How Real Is Your Woman?

I wouldn’t be me if I could leave yesterday’s transphobic Sunday Times piece by Jenni Murry alone. For those who don’t know, Jenni presents the long-running Woman’s Hour magazine programme on BBC Radio 4. So you’d kind of expect her to support women.

Except that it appears she doesn’t. She gets her credentials in early: she’s not transphobic, she assures her readers. That’s good. If she hadn’t told me I’d have had to work out her opinion of women like me based solely on how she writes about us.

I’ll save you the torment of quoting bits and pieces of her article. Instead I’ll summarise it: trans women are not “real” women because Jenni doesn’t want them to be. For whatever reasons–and she doesn’t delve into the roots of her prejudices–she doesn’t want her idea of what a woman is to include people like me.

Her objections as stated in the article are thin and unconvincing. We haven’t had the same experiences as she did growing up? A cherry-picked selection of trans women have expressed superficial stereotypical thoughts? Come on Jenni, you can do better than this!

Why not be honest with your readers? Why not admit that you’ve got a nice, cosy, simplistic concept of what a woman is, and it’s basically people who are like you. Preferably middle class and white, no doubt, although it would be career suicide to voice those thoughts these days.

But trans women? Well, they’re fair game. Or so you think. It’s not that long since gay men were openly criticised as not being “real” men. A lot of people used to agree with that sentiment. But opinions change. Try publishing that one today and you’ll not get past the paper’s legal department.

More and more people, especially younger people, have no hesitation including trans women in their concept of women. The landscape is shifting under the feet of people like Jenni Murray, and her views that were once comfortably mainstream are looking increasingly extreme.

It’s not only trans women like me who cringe these days when we encounter these old-fashioned, outdated prejudices. People like Jenni are the minority now: it’s only their public profile that gets them a few column inches to keep reflecting the echo of their intolerance.

What makes a woman real isn’t any physical trait. It’s not how she looks or acts. It’s that the majority of society accepts her identity as a woman. Most women will never face this questioning, will not have people publicly reject their claim to be women. Some who don’t look conventionally female will know exactly what I am describing.

This isn’t about appearance though. It isn’t even about trans versus cis. It’s about who gets to decide what a woman is in our society. The large majority of people can reliably and consistently agree that most women are definitely women. This is about the rest, the edge cases. The ones who don’t exactly fit the usual, common definitions.

So how can we decide? An increasing number of people are realising that the simplest, fairest, most obvious way is to just ask the people themselves. A woman is someone who identifies as a woman. After all, they ought to know better than anybody else!

Some people, like Jenni Murray, feel threatened by this. They cling to the illusions of certainty that sprang forth from second wave feminism with its promise of a unified concept of womanhood (as long as you fit the ideals it was based on). They could never see that their perfect vision was as deeply rooted in stereotypes as the ones they now criticise some trans women for holding to.

There are no perfect, fact-based criteria to define who is and who is not a woman. There are some traits that apply to most women. For the rest, take their word for it. Most of us encounter people who leave us scratching our heads as we try to decide what gender they are. We need to stop worrying about it and just trust that they themselves know the answer much better than we do. That’s certainly real enough for me.

Toxic Masculinity and Suicide

I’m not a man but I am well-placed to write about toxic masculinity.

I know what it feels like to be surrounded by people expecting you to live up to their expectations of what a man ought to be. To be repeatedly shamed, teased, or bullied for allowing the mask to slip, revealing the person behind the act.

Forty-odd years ago in a hospital in Manchester I was born. I’m guessing some doctor took one look and decided I was male: that’s what went on my birth certificate. I’m still living with the consequences of their decision.

I might have been given the label but that’s all. It didn’t mean anything to a baby–why would it? But it influenced the way everybody around me interacted with me. How they spoke to me, how they dressed me, what toys they gave me, what future they imagined for me.

I wasn’t given a choice, not even made aware that alternatives existed. So as I grew older and became more self-aware I felt more and more that there was a gap between what was expected of me and how I felt inside.

I’m autistic: there are certain behaviors like hand flapping and toe walking that are natural expressions for me. An autistic body language. I was teased and bullied for them in school and worked hard to suppress them.

But not all the behaviors I had to suppress were related to autism. Others–mannerisms, speech patterns, responses–were shamed as being “girly” or “sissy”. I had to learn the rules to be seen as acceptably male, to conform.

That’s the essence of toxic masculinity: conform or be punished. You will be bullied. You will be abused. Until you fit in. Or you die.

You see, it doesn’t take long before you feel you’re being watched every minute of every day. You watch yourself, alert to every slip. The pressure to conform instills a deep and abiding fear and anxiety.

Living with that day in, day out wears you down. You learn to hate yourself, hate the fact that you must conceal your desires and feelings, that you must hide yourself. You go through every minute of every hour pulling levers behind the curtain of this fake persona to keep yourself from harm.

You become depressed. You wonder why you make the effort when you will never be free. You might self harm just to feel something real, to do something to reach down through all the layers of deadening armor between you and the world.

It’s easy to feel suicidal. It’s understandable. It takes away the crushing pressure of the trap you are caught in. I tried to kill myself a couple of times. It wasn’t like TV and the movies try to show it. There was no note, no plea to the world for understanding. Just utter, wordless despair on a lonely, dark night with a handful of pills and a load of alcohol.

Most of the people who made me feel this way had no malicious intent at all. They just projected their expectations onto me, expectations of masculinity. I’m not male, but even if I were I would have been subjected to the same pressure to conform.

That’s why it’s toxic: it poisons you, poisons your mind with its relentless drip, drip, drip. “Man up!” “Grow a pair!” “Sissy!” “You’ve got no balls!” “You talk like a girl!” “Poof!”

There is no single, right way to be male (or female). There is not a single characteristic that all people of a particular gender share except one: their own identity. Expecting people to conform to your idea of their gender is immoral, coercing them by shaming or violence is abuse.

Trying to prevent people from expressing who they are, even unconsciously by perpetuating gender stereotypes, harms them. It really is a matter of life and death. I’ve lived it, I nearly died. I know.

Autism and Gender Variance: Is There a Cause for the Correlation?

This is a guest post on a subject very close to my own heart that I commissioned from Sparrow Rose Jones via this Fiverr gig. Sparrow is well-known as the author of the blog Unstrange Mind and the book No You Don’t: Essays from an Unstrange Mind, which I am taking the opportunity here to recommend to anybody who has yet to encounter them.

Regular readers will know I hardly ever publish guest posts or reblog, but I made one of my few exceptions (my blog, my rules) because I have long valued Sparrow’s writing on subjects that I care deeply about and wanted very much to take the opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on the intersection of autism and gender. And now, over to Sparrow…

Continue reading

Cis Actors As Trans Characters – Why The Fuss?

You might have seen some of the fuss from trans advocates and activists about The Danish Girl‘s casting of Eddie Redmayne as trans woman Lili Elbe. I know I did, and it made me realize that even I find it hard to explain why a problem even exists here.

Now, if I’m having trouble putting my unease about it into words you can bet most cis (non-trans) people don’t get it. So I figured I should try, and hope this ends up coherent!

I’ll start by saying that I’ve not seen The Danish Girl myself but this is only because I haven’t had the opportunity. I do intend to watch it when it becomes available through my satellite subscription. My objections are not to the movie itself or to Eddie Redmayne.

No, the problem I (and many others) have is that when casting such roles the default is to cast an actor whose gender matches the assigned gender of the character rather than their identified gender.

For all that acting involves a degree of pretence, the actor becoming another person with different attributes, we as the audience can’t help but see both actor and character, imbuing the portrayal with our knowledge of whoever is playing the part.

So when we see a male actor playing a trans woman we see them, at least in part, as a man. Even if it’s at a subconscious level it reinforces the incorrect idea that a trans woman is a man.

I’m not trying to argue that a man can’t play a woman, or vice versa. Linda Hunt won an well-deserved Oscar for her role as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously. My point is that this is very much the exception, whereas with trans characters it’s the rule.

I don’t want anybody excluded from a given role on the grounds of gender (or anything else); what I want is for those casting roles to primarily choose actors who are a close fit for the characters’ gender as much as their race, build and other characteristics.

The current situation with trans characters is equivalent to the days when Native American or Asian characters were almost exclusively played by white actors. This is now rightly seen as discrimatory and unacceptable and I want the same attitude to prevail when it comes to trans roles.

Who Are You?

I think a lot about identity — my identity. What terms will I use to refer to myself in my own thoughts and when I speak about myself? It’s something that has changed over my life and especially in the last few years as I’ve accepted that I’m autistic and finally come out about my gender.

Life isn’t static. We are shaped by our experiences, changing over time as we continue to grow and learn — about ourselves as much as the world around us. If we’re honest about it what others see is a reflection of our identity, multiple facets of our personality exerting their influence on everything from mannerisms to dress. But often what we present is camouflage, protective coloration to make us seem to be what we are not so that we appear to fit in with society’s expectations.

I know about this: I presented as male for most of my life, hiding who I was. But it became increasingly uncomfortable to live a lie, unable to be myself outside my own head. It caused some self-destructive behaviors and culminated in depression: it harmed me mentally and, as a consequence, physically as well. Honesty and openness have been good for me. My depression is now manageable without medication and I no longer suffer the negative impulses.

My transition has been the key to this. When I talk about gender transition what I am really describing is a change in gender presentation. My gender hasn’t changed: I’ve always been female. I just didn’t show it openly until recently. The thing about transition is that it’s not a binary switch from one state to another. It’s a process, a collection of changes that proceed at different rates.

Even changing my name is a process. Although from a legal standpoint it changed the moment I signed my declaration in the solicitor’s office, I still had to become used to it myself, to responding to “Alex” rather than “Ben”. I had to change the name in so many places, from driver’s license to medical records, from personnel record at work to email accounts. I’ve not yet completed this process: I still have a pension plan and a couple of credit cards in my old name.

Along with my name there is the important question of what words to use. Because gender affects our language so strongly it has made me think deeply about how to refer to myself, both now and when talking about myself in the past. Especially the past. It can be a little confusing, even for me, so I’ll go through it step by step.

I was born, obviously. I wasn’t “born a boy” though; I was born a girl but assigned male. Given a label, a letter “M” on my birth certificate, based on appearances. It was an educated guess by the medics and it turned out to be incorrect. Apart from my parents’ choice of name it didn’t affect me much in my early years: I wasn’t conscious of gender. I mean, I knew that there were boys and girls and that I was included with the boys, but I never thought about how they might differ. They were just labels with no more meaning than being assigned to one team or another in sports. I was definitely a late developer when it came to concepts of gender.

When referring to myself back then I have settled on avoiding gendered terms. I say “when I was a child” or “when I was growing up”. It’s more difficult when using the third person, but my preference is for something like “I went to school with Alex and was in her class for English”, using my current name and pronouns.

The other tricky area that crops up is when I describe being trans. The commonly accepted tropes, perpetuated by most media coverage, are that a trans person is “in the wrong body” or “wants” to be a different gender from that they were assigned. I see these as overly simplistic.

The way I see it is that I am not in the wrong body. I’m in my body: it’s the only one I’ve got and I’m quite used to it after more than forty years. What is wrong is that it’s a male body; its gender doesn’t match my mind. I think of myself as a woman with a hormone problem that caused me to develop male physical traits. It’s not that I want to be a woman, it’s that I am a woman who wants her body to appear female. These distinctions are very important to me.

To describe somebody as being in the wrong body is to suggest that there can be a separation between the mind and the physical body it occupies. It makes the problem sound like an ill-fitting pair of shoes, as if bodies were commodities to be exchanged at will, and trivializes the experience.

When I hear people say that I “want to be a woman” I get offended. This innocuous-looking phrase invalidates my gender identity, implying that the speaker does not view me as a woman. It suggests that it is a choice I have made rather than a core trait making me who I am. It suggests that being female is nothing more than a lifestyle, an occupation like being a scientist or a pilot. The word “want” also completely ignores the depth and strength of feeling I have about my gender.

So how would I describe myself concisely in alternative, acceptable (to me) terms? I’d say that I am a woman who was assigned male at birth, my body has male features which do not belong there, and I am compelled to change it so that it matches the image I have of myself in my mind.

I Have a Choice?

A recent story shared by George Takei on Facebook about a 12 year old winning the right to have his birth certificate changed to reflect his correct gender attracted a lot of comments. This is not surprising, nor is the fact that so many were negative or transphobic. Not surprising, but very depressing.

Along with the usual equation of physical characteristics with gender (penis = male; vagina = female) there were many comments saying that 12 was too young to make this kind of choice.

Choice? Are they suggesting that somebody can choose their gender the same way they choose what to wear or eat?

Coming out, informing people around you that your gender is not the one you were assigned at birth, is not a lifestyle choice like being Vegan. It is a recognition of the true essence of one’s self.

If you asked a hundred random people of all ages what their gender is you would almost always get a hundred definite answers. Would you doubt that these people know what gender they really are? Would you insist on testing their chromosomes and genitalia? Would you even dare to ask a random stranger to confirm their gender?

So why is it that the element of doubt raises its head when the “transgender” label is present? Surely a transgender person has just as clear a view of their own gender identity as anybody else.

I didn’t choose to be a woman. I appeared to be male at birth and was raised as such. But from puberty onwards (about age 11) I knew that my body didn’t develop correctly. It didn’t (and still doesn’t) look like my internal self-image. I look in the mirror and if I’m lucky I will catch the occasional glimpse of myself, but more often I only see the out-of-place male characteristics. My brain developed as female, my body as male.

If you are not transgender yourself then imagine this: you are yourself, the same person you have been all your life, but every time you look at yourself you do not see what you expect to see. You see a face and body that is the opposite gender. Now also imagine that everybody else sees that too, and acts towards you as if that is your actual gender. But you know it’s wrong. Every day of your life you know, but you are stuck with it. Yes, it hurts to the point that it can be hard to carry on.

Unless you start to tell people that the way you look is not who you are. Unless you confront their disbelief, prejudice and mockery. Unless you fight to change your body so that it matches what you know inside to be your true self. The alternative is to try to pretend that you are somebody other than yourself, to live a lie. I tried to do that until it almost destroyed me. That is gender dysphoria.

So please try to be understanding when a transgender person comes out. Be accepting. It is hard enough living with the discomfort and distress of your body being of the wrong gender without also having to suffer prejudice and abuse.

Note: I have simplified things here for rhetorical purposes to mention only binary gender identities. These account for the majority of people but there is a significant minority for whom the categories of male/female do not fit. I’m not going to go into details here because there are many excellent articles about non-binary gender and I do not have the personal experience to add to what others have already written.

Coming Out

In the week that a good-looking young man, Tom Daley, Olympic diver, came out as bisexual I have found myself wondering why this even constitutes news. To me it reinforces the impression that even today to differ from the heterosexual norm is still seen by too many people as worthy of comment.

So what are people going to make of me?

Continue reading