What points of reference do you have?
I mentioned this to Julia when I met her for the first time in March this year, and she said she had never described herself thus. As so much in the ‘transsexual narrative’ it seems to be a phrase invented by the media.
That invented certainty stopped me from investigating myself further until I was nearly 40, when I effectively broke down. By that time I had started to discover the ‘narrative’ was flawed, and the gender minefield was something I had to navigate, with all the associated questions, doubts and revelations. Most people don’t have to do this. These lucky, lucky sods have a gender identity which matches their physiology.
I write all this because there has been something of a turf war in the UK, rumbling on with the noise of an approaching thunderstorm over the past month, if not longer.
The publication of a book by anti-trans lesbian feminist Sheila Jeffreys, the outing of retired boxing manager Kellie Maloney as trans and trans activist Paris Lees walking out of a discussion by flagship BBC political debate show Newsnight have made the rumbles even louder. The voices have been agitating about the right-ness or wrong-ness of any particular debate.
I’ve tried to ignore the debate between trans people and certain radical feminists, not only because the ‘feminist’ position espoused simply doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to me, but also because I think the debate should be so completely irrelevant.
For me, feminism is all about equality, not supplanting the rule of man with the rule of woman.
The assertion that all men have been socialized in the same way also doesn’t ring true. While lots of men don’t think about the privilege they have, lots of others do. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to say that my daughter has been raised in the same way as either Princess Beatrice of York or a girl from an immigrant family existing on hand-outs in a run-down inner city area.
Gender essentialism is also directly contradicted by biology. Roughly one in a thousand births results in a baby who cannot be clearly identified as male or female. Other intersex conditions become apparent through puberty. Still others are only discovered through medical examinations.
Over the past decade or two scientists have discovered that an individual may have many different sets of the 23 chromosome pairs, including the infamous XX and XY pairs. Organizations running athletics have struggled to come to terms with the fact that some women naturally produce high levels of testosterone.
On the odd occasion that I’m asked to do some training in trans issues, I start off with a gender essentialist model, so that all men must inevitably be like Bruce Willis and all women like pink, fluffy Barbie-style fairies. Except, oh, what do we do about Xena, Warrior Princess? It gets a laugh, but underpinning it is a serious point – that we are all a mixture of all sorts of things; that gender is at least a spectrum (and probably more complex still).
It’s the wrong-ness of this unrelenting yet simplistic media narrative, which meant I was driven almost to the point of suicide, caused me to lose my job, and led to my father not speaking to me for 10 years (and counting), that also drove me to help start up Trans Media Watch.
I regularly encounter the meme that ‘trans issues are too complex’ which leads to simplistic and sometimes incomprehensible policy decisions, often with devastating effects to the lives of trans people and those around them. Trans people suffer high levels of depression and other stress-related illnesses, but largely because we have to repeatedly deal with unthinking questions, systems, policies and representations which always seem to de-humanize us.
So when I hear references to things like the toilet debate (‘which toilet should trans people use?’), or whether trans women should be able to have access to rape crisis centers for women, my heart drops down another notch. Have we learnt nothing?
The only case of a trans woman committing an act of sexual violence in a women’s toilet I have ever heard about turned out to be completely fabricated. And I know, from personal experience, that women’s toilets are somewhat different to men’s – apart from the smells, women don’t tend to stand in lines to pee against a wall. If we’re going to debate safety in women’s toilets, can we start to discuss whether lesbians should be allowed into them? Yes, the debate is that stupid.
Trans women are far more likely to face violence than those classed as female at birth. If a trans woman is raped – something that happens far too often – where is she supposed to go if not to a women’s rape crisis center?
Such arguments tend to rely on the incorrect media narrative as well as the fallacious understanding that all trans women are immediately identifiable as trans, that all trans women actively buy into the ultra-feminine stereotype – and also completely ignore the existence of trans men, intersex people and non-binary people.
One of the best books I’ve read on the trans condition is Becoming Drusilla, by Richard Beard, largely because it’s not written by someone who is trans. In it he describes his growing understanding of his good friend Dru as she transitions.
We get Richard’s well-meaning but essentially idiotic questions with Dru’s vague but honest answers. The book ends with Richard’s realizing that Dru has always been Dru even though she may not always have looked like Dru, that her gender socialisation as a boy had failed remarkably (as it does with all trans women), and that actually it was society who caused problems for trans people rather than the other way round.
Trans people have existed in every society and throughout history. To position us as somehow fraudulent, or undeserving, or having to argue for basic rights that others take for granted is – I was going to write disingenuous – actually it is abuse. To expect trans women to answer the question ‘what is it to be a woman?’ when there isn’t really an answer is, again, disingenuous at best. These so-called debates simply shouldn’t happen if trans people were treated as regular members of society. The continued existence of these debates implies that we are not.
And while the media narrative has improved over the past few years (whether that’s the result of work by Trans Media Watch and All About Trans, or whether it’s simply become uneconomic or un-newsworthy to run transition stories) mainstream media has proved pretty resistant to actually covering the stories that matter to most trans people: stories of discrimination; forced compliance with binary stereotypes; systematic abuse, violence and murder.
Personally I’d quite like any form of official gender abolished, with people allowed to identify how they will. Crimes and acts of discrimination should be treated as such, irrespective of what kind of category someone falls into. And I’d like, for once, my views on who I am to be taken at face value, and not have to repeatedly justify myself to those who want to place me into a flawed model of understanding.
I end my training courses with ‘trans people are people first’. So treat us as such, and not as exhibits for your entertainment or debate.