I have always been deeply suspicious of people who claim to be changing sex because they feel “like a woman trapped inside a man’s body” (or vice versa). With a woefully underdeveloped concept of what it means to be a woman – or a man, for that matter – I have long been incapable of articulating what, precisely, are the emotional and psychological differences between the sexes, and, consequently, highly sceptical of anyone who claimed they ‘felt’ like a member of the gender to which they were not assigned at birth. I was just… me, I thought, not a set of variables within a biologically determined category allotted a prescriptive set of parameters regarding how I should think and behave. Transition, by implication, couldn’t possibly be a process of setting free one’s inner-male or inner-female, I reasoned, because it was more a question of redefining my social space, not my interior life; an endeavour to shape a male or female identity from the outside in, not the inside out. After two months of taking the testosterone-inhibiting drug, Diphereline, however, I’m no longer as sure as I was about whether it is biology or environment that maketh man or woman…
I started taking oestrogen because of the minor cosmetic adjustments I had been assured it would trigger. I was told I would notice some redistribution of fat – a tendency to gain weight on the hips rather than the belly, for example – and that I should look forward to enjoying a full head of hair for a good while longer than presaged by my father’s youthful baldness. A couple of months in to the treatment, I was told that my face had changed; that my previous jowly plumpness had disappeared to expose my cheekbones. Changes to the way hair grew on my body were also promised, but, as I was also following a strict regime of depilation, it was difficult to tell exactly how much of my tonsorial success could be attributed to the hormones I was on.
Before commencing the treatment, I was also cautioned to expect a significant change in my emotional state. I would be prone to mood swings, I was warned, as well as a tendency to take criticism and slights to my character very personally. I was highly sceptical of that prediction, however, and I still believe I was right to be so: I did not experience any shifts in the way I reacted to emotional stimuli that were conspicuous to me (apart, perhaps, from an irrational anxiety that oestrogen would be unavailable when it was time to stock up again).
From inside one’s own skin, it is rarely possible to be sensitive to the changes taking place on the surface. I’ve never been one for staring at my reflection for hours, and, not being a Facebook narcissist, I haven’t compiled a meticulous photo-journal documenting my physical transition. As a result, I’d be lying if I said I felt I had undergone a miraculous transformation as result of dosing myself regularly with feminising oestrogen. I’m told the change is pronounced – that I’ve got hips now, and round, peachy buttocks – and that the old me has long since vanished, but I find it very difficult to trust the assurances of others. I worry that people are only telling me what they think I want to hear, and I’m aware that the hormone medication I have been taking is not deigned to help male-to-female transsexuals to look and feel more feminine, but to ease the symptoms of the menopause. That knowledge makes me dubious of the power of oestrogen to affect physical transfiguration, and I occasionally wonder whether I’ve been prescribed a placebo, intended to satisfy my need to feel as if I’m doing all I can to continue and maintain my transition, rather than a metamorphosing wonder-drug. I never, for example, enjoyed the glorious burst of breast growth augured in internet chatrooms on the subject of hormone therapy. For that, it was necessary to seek a surgical solution.
For these reasons, being prescribed feminising hormones seemed to me a symbolic, rather than a physiological, victory. The reason I felt this way predated my application for medical assistance to continue my transition. The cultural milieu of twenty-first century, western, capitalist life means that a person cannot simply decide to dress and behave in a way contrary to stereotypical expectations of gender and still expect to journey unmolested through everyday public and professional life. When you finally pluck up the courage to make the switch, a number of significant social and bureaucratic barriers are immediately erected in your way. There is the painstaking process of informing family, friends and colleagues, for a start, with all the diplomatic wrangling this entails. Then there is the need to subject oneself to counselling before permission for any sort of surgery or medication can be considered – irrespective of whether one goes private, or joins the queue for NHS support. Some of these obstacles, the individual can legislate for; others depend on the munificence of key medical, legal and professional gatekeepers. For example, I can demand the agreement of my boss for me to attend work in my new gender role, but I cannot control the effect this may have on my prospects of promotion.
By the time I approached my GP to request a course of oestrogen (and later, for approval for breast augmentation that I was paying for myself), I had already started living in female role in every area of my life except one (work); dabbled in private health care as far as my budget would allow; and applied to change the name in my passport. Consequently, I was able to smile, look my doctor confidently in the eye, and ask as casually as if I needed help sleeping for them to put me on oestrogen patches. To my immense relief (I felt much less sure of myself than I was able to pretend), the doctor simply shrugged and sent me away with a prescription.
I would say that I was lucky in finding a GP willing to prescribe HRT so blithely, but the pattern has repeated itself often enough now – and in more than one country – that I have started to take much of my own credit for the ease with which I have found help to transition. I think that the reason I have been able to obtain what I want from medical professionals with only a minimum of fuss and the most token amount of jumping through hoops lies in the way I have conducted myself during key gatekeeping meetings. With the sole exception of my first appointment at the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic in Hammersmith, I have appeared calm, measured, courteous, rational, and, above all, sure of what I want. In turn, the doctors I have met have treated me exactly as they should: as a person in full possession of their faculties who is merely exercising their right to put in, stick on, cut off, and turn inside out whatever they like of their own body. We are able to claim ownership of very little in our lives, but if we can rightly claim that something (anything!) truly does belong to us, it is the meat that hangs from our bones. It is an outrage that a transgender person requires the permission of a psychologist before they can exercise that right, and heart-breaking that some transsexuals are so afraid of rejection by medical professionals that they resort to the dangerous on-line black-market of untested and unverified substances.
An individual’s ability to get what they want depends on patience, doggedness, and, ultimately, on being in the right place at the right time. Through just such serendipity, I have recently been taken on as a science project by a family doctor who lives in the same apartment block as me in a south-west suburb of Bucharest. As luck would have it, that doctor’s specialism is endocrinology. She was stunned to learn that I was relying solely on oestrogen patches to tinker with my hormones. This, she said, was like subjecting myself to the emotional rollercoaster of permanent menstrual tension; that having oestrogen swimming around my system as freely as testosterone was positively sadomasochistic, and was leaving my brain utterly bewildered as to which set of emotional precepts should be allowed to dominate. My brain, in short, was both male and female, and probably didn’t know if it was coming or going.
Accordingly, my doctor/neighbour wrote me a prescription for the intravenous testosterone-blocker, Diphereline, and I have now been taking it – in conjunction with a reduced dose of oestrogen – for three months. And, suddenly and unexpectedly, I find myself revising my original conviction that what differentiates feeling like a man and feeling like a woman is spurious and unknowable. I now cry at the drop of hat – and sober up just as instantly. I have become hopeless in an argument: whereas I once prided myself on my patient, smart-alecky ability to listen humbly to someone else’s point of view before demolishing it completely with a poetic tirade of perspicacious verbiage, I now crumple before the determination of other people to assert themselves, and can do nothing but whine and sulk during a row because I’m not getting my way.
The most alarming change to my emotional and psychological state, however, has occurred in the bedroom. Whilst I remain sexually attracted to women (at least, I assume, for the time being), the sort of treatment I want between the sheets has altered. I want to be held, I realise; wrapped in the protective arms of someone bigger and more powerful than me. I want to be clubbed over the head and dragged into the boudoir by my hair, and then have things done to me whilst I meekly submit to a more dominant partner. I have become simultaneously very demanding and very lazy when it comes to having my physical desires satiated, and I have become almost incapable of successfully initiating a bout of horizontal gymnastics. The trouble is, of course, that that is precisely how (with only a handful of exceptions) heterosexual women wish to be treated in the bedroom department, and so finding a compatible playmate is proving very difficult indeed.
Man! I feel like a woman! Shania: I think I know what you mean; it’s made me a gibbering wreck, and I wouldn’t change it for worlds.
The psychologist Ray Milton Blanchard gained his PhD from the University of Illinois in 1973. His post-doctoral research looked at the clinical castration of sex offenders, which led him to join the Clark Institute for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario, before he became their head of Clinical Sexology Services in 1995. Whilst Blanchard’s name may not exactly be a household one, at the age of 71, he’s still kicking, and currently serves on the American Psychiatric Association’s Subcommittee for Gender Identity Disorders.
Blanchard’s 1989 theory on transsexuality posits that male-to-female transsexuals can be categorised neatly in two distinct groups. The first, the ‘homosexual transsexuals’, are individuals who are sexually attracted to men – particularly heterosexual men – so homosexual transsexuals seek to acquire a female body in order to be able to appeal to the objects of their desire. The second group – ‘heterosexual fetishistic transvestites’ – are heterosexual men who seek to become the object of their own sexual attraction; men who find women so alluring that they wish to imitate them completely. Heterosexual fetishistic transvestites, Blanchard argues, are men who gain a sexual thrill from the thought of being women, and, to describe them, Blanchard coined the term ‘autogynephilic’; which is “a man’s paraphilic tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman”.
Blanchard further maintains that there are four types of autogynephiliac. Transvestic autogynephiliacs are aroused by the act (or fantasy) of wearing female clothing, while behavioural autogynephilia is arousal from the act of performing actions generally regarded as feminine (such as household chores, depilation, or putting on make-up). Physiological autogynephilia, meanwhile, is the achievement of arousal by fantasising about feminine bodily functions, and anatomic autogynephiliacs get their kicks by possessing (or dreaming of possessing) all – or parts of – a normative woman’s body.
Blanchard’s views may be alarming to those who cling to the notion that being transgender is a more transcendent, spiritual condition than simply getting one’s rocks off wearing fishnets and a belted mackintosh, but he cannot be accused of being illiberal. He is, notably, a proponent of state-funded gender reassignment surgery – although his primary reason for holding this opinion is that he considers sex-change operations an appropriate palliative for the psychological suffering endured by many transgender people. In other words, in Blanchard’s view, surgery for transsexuals is as worthy of government funding as any other form of mental health treatment for any other kind of patient.
Such theorising may be grist to the ideological mill of trans-exclusionary radical feminists, but I can’t shake the suspicion that objection to Blanchard’s typology is based on a hope that it isn’t true rather than a conviction that it isn’t. No-one likes having their lifestyle choices and ambitions – and the huge sacrifices made to fulfil them – reduced to a base, atavistic drive. Thus, I would like to offer four short tales of psychoanalysis that I think strongly support Blanchard’s assertion that gender nonconformity (particularly amongst non-homosexual men) is an issue of misplaced sexuality and malfunctioning self-esteem, rather than a noble decision to pursue a social and sartorial third way.
I guess I would have been about eleven or twelve when my parents took me on holiday to this resort on the Adriatic. I can’t remember the name of the town where we went, but I know it was a few miles up the coast from Dubrovnik, so I’ve always thought of that as my Dubrovnik trip. Most of the holiday is just a blur now – I can’t even say for sure how long we stayed there – but I know it must have been during the summer, because that’s when we always went away as a family. I know that it was a pretty disappointing holiday, too, and that my parents blamed me for it. We usually spent our August fortnight in Cornwall, and I had nagged my parents to take me on a foreign holiday because that’s what I thought all my schoolfriends did. My mother didn’t want to fly, I know that much, so it must have taken quite an effort of will to get her on the aeroplane and put her life in the hands of the pilot and the engineers who had built the 7-3-7. When the Dubrovnik trip turned out to be such a crushing anti-climax – after weeks of excitement that I was finally going to spend a holiday somewhere other than on the M5 – my mum and dad had yet another reason for giving me their weary, I-told-you-so looks.
The only clear memory I have of the trip (apart from that my parents had wasted their money on account of my keeping-up-with-the-Joneses response to playground peer-pressure), was the afternoon we spent at an open-air swimming pool with a wave machine and water chutes. The complex was called Poseidon, and probably covered about sixty acres. There were areas with tables and bars, and others with sun-loungers and parasols. Once my parents were installed a one of these, and my mum had had a bit of a swim and settled down with a paperback while my dad nodded off in the sun, I wandered off to explore. I spent time idling in a jacuzzi, and then found a shallow little pool for toddlers that was heated to pleasantly volcanic temperatures. I got thrown out of that by a lifeguard for being too old when I tried swimming along the bottom, so I made my way to the water-slides.
There were two slides, and they started at the top of a tall tower at the centre of the park. The tower had flights of wooden steps on the inside to reach the platform at the top. The blue-painted handrails were rusty and the steps were slimy with mildew, and the queues were interminable. Dozens – maybe a hundred – holidaymakers waited in line on those flights of stairs, rejoicing when they reached a ninety-degree turn on the staircase because it meant a slight change of scenery. Once you reached the top, you were helped into the mouth of whichever slide you chose by one of the lifeguards, but then you were held in suspense by one of them placing a sinewy, sunburnt leg in front of you across the fibreglass halfpipe. When the lifeguard judged the previous thrill-seeker was safely out of the way, he would lift his leg, and you were carried away by the rush of water.
I had ridden (and queued for) the slides maybe a dozen times, and was waiting on the final flight of steps just before emerging from the shadows inside the tower into the sunshine, when I became aware of a sort of ripple passing through the huddles of people below me. Punters were reluctantly shuffling on the narrow steps to make room for someone who was shouldering their way self-consciously up between them, and making their way to the top.
When the source of the disruption reached the flight of steps where I was standing, I saw that it was a girl. She was a little bit older than me, but not much – thirteen or fourteen, I reckon. Her long, black hair was already wet from swimming, and she had smooth, olive skin from, I fancied, spending hours in the Balkan sun. She was wearing a green, two-piece swimming costume the colour of an avocado. She had a heart-shaped face, and we made eye-contact, very briefly, as she climbed past me. She had a sulky, bored-looking expression, and her eyes were wide apart and a very light, almost transparent brown colour, like marbles held up to the sun.
The lifeguards exchanged secretive, knowing looks as the girl passed between them and settled herself at the start of the water-chute nearest to me. I now realise that she was probably the daughter or something of some bigwig at the waterpark – the owner’s niece, probably – and that she therefore had immunity from the tedium of queuing, and was able to jump straight to the front of the line. The glances the lifeguards gave each other certainly, I now realise, suggested that they had seen this girl before, and that they were more than familiar with her silent, haughty jumping in line. I know now that that was what their bemused looks meant, but, at the time, my confused adolescent mind connected this girl’s apparent power and aloofness with the fact that she was slim and pretty. I wanted what she had; I wanted the same authority to have people move aside for me, and I wanted people to gaze enviously at my trim shoulders and slender legs as I walked past them. But to have that dominion, I knew I had to be a girl.
At the top of the chute, the girl didn’t turn and look back. After a few seconds, the lifeguard lifted his leg, and she was gone – borne away down the halfpipe in a plunging churn of water.
Case Study Two: R. Explores Spencer Marsden’s Pornography Collection
During my second year of high school, I formed an unsavoury friendship with a plump, freckled boy in my year called Gavin Marsden. Marsden had flame-red hair and bulging, thyroidal eyes, and he led me astray in no small measure. With the basic expedient of peer pressure, he intimidated me, at various times, into playing truant, committing acts of mindless vandalism, and indulging in petty bouts of small-scale shop lifting. I am in no way proud of my twelve-month association with him.
Marsden’s principal appeal wasn’t his magnetic personality, his double-jointed thumbs, or his ability to belch, to order, phrases of increasing lexical complexity. It was his step-brother’s compendious assortment of pornography that kept me in thrall to him. Spencer Marsden was a good decade older than Gavin and me, and his library of grot ranged from the everyday mainstream material of the newsage’s top-shelf, to hours of videotape of eye-popping acts of sexual kink and vulgarity. In his limited defence, Spencer Marsden didn’t appear to have amassed this impressive Aladdin’s Cave of filth for mere titillation: like Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis are reputed to have done with the Victorian porn they accumulated, Spencer kept his treasure-trove well catalogued, and padlocked in an impressive oak wardrobe in his bedroom. To my callow sensibilities, Spencer’s connoisseurship lifted him high above the rank of a mere common-or-garden masturbator, but, unfortunately for him, Gavin and I were soon adept at picking the wardrobe lock, and we skipped school on many afternoons to pore over the collection while Gavin’s family were all at work and the house was empty.
This pornucopia of muck constituted the lion’s share of my adolescent sex education. In today’s parlance, most of the content was pretty vanilla, but, every now again, Spencer’s library included something a little less middle-of-road. Gavin and I whiled away hours fast-forwarding through miles of tape for fleshy tableaux to boggle at in amazed awe. We squinted in disbelief at vaginas stretched to accommodate dildos the size of saxophones. We gasped in horror at a woman fellating a donkey with a West Country accent. We winced in revulsion at the squatting coprophiliacs performing with alacrity at the Glass-Topped Coffee Table Club.
I realise, looking back, that some of the X-rated imagery I witnessed left me with deep, irreparable scars, and, as a young adult, I fretted for years over the psychological damage watching Down on the Farm must have done me. (I was granted some emotional solace years later by a random encounter with a friend of a friend at a party, who told me, “To be haunted by images of men violating chickens and woman being serviced by horses is a good thing. The time to worry is when you find yourself thinking, Where can I get my hands on more of this stuff?” God bless him, whoever he was: he restored to me tremendous peace of mind.)
But it would be impossible to fully exorcise the troubling memories of every fifth-generation grumble epic that flickered before our adolescent eyes in those afternoons in the front room of Gavin Marsden’s parents’ house with the curtains drawn. My psyche will never be completely purged of some of the things I saw, but what all these startling masterpieces had in common – to my impressionable eyes, anyway – was that the women seemed to be the ones having all the fun. That is not to say the men (when they appeared) didn’t appear to be enjoying themselves, but it was the women who always had the interesting toys; or had food mashed into their bodies; or had bendy things inserted into them; or had two or three (or more) men attending thoroughly and diligently to their every sensual need at once; or (and this is perhaps the most important and relevant observation about the whole, clandestine, year-long experience) who wore the sexy costumes. The women seemed to be deriving all the pleasure, I deduced, whilst the men were doing all the hard work. If ever I were to appear in a naughty movie, I decided, it would be in one of the women’s roles, and in one of those beautiful costumes of lace and silk and corsetry and garters.
Spencer Marden’s pornography collection probably did me deeper, more complex and more lasting damage than over-exposure to adult entertainment does most individuals. Even now, when I watch porn as one of the worldly-wise, I don’t imagine myself doing things to the female performers. Instead, I imagine myself as one of the female stars, having those things done to me. Did my crossdressing blossom as a consequence of seeing the submissive, accelerated enjoyment of sex (with all the fabulously fussy outfits) the women appeared to be having in the movies in Spencer Marsden’s archive? At that vulnerable age, how else was I supposed to connect the dots between the clothes and the women and the attention and the pleasure in those films? Of course I wanted those ecstatic experiences or being worshipped and attended to for myself; of course I did.
Case Study Three: J.’s White-Trouser Rejection
When I think of the sort of thirteen-year old I was – mawkish, awkward, pathologically unfashionable, no discernible taste in music, capped with a pudding-bowl haircut like a minor character in a Billy Bunter story – it doesn’t surprise me in the least that none of the girls at school fancied me, but that didn’t stop me wanting a girlfriend more than anything else in the world.
I had that uncanny capacity, too, of being able to oscillate wildly from pudgily overweight to very skinny, so that my blazer and school trousers either hung off me like bags, or barely met at the zip. This capacity for rapid and dramatic weight loss and gain was, I suspect, a symptom of the bouts of depression I suffered during puberty. I wasn’t able to diagnose myself at the time – nor to connect my mental state to the ebb and flow of my waistline – but I certainly spent a great deal of time as an adolescent crying, and, on those occasions when I did attempt to confide in my mother, complaining to her that I was ugly.
The thing I blamed for these periods of misery, of course, was my inability to get a girlfriend. Unfortunately, being such a spaz (to use a moniker that was all the rage back then) meant that I didn’t handle rejection gracefully, or particularly philosophically. Instead of taking a long, hard look at myself and attempting to replicate the things my contemporaries did who had more success with the ladies, I elected to play the averages game, reasoning that, if I threw myself at enough hapless females, one of them would eventually cave in and say yes. Sadly, however, it didn’t work out that way, and, the more clumsy proposals I made, the more rejections I racked up. Or, to put it another way: my conversion-rate of propositions to rebuffals remained constant at a perfect one-hundred percent.
On top of my increasing desperation, I realise with hindsight that I was granting the girls at my school more and more power over me. In fact, I started to assume that their power over me had been earned for no other reason than that they were girls, and that it must be a marvellous thing to be female, because, that way, you had boys simply hurling themselves at you, and you could take your pick without any thought for the broken corpses of unrequited suitors littering your wake. To my mind, you see, I wasn’t giving girls power over me: they had pre-eminence for no other reason than that they had nice hair, no hair on their legs, and could wear pleated skirts and shoes with buckles on them.
To make matters worse, my mother’s advice on the subject was always jaw-droppingly inadequate. The most telling example of this happened while we were on holiday that summer on a campsite of static caravans near Scarborough. Overall, I think I’d been enjoying the holiday up until the night I’m going to tell you about. There was an amusement arcade on the campsite, and plenty of other things to keep me amused: trampolines, a pool, and it was possible to hire bicycles for the afternoon, and I idled away hours in my own company while my younger brother and my parents did whatever it was they did to pass the time back at the caravan.
The campsite had a clubhouse with two distinct areas. In one room, there was bingo, stand-up comedy, a bar, and general adult entertainment; and, in the other, there was a disco for under-eighteens to keep them out of their parents’ hair for the evening. Not being big drinkers, however, my mum and dad seemed quite happy to hang around the children’s disco with my brother and me, smiling benignly from their table as my brother drifted off with the new friends he’d made and I pleaded for a ten-pence piece to go and play another round of Space Invaders in the arcade next door.
Having put the best part of two pounds into the Space Invaders machine, I was sitting disconsolately with my parents when my mum leaned over to me so I could hear her over the sound of Agadoo. She told me that a pretty, blonde-haired girl on the dancefloor had been staring at me. This seemed unlikely – and I was right to be dubious – but I asked my mother how she knew anyway. By way of explanation, she simply said that the girl had been hanging around by the edge of the dancefloor to get my attention, and that I should go and ask her to dance.
I wasn’t convinced. Every instinct in my body (raw from the memory of the long list of rejections from the girls at school) screamed that my mother was wrong; that it was mere coincidence that the girl had been looking my way. We were sitting quite near the door, and it was very possible that the girl had just been squinting through the flashing neon to see where her own mother and father were. Deep down, I knew my mother was mistaken, and that to listen to her would only invite disappointment and humiliation, but, with the wretched credulity of perennially desperate, I stood up and made my way to the dancefloor, braced to ask the pretty blonde if she would stand facing me from two feet away, and watch while I gracelessly leaned from one foot to the other with my fists clenched and arms bent at the elbows like I might punch someone in the stomach, and while I wore a pained and embarrassed expression like someone ordered to fake enthusiasm with a gun held against their head (or ‘dance with me’, as I liked to call it at the time).
A period of about seven or eight minutes passed before the girl offered me a weak smile and walked away, but, as she hadn’t actually laughed at me or burst into tears, I considered my preliminary advances something of a success. I couldn’t wait to go back to the caravan and wallow in my victory, and I was still so pleased with myself the following morning that, over breakfast, I allowed my parents to persuade me to undergo something of a makeover. I needed to ditch the corduroy, they said, and get some jeans. And not just jeans: white jeans, no less, with high-top trainers, and a tie-died tee-shirt to top off the ensemble.
So: they took me into Scarborough and kitted me out like a prize dickhead, and I was so stoked by the afterglow of the previous night’s conquest, that I allowed them to. I was more than an innocent bystander: I was a willing accomplice to my own disgrace, and, as my dad had a shave and we got ready to retire to the clubhouse that evening, I even used my mother’s hand mirror while I applied a generous dollop of hair gel to my unfashionably utilitarian locks. I like to think I still had possession of sufficient wherewithal not to wear a medallion with a silver-plated marijuana leaf on it, but I have the awful feeling that I pulled such an item of jewellery over my head nonetheless.
You can’t gild a turd. It takes a certain je n’ais c’est quoi to pull off white jeans, high-top trainers and a tie-dyed tee-shirt, and I just didn’t have what it took. No amount of hair gel could compensate for the self-conscious slope of my shoulders or my tarmac-gazing, pigeon-toed gait, and I went into the clubhouse that night like a lamb to the slaughter.
When I eventually found the pretty blonde-haired girl and tried to reacquaint her with who I was (“Hello. I’m the inverse Cinderella! We danced last night, when I looked more like a ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ tribute act and less like a sex offender…”), she goggled at me in wide-eyed horror for a few seconds, and dashed over to a group of boys my age who were hanging around the Slush Puppy machine. When she had reached the relative safety of her peers, I was acutely aware that the slow, dawning turning of their attention onto me meant that she was telling them that that nutter from last night was harassing her again, and that they must kill me if I made any further attempt to speak with her.
I watched with petrified ignominy as the group closed ranks around my blonde-haired princess. I knew the game was up, and that my mortification was complete. I had gone out and tried to dress myself like the boys I had seen who didn’t stutter like an imbecile when they tried to talk to girls, and those clothes had swallowed me whole. I had drowned in them. It was the defining statement, I think, of my relationship with male clothes, and I hated what I had done to myself by attempting to fit them. Certainly, I was never able to go shopping for clothes after that with any sense of enthusiasm or joy, and I knew, as plainly as I knew that girls had the power to humiliate and hurt me, that I would never, never, listen to the advice of my mother and father again.
Case Study Four: Matty Dresses like a Girl for Hallowe’en
I cannot exaggerate how unexceptional I was at school. When report-writing season came around, I suspect I was one of those students my teachers had to really think long and hard about before they could remember who I was. I wasn’t popular; I didn’t excel in any particular subject; and I had no sporting ability whatsoever (and this is, cruelly, the aptitude that is prized above all others in schools – by children as well as their teachers). I never won a competition; was never chosen to represent the school for anything; I was never invited to the front of the hall during assembly; I never had my work framed and displayed on the wall. In fact, the most memorable thing about me was that I once wet myself when I’d been sent out of a maths lesson for talking and was too scared to go back inside to ask if I could go to the toilet. When my classmates were allowed out at the end of class, they could see (and smell) that I was standing at the centre of a broad, pungent circle of urine.
Everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame, though, and, when I was nine and in the third year, I had mine. For reasons that escape me, every October my school thought it more appropriate to devote a day of effort and curriculum time to a Hallowe’en costume parade than to marking a more meaningful, less pagan, festival like Diwali or Yom Kippur. (My school was in a district of Manchester that had quite a large population of Sikhs and Hindus. Now I’m older and wiser, I often wonder those children felt knowing my school was more interested in witches, zombies and Dracula than it was in the Festival of Lights.) The last two Hallowe’ens, I had shuffled around in the costume parade with heavy heart. Some of the kids had parents who took the event very seriously, and they always had great costumes. They were so good that them winning the parade was always a foregone conclusion, and there was almost no point anyone else making an effort. (Mark Baxter, for example, usually came as a wizard, and the attention to detail on his costume was always breath-taking. He had half-moon glasses and a little goatee beard, but the thing that impressed me most was that he had an old hard-back book under his arm that his step-dad had rebound in black paper and painted a pentangle on in Tipp-ex. I couldn’t compete with that: my parents just didn’t have the imagination.)
It was the girl’s costumes that I envied most, though, and I always wished I had a princess’ gown or a Snow White dress that I could pull out of the wardrobe to fall back on at events such as this: something pretty that I could enjoy wearing without it bothering me that I had no chance of winning. My fancy-dress options were always so pitifully thin that one year my mum told me to pull one of my arms out of my sleeve and hide it inside my shirt. I was given a pair of her tights to wear on my head and a cardboard sign on a string to put round my neck with ‘One-armed Bandit’ written on it. That was how bad things were for me.
This one year, however, I determined not to be miserable on Hallowe’en. I told my parents I wanted to go the parade as the bearded lady, and my mum couldn’t root out a dress for me fast enough. My father was a member of the church pantomime society (he usually played the villain because he was quite stocky and had quite a good singing voice), and he had a word with the woman who usually did the make-up and wigs for their performances, and I was booked for a beard fitting with her when my dad was next expected at rehearsals. My mum lent me a pair of her sandals and a long, dark brown wig she had (and which matched her own actual hair so exactly that I still can’t fathom why she owned it). The pièce de résistance of the outfit, though, was, without a doubt, the fulsome pair of rubber breasts my older brother had once returned with as a souvenir from a stag-do in Blackpool.
I’d never had any intention of wearing the false beard. That had been a ruse to get my parents to agree to me wearing a dress for school (and quite a well-chosen one, if I may say so), and I threw it away in the park on my way to school.
When it came time to get ready for the costume parade, my transformation created quite a stir. Peter Varnavas (who, as well as having a father who owned a fish and chip shop, was – by common consent – the hardest kid in school) was especially captivated by the false breasts. If I’d worn a dress in public under any other circumstances, Peter Varnavas would undoubtedly have fed me my own teeth, so it was especially gratifying to have won his approval through the simple expedient of rubber tits. And his reaction proved to be just the tip of the iceberg. When I appeared in the assembly hall, a buzz went around the room that granted me a celebrity status that was both immediate and spectacular. When I stood up to sashay up and down before the judges with my class, the crowd went wild, and I will never forget, over the clamour, making eye-contact with Peter Varnavas. His eyes were wide; he was grinning from ear to ear, and he was cupping his hands in front of his own chest as if holding two imaginary galia melons. Even through the din of three hundred hyperactive school children, I could hear him shouting, “Push ’em up! Push ’em up!”
Peter Varnavas is dead now. He had a boxing coach and was a junior champion, and he suffered a brain haemorrhage during a match when he was sixteen. But on that afternoon in October when we were both nine, he gave me a gift as intangible as it is impossible to repay. Along with the student body of my primary school, Peter Varnavas taught me that people pay attention to you if you look like a woman. If you wear sandals and a nice dress, and if you have long hair and big boobs, people look at you; they cheer you and shout your name; they approve of you and make you exceptional. If you look pretty, people like you.
David Ebershoff’s novel, ‘The Danish Girl’ (2000), tells the story of the life (and marriage) of Lili Elbe – one of the first people ever to undergo sex reassignment surgery. The passages in Ebershoff’s book detailing Elbe’s first experiences of crossdressing may be coy, but they communicate an undeniable sense of the sensual thrill experienced by Elbe (then called Einar Wegener) when he first posed in women’s clothes for his wife to paint. “Einar began to feel dizzy and warm”, Ebershoff writes when Elbe ascends the model’s podium. “The yellow shoes looked too dainty to support him, but his feet felt natural arched up, as if he was stretching a long-unused muscle”, Ebershoff continues, before offering the following version of Einar’s emotions as he transforms into Lili:
“A strange feeling was filling Einar as he stood on the lacquer trunk, the sunlight moving across him, the scent of herring in the air. The dress was loose everywhere except in the sleeves, and he felt warm and submerged, as if dipping into a summer sea. …the silk was so fine and airy that it felt like a gauze – a balm-soaked gauze lying delicately on healing skin. Even the embarrassment of standing before his wife began to no longer matter, for… Einar was beginning to enter a shadowy world of dreams where Anna’s dress could belong to anyone, even to him.”
If you overlook the saccharine prose of these passages, there is something in Ebershoff’s fictionalised version of Lili Elbe’s formative crossdressing experiences that every male-to-female transsexual can identify with: the desire to feel attractive and to believe that you look attractive, in the way that women do and women can.
Is this desire sexual in origin? A more useful question is surely, Does it matter that this desire is sexual in origin? I would argue that it doesn’t. It is almost impossible to separate huge numbers of human actions from their sexual motivations, from the way we dress to the way we walk; from the way we interact with others to the language we use and the sort of music we like. If so much of our behaviour and impulse is already psycho-sexual in nature, then why should it matter that some men want to look the way that millions of women do every day, and why they wish society would treat them accordingly?
The individuals whose stories are told in this article – that is, the autogynephiliacs whose souls are laid bare – have clear and comprehensible reasons for assuming that the power and pleasure they witnessed (and, in one case, experienced) originated from the femininity of the people who wielded and enjoyed it. While the names and places have been changed to protect the innocent, they are all true stories. Imagine for a moment, however, that they aren’t the encounters of four separate individuals, but the cumulative vicissitudes of the same person. That would be intolerable, wouldn’t it? The individual in question couldn’t be blamed for embracing their new identity rather than attempting to process in another way what happened to them, could they? These incidents are so closely related to different ways in which boys and girls are treated as children and adolescents – and the role of clothing is so intricately woven through these narratives – that it seems only natural that the participant should seek solace in transition.
What impresses me most about these stories, however, is that they weren’t told to a therapist, or pulled from the mind like a thorn from a foot after hours of psychotherapy. This self-awareness was achieved through introspection and the patient interrogation of people who care. These people are far more precious than the professionals who charge by the minute for their willingness to listen. Therapists are a poor replacement for good friends.
When ordinary transgender folk tell their stories of transition, the dominant motif is always the inevitably of sacrifice – of what has to be surrendered in order to change sex. For transsexuals who are not cushioned by inherited wealth or magazine-cover notoriety – or who do not enjoy social acceptance by dint of their serendipitous ability to physically ‘pass’ in their preferred role – life boils down to a terrible choice: dysphoric misery (as suppression leads inexorably to depression) on the one hand; and, on the other, the loss of friends and family, denial of the right to self-efficacy at work, and the suspicion and scorn of disingenuous, lowest-common denominator pundits like Richard Littlejohn and Jeremy Clarkson. The assumption that such sacrifices are a necessary evil on the road to self-realisation is made with a casual cruelty that legitimises and exacerbates prejudice against transgender people: in the twenty-first century, institutional transphobia remains overt and unchallenged. (If you don’t believe me, try going for a wizz in Virginia, where the county schoolboard has welcomed an executive order from President Trump that actively discriminates against transgender teenagers.) The emotional price of gender transition is illustrated nowhere more tellingly – nor more heartbreakingly – than in the January, 2017, ruling by a UK family court judge that a transgender woman should not be granted access to her five children, because to maintain contact with them would adversely affect those children’s treatment in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in which they live. It is a troubling verdict because the presiding judge has ruled in favour of preserving chauvinism and validating small-mindedness. The case also serves to remind transgender people of two niggling, perennial questions: why would anyone elect to change their gender when the consequences can be so grave? And, more fundamentally: why does a change of sex carry such a high social price in the first place?
If you’re looking to subscribe to a belief system founded on suspicion of outsiders, fear of divine judgement, and the assumption that the prestige of your peers should depend solely on your adherence to a set of frighteningly irrational, paranoid and intolerant precepts, then you could do much worse than convert to Charedi Judaism. The Hebrew Bible is unequivocal in its views on homosexuality, for instance: not only does the book of Leviticus twice describe same-sex relationships as “detestable”, it insists (in chapter 20, verse 13) that, “if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind… they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” The book of Deuteronomy, meanwhile, famously dictates that “A man’s item shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment; whoever does such a thing is an abhorrence unto Adonai” (chapter 22, verse 5), and Judaical belief is rooted firmly in the conviction that to be born in the body of a man requires the individual to live as a man, that being born female carries with it the obligation of living as a woman, and that each gender must play the social and biological role bequeathed it at birth. And woe betide anyone who touches the carcass of a dead pig, wears clothing woven of more than one kind of cloth, or makes a sacrifice of anything containing yeast and honey.
In January, 2017, an English court ruled against the right of a transgender woman to maintain contact with her children. The plaintiff (known as J in court documents) left the North Manchester community of strict, Charedi Jews where she’d lived in June, 2015 – just before beginning life as a woman. J accepted that her marriage must end in order to pursue her desire to transition, but was hoping that, with patience and sensitivity, she would be able to help her five children get used to the idea that dad had changed quite a bit, and thus continue to enjoy at least a sliver of meaningful contact with them. And so began the legal proceedings necessary to protect J’s right to see her offspring (who, for the record, were aged between two and twelve at the time).
When Justice Peter Jackson delivered his verdict in January, however, he said it was “with real regret” that his decision meant that a loving parent would be denied direct contact with her children:
“Weighing up the profound consequences for the children’s welfare of ordering or not ordering direct contact with their father, I have reached the unwelcome conclusion that the likelihood of the children and their mother being marginalised or excluded by the ultra-orthodox community is so real, and the consequences so great, that this one factor, despite its many disadvantages, must prevail over the many advantages of contact. I therefore conclude with real regret, knowing the pain that it must cause, that the father’s application for direct contact must be refused. I reject the bald proposition that seeing the father would be too much for the children. Children are goodhearted and adaptable and, given sensitive support, I am sure that these children could adapt considerably to the changes in their father. The truth is that for the children to see their father would be too much for the adults.
“I can see no way in which the children could escape the adult reaction to them enjoying anything like an ordinary relationship with their father. In the final analysis, the gulf between these parents – the mother within the ultra-Orthodox community and the father as a transgender person – is too wide for the children to bridge. This outcome is not a failure to uphold transgender rights, still less a ‘win’ for the community, but the upholding of the rights of the children to have the least harmful outcome in a situation not of their making.”
In other words, a community of religious fundamentalists – in a western democracy in the twenty-first century – has succeeded in permanently silencing, if not expunging completely, one of its transgressive members. More shockingly still, the community has achieved this via the chilling process of threatening the ostracism of five of its children. For anyone interested in replicating this Lord of the Flies style social manoeuvre, it has three essential components.
First, like Cheetham Hill’s Jewish school, wilfully fail to meet the legal obligation to encourage respect for citizens with protected characteristic, such as gender nonconformity (as enshrined if the UK government’s 2014 Education Regulations, and 2010 Equality Act), by ensuring that pupils learn intolerance through a pedagogy designed to guard “their children… against what they regard as the dangers and excesses of modern society” (to quote the beliefs of Rabbi Andrew Oppenheimer, who gave evidence during the case).
Second, the programme of (mis-) education should to be so absolute that youngsters have no knowledge that transgender people even exist. As the head-teacher of one of J’s children told the court, a child would be subjected to “social isolation” by the entire community if any of their peers were to learn that their father was now a woman; “just hearing about it would be terribly confusing and unsettling”.
And finally, the community must offer witnesses in a court of law who are (in the judge’s words), “clear examples of discrimination and victimisation”, and who provide living, breathing proof of the bigotry and deliberate ignorance that are the central reason the parent should not be granted access to her children. Amongst the testimony of the birth-mother in the case, several jaw-dropping nuggets stand out which illustrate exactly what this means in practice. The statement of the head-teacher quoted above also said, “If a child was already in the school, the school would face tremendous pressure from the parent body, private donors and the governors, to suggest that the child find a more suitable educational environment”, whilst a teacher at one of the other children’s schools added, “The school will experience tremendous pressure… not to allocate a place to any child who will bring these potential risks. It would therefore be very difficult for the school to process an application for a child who fits the above description.” And you needn’t be transgender to find yourself at the brunt of such ire: a fifteen-year-old girl in the same community was ostracised and forced to move schools when word got around that she’d been sexually abused (by, nightmarishly, someone from within the community). Another local mother (whose ex-husband had fled the cult) attested that her youngest child had been denied a school place “as the school would not risk the influences their father’s contact with the child might have on the rest of the student body… This is the unfortunate price a child within an ultra-orthodox community pays for the actions of their parent.” Proof indeed that, in a society that considers itself enlightened (and over three-thousand years since the Old Testament was written), a child can still be punished, quite literally, for the sins of their father.
Whatever J’s intentions when she initiated court proceedings, there is to be no confronting prejudice and educating ignorance in Manchester’s Charedi community this decade. The mystery remains, furthermore, over why anyone with even a sliver of doubt about their sexuality or gender identity would choose to subscribe to the tenets of a doctrinaire religion, given that all religious doctrine, without exception, preaches fear and condemnation of any form of sexual difference: Judaism is but one of the many religious sources of transphobic prejudice available to the would-be convert. J didn’t choose to join a community of zealots and fanatics, however: she elected to escape it. Life in that community – and, more specifically, the added pressure of suppressing her true identity within such intolerant company – would surely have caused her years of mental anguish. In 2015, therefore, she realised that she could kid herself no longer, and took the plunge to live as a woman full-time – despite the colossal personal ramifications of such a course of action.
So: why did she do it? Why did J take a step that may mean (and, ultimately, did mean) losing everything – including the right to parenthood? The answer is as stark as it is simple: the alternative is much, much worse. When I took the final step of confirming my gender identity and of leaving my male self behind for good, there was a price to pay. I lost two teaching jobs in a month – I was made forcibly redundant from my assistant principal post, and then told that the head of high school post I was moving to was no longer mine. For a brief period, I satisfied myself with classroom teaching posts in either the most liberal or desperate of schools, but my over-qualified ascent up the greasy pole of promotion had very definitely come to an end. It still came as a shock when it happened, but I was prepared my fall from the career tightrope: if I’d learned one thing in twenty years, it was that, despite their key role in shaping the minds and attitudes of the nation’s youth, schools are startlingly conservative and parochial places. After much soul-searching, I decided that, if schools didn’t want me, then I didn’t want to be a part of them, either. Unlike a homosexual Christian, I had no desire to be a part of a club that made no secret of the fact that it didn’t want me.
My transition temporarily wounded both my bank-balance and my self-esteem, but I can’t help thinking that I got off likely. J from North Manchester has had to give up far more, and he is by no means alone in pursuing a course of action that carried a dire penalty. For many gender nonconforming people, the road to transition is littered with absent spouses, estranged children, expensive divorces, missed promotions, broken friendships, disgruntled siblings, repossessed houses, disapproving employers and thwarted ambitions. We know that these are occupational hazards of changing sex, but we transition anyway.
Why do we risk all on what many people dismiss as frivolous caprice? Simply: because transgender isn’t a choice; it’s a need; an urgent, consuming drive to adopt a social role enjoyed by fifty percent of the population as an accident of birth. Acting to remedy the crippling depression of gender dysphoria may be a conscious decision, but, more often than not, it is the only option we have left. J knew the perils of transitioning, but did it anyway. Her actions were not evidence of gross selfishness: on the contrary, J made the ultimate sacrifice in order to save herself from a lifetime of depression that would have caused collateral suffering to everyone around her. I cannot exaggerate how tormenting it can be to gaze on the gender you want to be from the beneath the skin of the one you wish you weren’t. I transitioned because I could stand the misery of delaying my transitioning no longer. I had lost days to debilitating bouts of depression, and couldn’t see why I should anaesthetise myself with anti-depressant medication. Pursuing more complex (and spurious) therapeutic solutions to my profound disappointment with my social and sexual identity seemed both delusional and ridiculous when the most honest and straightforward solution was staring me in the face: if I was miserable because I wanted to be a woman, then the smartest thing to do, surely, was begin to work towards becoming one. True womanhood is a destination I can never reach, but remaining steadfastly dedicated to the journey has brought me closer to happiness than any other solution I have – and could have – tried.
The question remains of why gender transition carries such social stigma, and excites such confused and hysterical responses. J transitioned from male to female; a fairly humdrum social process, on the face of it, involving a change of role and the renegotiation of relationships. She didn’t sell drugs to teens, run a paedophile ring, or forget to delete her browsing history, and yet she was expelled from her community as if she was guilty of the most heinous of crimes. The news that a friend or peer or family member or colleague is transgender continues, despite what we tell ourselves about progress towards tolerance and acceptance, to provoke the most absurd of reactions. An inability to cope on a conceptual level with transsexuality brings out the worst in a lot of people, and I think the reason for this is a symptom of four faulty assumptions…
Most people don’t understand why some folk want to change their gender. Whilst many of these people don’t let their ignorance bother them, and see no issue with treating transgender people as their equals (albeit as equals with eccentric clothing habits), there are plenty of influential groups and individuals who, rather than allow themselves to be educated (and to see that, actually, you know, just because so-and-so has grown their hair, they aren’t going to sexually assault me), prefer to convince themselves that transgender people are freaks.
Gender transition is seen as a choice that is made as whimsically or impulsively as whether to have Chinese or Indian tonight. Anyone who changes gender, therefore, is seen as weak, or as caving in to an improper desire. A little of what you like never did anyone any harm, the reasoning goes, so why not limit your sartorial perversions to the privacy of your own home, and go to work dressed in a suit like everyone else?
To many people’s minds, gender transition is too closely associated with sexual gratification for comfort. Problematically, male-to-female transsexuals are motivated to a great degree by trying to forge a comfortable sexual identity for themselves. But, whilst transition is often psycho-sexual in nature, wanting to feel attractive isn’t quite the same as wanting to go about one’s daily business in a state of permanent sexual arousal. Transsexuals want the right to enjoy being beautiful – to themselves as much as to others. Their concept of attractiveness just happens to contradict hegemonic expectations, but that does not mean their motives should be treated as synonymous with getting their rocks off by wearing dresses.
People with the opinions outlined above who hold (or think they ought to hold) gatekeeping positions in our culture – such as teachers, religious fanatics, employers, and so on – assume a specious and unnecessary responsibility for protecting their fellow citizens (and their children) from undesirable influences. Their belief that they must prevent society from slipping into a mire of cross-dressing debauchery is, paradoxically, as strong as the futility and redundancy of their impulse to speak out against transsexuals. Society has nothing to fear from gender nonconforming people. We aren’t going to corrupt anyone’s children, slow the birth-rate, spread diseases or lower house prices. But transphobia (like racism, sexism, ageism, ableism and homophobia) is – because it originates, by definition, from fear – irrational. More often than not, transphobia is not motivated by hate. If it were, it would be much easier to condemn and to challenge. The root of transphobia is generally the erroneous belief that allowing men to become women, and women to become to men, serves to sanction a moral decline from which society can never recover. Bless.
In the face of such opposition, transgender people have every justification for feeling brave for continuing undaunted to live the life we want in the way we want. It sucks to be ignored, marginalised and abused, but it sucks even more to be depressed about something you’ve always wanted to do, and which huge numbers of your contemporaries take for granted. Transgender people, furthermore, have to work that little bit harder than our cisgender peers to earn and maintain a trusted and respected place in society, and two extra conditions are usually attached to our acceptance by the world at large.
The first is that social endorsement is linked inextricably to our ability to ‘pass’ convincingly as a biological member of our target gender. This, in turn, depends upon whatever concept of attractiveness has currently been deemed in vogue by social and media consensus, and holds especially true for male-to-female transsexuals. If you can look glamorous and/or sexy; if you can afford expensive clothes, be invited to the right parties, and depend upon the necessary connections; then you stand a greater chance of avoiding alienation and isolation. Heaven help the transsexual who is not able (either through lack of funds for the necessary surgery, or from being cursed with shoulders, hands and hips that will never look anything other than male) to present a glitzy or alluring face to the public: no-one, but no-one, is interested in reading interviews with, or in seeing photos or YouTube clips of, them.
An obsession with a particular type of transgender woman, moreover, contributes to harmful stereotypes of what constitutes femininity. Gender nonconformity ought to confront preconceptions of sexuality and raise unsettling questions about the nature of beauty, but if social validation is only granted to male-to-female transsexuals who pander to a narrow definition of red-carpet womanhood, then transsexuals are lying to themselves if they think they are challenging gender stereotypes and the harmful expectation that all women need to be skinny and elegant, and to trade on their sexuality.
The only other means of avoiding the exchange of depression and confusion for penury, unemployment and loneliness, is the presence of a supportive partner: a wife or girlfriend, I mean, who is either ‘into’ the idea of having a transgender spouse, or who is at least willing to put up with having a husband who takes longer in the bathroom than they do (because, when they said, “for better; for worse”, they meant it). There is no doubt that the presence of a partner buys a transsexual an enormous amount of immunity from censure and abuse: “Well,” onlookers reason, “if they’ve got a boyfriend or girlfriend, they must be alright under all that make-up.”
Both these options seem to have an attendant whiff of crappiness about them – not least because they reinforce reductive, heteronormative concepts of the nature of beauty, and of what is, and is not, a permissible family unit. Still: one step at a time. It’s only been 3400 years since Moses chiselled the book of Deuteronomy into a stone tablet.
There are those who will tell you that The Beaumont Society is a UK charity and support group for transgender people that aims “to promote and assist the study of gender differences”. There are others who will attempt to explain that it was founded in 1966 with the aim of establishing “an association for the transgender community to facilitate mutual support and communication in order to improve the health, emotional well-being and confidence of transgender people”. A third group will even maintain that the Society contributes to a “better understanding of the conditions of transgender, transvestism and gender dysphoria in society”, and that, for a mere £35 a year, you, too, could be a part of the work it does to “educate lay and professional groups about transgenderism” and “its associated issues”. But don’t believe a word of it. The Beaumont Society is a social club for middle-aged, heterosexual transvestites, that is, criminally, “not [even] available for sexual liaisons”. It is named after the French eighteenth-century soldier, diplomat and spy, Le Chevalier Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, and, this month, I kick of my occasional series of posts exploring the lives and careers of great gender-benders from history with a look at the legacy of this relatively insignificant monarchist and eccentric, who gave his name not only to a little-used euphemism for transvestites (‘eonists’, in case you were wondering), but also to a clandestine, London-based knitting-circle for nocturnal crossdressers.
Charles d’Eon de Beaumont was born in 1728. Throughout his infancy and early childhood, his mother – as was the custom – dressed him as a girl. He adopted male attire in his youth and early twenties, but his formative sartorial experiences must have left their mark on his psyche, because, when he was sent to the Court of the Empress Elizabeth in St Petersburg as a spy in 1755, he chose to present himself dressed as a woman, and adopt the pseudonym Madame Lia de Beaumont. His mission to Russia on behalf of the French government was a diplomatic success, but the experience of public crossdressing evidently deepened the Chevalier’s taste for drag.
Upon his return from Russia, Beaumont began a promising military career. He commanded a company of dragoons, but his flair for disguise and dissimilation soon resulted in his recall to the French secret service, and, in 1762, he was dispatched to London. Once there, however, his impetuous and extravagant behaviour resulted in the French ambassador petitioning Louis XV to summon d’Eon back to France. The UK capital must have won a place in d’Eon’s heart, however, because he refused to obey his king’s behest: he broke off relations with the French diplomatic corps, and remained defiantly where he was.
The new king, Louis XVI, sent his envoy, Beaumarchais, to London to make peace with Beaumont, but the Chevalier succeeded in convincing Beaumarchais (who was by no means a stupid man) that he was actually a woman trapped in male clothes, and the victim of a devious plot to indenture him to French service, under threat of arrest and execution. Beaumarchais was undeterred by d’Eon’s protestations, though, and remained insistent that the Chevalier return to Paris with him. Beaumont finally caved in 1777, but it was as a woman that he returned to his native country.
Contemporary accounts suggest that the Chevalier’s permanent state of transvestism did not go unnoticed – and unremarked. When he was presented at Court, his awkwardness and inelegance made people less than comfortable:
“The long tail of her dress and the three types of ruffles contrast so ill with the attitudes and quips of a grenadier that the effect is one of low company.”
Beaumont was not happy with the scrutiny and disapproval he encountered in France, and he returned to England in 1785 – still dressed as a woman. For a while, he was accepted as an eccentric figure in London society, but recurring financial problems prompted him to take up a new career as a female fencer. Like most sporting lives, of course, Beaumont’s life as a duellist could not continue indefinitely, and his later life was lived in relative poverty, melancholy and loneliness. In his private diary for the period, he chooses to refer to himself throughout using the first-person feminine pronoun. So thorough was his assumption of female role that most people began to assume he was a woman, and rumours circulated that the tales of his early career as a man were a fabrication. It appears as if d’Eon even convinced himself that that was the case, and yet, when his corpse was finally laid out following his death in 1810, the body was undoubtedly that of an octogenarian male.
The Chevalier d’Eon inspires me to a mixture of admiration and pity. It is tempting to envy him the freedom he was granted by his birth, position and ability to pass as a woman – living full-time in female role in the suspicious and uncertain climate of revolutionary France would have been all but impossible if it weren’t for his noble birth. His tragic and erratic personality, however – his apparent oscillation between the paranoiac and the threatening; the vindictive and the placatory – makes him a strange role-model for the Beaumont Society to choose. At times, D’Eon could be a sullen and petulant male who was quick to take offence; whilst, at others, he behaved like an aggressive, wisecracking female. His transvestism – and the contradictory attitudes held about it by the society in which he moved – drove him a little potty, no two ways about it. Is this the sort of mental quagmire the Beaumont Society seeks to cultivate amongst its members? The Chevalier d’Eon was rendered so unsure of his gender identity that he retreated into a duplicitous, neurotic secrecy that ultimately forced him to reject the attention and approval his diary testifies he so desperately craved:
“Man or woman?I am none the better nor the worse…I have been the plaything of Nature…I have gone through all the strange vicissitudes of the human condition.”
Who in their right mind would want to be like him?
It’s 2017! Yay! And what a thrilling year it promises to be! Of all the apocalyptic excitements lined up for the next twelve months, I’m most excited about Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th President of the United States of America, because his first term promises to be absolutely peachy for transsexuals. First, there’s all the brouhaha about which public toilets transgender students are permitted to use, with Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming all looking to control people’s lavatorial access because of what is written on their birth certificates; and refusing to provide alternative provision – even when this is in direct contradiction to national government policy. And then there’s the thorny issue of allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military; the likelihood that transgender people will be denied the right to choose their own gender designation on identity documents; resistance to marriage equality for gay and transgender people; and proposed legislation to prohibit transgender Americans from owning a gun. (I made that last one up, but it would be interesting to see what would happen, wouldn’t it?)
On top of all that are the billionaires Trump is choosing to fill key posts in his cabinet and the supreme court, with Vice President Mike Pence, by way of an example, making no secret of his belief in curative ‘conversion therapy’ for gay and transgender people – even arguing that funding for research into HIV/AIDS should be diverted for the purpose.
But the fun doesn’t stop there! Britain’s departure from the European Union is surely now only three months, two years, two-and-a-half years, four years or six years away, which means I can look forward to a protracted period of uncertainty regarding which legal statutes are safeguarding my right to participate in social and economic life, and protecting me from discrimination on the grounds of my gender. Fingers crossed that, by the time the British government begins drafting the English Bill of Rights that will replace the only specific strictures protecting transgender people from legal, financial, religious, educational or employment prejudice, England will have a Lord Chancellor who does not believe anyone who requires state aid – or who is a little bit different – is vermin.
The legitimisation of a politics that is self-serving, xenophobic, and which breeds suspicion, fear and hatred to serve its own grubby, venal ends, is by no means limited to America and the United Kingdom. 2017 promises to witness the election across the globe of a slew of right-wing extremists to positions of power by a disaffected working class, and a host of countries braced to abandon even the pretence of upholding the rights of minorities to work where they want, get paid what they deserve, marry who they choose, live where they like, and go about their daily life without fear of molestation.
It is not good time to be different: ignorance, nimbyism, selfishness, isolationism and hatred are in the ascendency. The attributes of fitting in, following the herd, making the right connections, and playing the system are now not only prized above all others; they are essential for the successful navigation of twenty-first century life. We are learning to revile anyone who isn’t capable of standing up for themselves, and being educated to make pariahs of any individuals or groups who depend for their wellbeing upon the beneficence of government and the generosity of public funds. We all have the right to be different and be true to ourselves, the modern-day lie maintains, provided the ways in which we want to be different and true to ourselves are in accordance with socially sanctioned ways of thinking and behaving. As the fourth-grade philosophers at South Park Elementary remind us:
’Cause you gotta do what you wanna do!
Don’t let nothin’ get in your way;
Chase your dream every day!
True, girl, you know it’s true,
That if you really wanna be you,
You’ve gotta do what you wanna do!
You gotta do what you wanna do!
Just make sure that what you’re doing
Is what’s cool and popular with everyone!
Do what you want, don’t have restraint;
Don’t stress about it or you just might faint.
(If you wanna get high and jack off, it’s cool.)
Try to do what you wanna do!
As long as what you wanna do
Is what everybody wants you to!
What, then, can you do to defend yourself from hatred and stupidity in the age of ignorance? Not a lot, is the honest answer, but you can at least ensure that you are well-informed. When someone is trying to tell you what you should do, how you should think, where you can go, who you can marry, what you can and cannot do to your own body, and what job you can have, be ready to mount the best intellectual defence that you can of your refusal to conform to convenient social stereotypes. History might not repeat itself exactly, but it does rhyme, and there are a number of historical precedents transgender people can refer to when they must challenge bigotry, educate idiocy, and stand up for their prerogative to be different.
Forewarned is forearmed. Here, therefore, are six common transphobic arguments that are rolled out to justify the unjust and prejudicial treatment of gender nonconforming people, along with a number of telling historical parallels of the use of similar discriminatory nonsense against racial and minority groups. So: if someone tells you can’t take a wizz in a public convenience, or that god made Adam and Eve – not Adam and Steve, be ready to flummox them with a well-aimed political zinger about how their arguments have been tried (and found severely wanting) before, and about how, ultimately, the tide of history is on our side.
One: Transsexuality is just an excuse for being a pervert!
When the American chain of discount stores, Target, unveiled a bathroom and fitting-room policy in April, 2016, that would allow customers and staff to use the facility that felt right for them, nearly one-and-a-half million people signed an online petition calling for a boycott of Target outlets.
The issue was covered by The Washington Post under the headline, “ ‘A Danger to wives and daughters’: Petition to boycott Target over transgender-inclusive bathrooms claims growing support”, which highlighted the belief that the policy of Target stores “could facilitate sexual abuse, particularly against minors.” It is terrifying to belong to a group whose members can be so casually labelled as child abusers and sexual deviants, and it matters very little to the mob that there is no statistical evidence whatsoever to support the assertion that transgender people are more likely than any other citizen to commit sexual assault. Apart from anything else, there are much easier ways to satisfy a fetish for toilet rape than alienating your friends, losing your job, and facing physical and verbal abuse on a daily basis, as a result of coming out as transgender.
The argument that violence or wanton depravity inevitably follows when different groups of people live and work together is a particular favourite of the cretinous racist. During America’s much overdue period of desegregation in the 1950s, reactionary propaganda sought to persuade unwary liberals that forcing people to live in a multicultural society would lead to disorder and conflict. The English politician, Enoch Powell, made a similar assertion in 1968, when he predicted urban neighbourhoods would flow with “rivers of blood” if immigration into the United Kingdom was permitted to go ahead unchecked.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that an irrational fear of integration is a mere comedic anachronism. There are some very powerful people who continue preach that, when people from different genders live and work side-by-side, the temptation to commit sexual assault is irrepressible, and that paedophilia and rape are only a heartbeat away. The only thing scarier than the people spouting such garbage are the folk who are prepared to vote for them.
Two: It is unfair to allow transgender people to participate in mainstream sport.
In January, 2016, the International Olympic Committee announced that it was relaxing its rules on the rights of transgender athletes to participate in international competitions. Under the new regulations, gender reassignment surgery ceased to be a condition to take part in events, although aspiring male-to-female competitors must demonstrate that their testosterone levels are below a given threshold before they can participate (because that’s the only performance-enhancing chemical the IOC needs to be worried about right now…).
Given that caring who wins a sporting competition is absurd anyway, the outcry which followed this announcement was not difficult to predict. Even an organ as sober as The Times newspaper responded with a column unequivocally headlined, “Transgender athletes are unfair to women”; the response on social media to the IOC’s announcement, meanwhile, was positively hysterical.
Competitive sport is such an elitist (and, it seems, permanently and intrinsically corrupt) institution, that it is difficult for rational persons to get worked up about it, but historical parallels to the exclusion of transgender athletes tended be focused on a fear that the purity and ‘tradition’ of sporting activity would be eroded by policies of inclusivity. Discrimination was justified with claims that the integrity of competitions could only be maintained via the preservation of the (white) status quo.
It took until 1946 for Jackie Robinson to ‘break the colour barrier’ in American sport, when he became the first black American to be signed by a professional baseball team. When he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was initially greeted with racial abuse from spectators, teammates refusing to play alongside him, and death threats from fans of both baseball and racism. Sixty-seven years later, the mixed martial artist, Fallon Fox, became the first transgender woman to participate professionally in her sport. In deference to over half a century of human stupidity, Fox was welcomed into the martial arts community with grammatically risible death threats.
Three: Why should precious time and resources be spent pandering to the whims of the tiny minority of transgender people living in this country?
Donald Trump’s position on the rights of transgender people is not easy to pin down precisely, but in May, 2016, he did tell a Fox News interviewer that national government should stay out of transgender politics, and that it should be left to state legislatures to decide how to serve their transgender constituents. When Trump was asked for his opinion on the North Carolina Bathroom Bill, he responded with, “You know, Obama’s getting into very tricky territory. The amazing thing is so many people are talking about this now, and we have to protect everybody even if it’s just one person, but this is such a tiny part of our population.” Did Trump provide gender-neutral bathrooms in his properties? “No, we don’t have that. I hope not, because, frankly, it would be unbelievably expensive, nationwide. It would be hundreds of billions of dollars.”
The argument that the problems of a minority should not be disproportionately elevated above that particular group’s actual cultural significance is, of course, as paradoxical as it is poisonous. Trivialising the needs of a section of the population on the grounds that the numbers affected are small is an effective way of subordinating that group’s rights and entitlements, and of justifying inaction when the groups requires protection. It is precisely because a group is small that it needs powerful advocates to act on its behalf.
Both the Civil Rights movement and the campaign for women’s suffrage were marginalised and ignored because propaganda encouraged them to be seen as fringe groups whose needs would have to wait until more pressing societal problems were resolved; as spurious pseudo-movements dreamt up by lunatic extremists claiming to speak for a non-existent membership; and even as smokescreens for smuggling communist ideas into the United States.
Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter how many people identify as transgender, and how large (or small) a percentage of the population this constitutes. A society which cannot protect the entitlements and freedoms of all its members to live ordinary, decent lives is a society that is failing. There can never a quorum for how large a group needs to be before the safeguarding of its human rights should be enshrined in morality and law: that group simply needs to be human.
Four: Telling me I can’t abuse transgender people is a denial of my right to free speech!
The politicians, media moguls and millionaires who campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in June, 2016, did so by appealing to voters’ base prejudices. The tantalising (and fundamentally dishonest) promise of splendid isolation offered by the emetic triumvirate of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Rupert Murdoch exploited xenophobic anxieties that cut across social strata. Small businessmen were persuaded that Brexit would stop Bogdan and Lukasz from undercutting their nascent painting and decorating businesses, while that the already-rich were encouraged to look forward to an era when they would be even less constrained by equal-opportunities legislation and the requirement to meet minimum standards of decency in the way they treat their workforce. The Daily Mail reading classes, meanwhile, were told they would no longer have a faceless bureaucrat telling them from Brussels that they couldn’t sing ‘Baa-baa Black Sheep’ in schools, buy curved bananas, or refer openly to gollywogs, blackboards, Christmas, jigsaws, Um-Bongo, remedials, fairy-lights, pooftahs, ching-chong Chinamen and fuzzy-wuzzies.
Happily, the lexicon with which gender nonconformity is discussed and described is moving gradually away from conceptions anchored in the clinical and pathological disciplines. The encouraging (but largely forgotten) report on Transgender Equality published by the UK government in January, 2016, argues that the reliance for legal matters on labels derived from surgical procedures – like ‘gender reassignment’ and ‘transsexual’ – to determine gender nonconformity should be replaced with language predicated on the assumption that transgender people have the right to autonomy of self-identification.
Not everyone is equipped for readily adjusting the way they talk and think when the casual cruelty of the vocabulary they use to describe sexuality, race or gender identity becomes socially unacceptable. Consigning certain terminology to the dustbin of history does not come easy to people who have not been helped to understand the damage certain words have the power to do. Letting go is hard to do, and the bigoted have become adept at portraying themselves as the victim when social pressure tells them they need to mind their language. Such thinking linked linguistic change with thought-policing by opponents of the Civil Rights movement (when jettisoning the word ‘negro’ from everyday speech proved challenging for some people), and again by enemies of the campaign for women’s suffrage. As society has grown out of an outmoded vocabulary for talking about race and women’s rights, so too will people cease to feel comfortable insisting on medicalised labels for transgender people. Hopefully, one day, people will even stop denying us the right to choose how we self-identify.
Five: Marriage should be between a man and a woman, not between two women, two men, nor anything in between.
Under UK law, if one of the partners in an existing marriage declares their intention to change gender, the marriage must be dissolved to allow the partner (or partners) in question to obtain legal recognition of their new gender, before the couple can remarry. In the United States, meanwhile, the right of transgender people to condemn themselves to a lifetime of connubial misery is covered by the same laws as same-sex marriage.
The legal precedent that enshrined the right of same-sex couples to marry in American law was established by the June, 2015, ruling of the Supreme Court in the case of Obergefell versus Hodges. This move, of course, has been far from universally popular in the US, and incites particular apoplexy for adherents to America’s unique brand of excitable, evangelising, deep-south Christianity. Nothing upsets the cast of Deliverance quite like gay marriage, with anything outside the absolute, predetermined, cisgender, heterosexual norm equated with devil-worship, paedophilia and bestiality. There is, it is argued, a natural order of things, and if anyone who wasn’t unequivocally born a man or woman seeks to make a public declaration of their love for another human being, then they are committing an act of gross indecency in the eyes of god. Transsexuality’s just not natural, Cletus!
One person’s establishment of legal precedent is another person’s slippery slope to Sodom and Gomorrah, and the argument that allowing one break with tradition will lead inexorably to anarchy, was a popular one to advance when members of the American establishment were just starting to get their old testament heads around the idea that people were capable of falling in love across long-held barriers of race and ethnicity.
Six: Gender Nonconformity has nothing to do with biology or neurology – it’s just a silly lifestyle choice.
We don’t yet know exactly what is at the root of a person’s desire to change the gender they were assigned at birth. On the one hand, the Dutch neuro-scientist Dick Swaab (in his 2014 book, ‘We Are Our Brains’) argues that transsexuality occurs when the gender mapping that takes place during prenatal brain development differs from the sex organs grown by the foetus, and is therefore just as much a product of development in the womb as the colour of our eyes or the shape of our feet. At the opposite end of the nature versus nurture spectrum, meanwhile, proponents of the trans-exclusionary school of radical feminism (most notably, British academic, Julie Bindel, and Maryland lawyer, Cathy Brennan) argue that transgenderism is entirely socially constructed. Specifically, TERF dogma maintains that female-to-male transsexuals are motivated by the desire to experience the power mandated to men by hegemonic processes in patriarchal societies; whilst, for transwomen, the appeal of transition is purely sexual – they just want to get their rocks off by pulling on fishnets and having a taste of being stared at.
Whether gender transition is a compulsion, a conviction, a compunction or a contrivance – or whether it is the result of over-indulgent mothering, childhood trauma, psychosis, psychology, psychiatry, psychopathy or psychometry – the label attached to its origins should never be an excuse for prejudice and discrimination. In January, 2015, I had an article published on a website for American teachers and administrators called ‘Education Week’. In it, I described the effect my transition had had on my teaching career, and how, ultimately, the barriers to employment and advancement I suddenly encountered had convinced me that I no longer wished to be part of such a toxic and reactionary profession.
The comments about my article that were appended to the ‘Education Week’ website proved to be startlingly and overwhelmingly negative. That said, analysis of these responses proved quite interesting, and showed that – however colourfully they expressed their prejudices – American teachers had three interconnected preoccupations when it came to gender nonconformity:
A need to label transgender people, and to deny them the right to choose how they label themselves (most notably, by prohibiting male-to-female transsexuals from calling themselves women).
The assertion that gender transition is a choice, the consequence of which should be self-imposed marginalisation (and a change of career).
Shock at the effrontery shown by transgender people when they expect society to accept difference, safeguard the principle of equality, and accommodate the desire of all its members to live healthy and happy lives, find paid employment, have aspirations commensurate with their skills and qualifications, and walk down the street without being screamed at.
These weren’t the views of cave-dwelling bigots, I forced myself to remember – these were teachers; professionals entrusted with the shaping of young minds. Belonging to a caring, nurturing, selfless profession, however, does not preclude a person from being subject to the same societal forces that influence mainstream opinion. That teachers hold conservative views should not be surprising, but it should remain disappointing: the reasons why people elect to live different lifestyles should not eclipse the defence of their right to live them.
History is littered with examples of pseudo-sciences that have been used to generate typologies that, in turn, have been used condone persecution, tyranny and repression: instances of pure bullshit, which enjoyed brief periods of popularity before being debunked and dismissed as the nonsense they clearly were. Phrenology, and the less snappily named racial-anthropological physiognomy, are no longer used as excuses for racism and eugenics, and monarchs and prime ministers no longer consult astrologers before making strategic military decisions. (Mind you, I would criticise astrology: cynical and suspicious, that’s me – a typical Taurus.)
Societies tend to grow out of mediaeval attachments to faulty scientific reasoning, but not all pseudo-science is easily dismissed, especially when it is used as an instrument of oppression. Neither is specious scientific reasoning the sole recourse of the crackpot or mountebank, and we must all accept our individual and collective responsibility for questioning and rejecting justifications for prejudice and hatred based on false logic, dodgy reasoning, scientific ignorance, or (heaven forbid) the Bible.
…And remember, kids: plagiarism is okay, provided the source you’re stealing from is rubbish. The bare idea for this article (and the bulk of the archival material it contains) were cribbed from an October 2016 submission to the blogging website, ‘Cracked’. However: when the grammar and syntax of the original article have all the grace of a six-year old’s homework, but the point being made is an interesting and a worthy one, it deserves a second draft by a better writer, right? Accordingly, the links to the political landscape of 2017, the placing of the arguments in their wider perspective and broader cultural context, and the eloquent written style, are entirely mine. Have a Very New Year!
Between the 14th and 20th November, Transgender Awareness Week was marked in America and the United Kingdom with a series of bake-sales, beauty pageants, poetry readings, and posing for selfies holding banners with witless platitudes on them (“Live your dreams”, say, or “Trans lives matter”). In pursuit of increasing the ‘visibility of trans-people’ and ‘celebrating trans-culture’, there were seminars on pronoun use, workshops on how not to offend your transgender colleagues in the workplace by having an apoplectic fit if they try to use the same toilet as you, and forums for the sharing of ‘powerful stories’ of coming-out and finding acceptance. The US event culminated in service of remembrance for transgender people who have died as a result of bullying, harassment and physical assault, and everyone had a jolly spiffing time feeling strong and united in the company of like-minded people. The only real problem is that, as forces of political and social change, awareness weeks are only infinitesimally more effective than doing absolutely nothing at all. Not only are awareness weeks – in their current form – colossal wastes of time, I want to argue that their three principal flaws are the same failings that made it possible for Donald Trump to be elected president of the USA, and for voters in the United Kingdom to choose to exit the European Union: namely, a self-defeating tendency to preach only to the already-converted; an inability to engage (beyond the level of insults and name-calling) with anyone who does not share the tolerant, liberal ideology of the magnanimous left; and an insistence on celebrating the accomplishments of a limited cabal of stereotypical role-models who perpetuate a lazy and unnuanced view of transgender people, and of the concept of success generally.
Although the twin cultural pillars of Star Wars and the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan were central to the imaginative and cognitive life of my childhood and adolescence, the thought of being forced to spend time in the company of fellow Star Wars or Gilbert and Sullivan fans now I’m older and wiser brings me out in a cold sweat. In particular, it is difficult to exaggerate the centrality of Star Wars to my formative years: I spent all my pocket-money on Star Wars toys; I spent hours drawing Star Wars robots and monsters; I charged around my primary school playground pretending to be Star Wars characters; I slept beneath Star Wars sheets and ate sandwiches from a Star Was lunchbox; and the short solo ballet I choreographed to Geoff Love’s version of the Star Wars theme tune remains one of the defining undiscovered artistic moments of the late twentieth century. More than that, a mutual affection for Star Wars was the social glue with which I formed many childhood friendships, whilst I owe my more betterer vocabulary to the linguistic curiosity engendered by listening to Gilbert and Sullivan (because the English language has never been set more perfectly to music).
Age has not diminished my fondness for either institution, but, as I’ve grown up, I have become increasingly averse to the company of other aficionados. I should be gibbering with excitement at the thought of queueing with hundreds of other Princess Leia lookalikes to meet the man who operated the tail inside Jabba the Hutt, and the prospect of joining a hundred-strong chorus to sing ‘Climbing over Rocky Mountain’ should fill me with eager anticipation, but there are a million things I would rather do than share my enjoyment of either Star Wars or Gilbert and Sullivan with other people. For starters, I am deeply suspicious of love for a cultural artefact that is uncritical. There is much about both Star Wars and Gilbert and Sullivan to disparage (‘The Force Awakens’, for example, is so lazy and awful that it almost doesn’t qualify as a film), but to say so in the company of fanatics is to commit heresy. On a deeper level, I am troubled by how un-self-critical enthusiasts are. Most people who like Gilbert and Sullivan are crushing pedants who think an ironic attachment to Victoriana is a replacement for personality, while Star Wars groupies will stand around for hours competitively quoting dialogue while pretending that it isn’t heart-breaking that the Disney corporation now owns their childhood. And not one of them is capable of embracing how ridiculous they are.
An unsavoury air of smugness and self-satisfaction hangs around assemblies of people with common cultural interests, and, for the same reasons I avoid associating with Star Wars geeks and Gilbert and Sullivan twats, I do not seek the society of trannies. I am, therefore, precisely the sort of person who thinks Transgender Awareness Weeks are a really, really lame idea. Like Star Wars conventions, awareness weeks conflate the three worst things about shared experience: the forced bonhomie and assumed political homogeneity of faux-solidarity; wilful deafness to criticism and self-criticism (arising from the need to feel a sense of belonging); and an insidious social pressure for participants to present a mindlessly optimistic front to the outside world.
The principal fault of Transgender Awareness Week is that its participants claim (and appear to feel) a sense of activism that they are not actually entitled to. Posting a photo of yourself overlaid with a pastel flag of horizontal stripes on Facebook does not constitute political engagement, and re-Tweeting a quote from Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner is about as far as it is possible to get from orchestrating practical or attitudinal change within and regarding the transgender community. The conduct of proponents of Transgender Awareness Week may be well-meaning, but it is glib and childish, and, far from aiding the transgender cause, it only serves to damage it. There were three fundamental things the organisers of (and participants in) November’s awareness week got wrong, in my opinion, and they are, chillingly, the same three errors made by the liberal left in their attempts to stop Donald Trump getting elected to the American presidency, and, in England, to prevent the country’s exit from the European Union.
One: Reasoned opposition to Donald Trump and Brexit did not reach the people it needed to; Transgender Awareness initiatives fail to connect with people who aren’t already directly involved in (or sympathetic towards) the transgender community.
The stated aims of Transgender Awareness Week are to ‘educate about transgender and gender nonconforming people and the issues associated with their transformation or identity’, and to ‘address the issues the community faces’. These are noble (if vague and intangible) goals, but the activities planned to achieve them were doomed to fail. It is difficult to see how a round-up of film, theatre and television containing transgender characters addresses any issues relating to gender nonconformity; or how much the cause of transgender equality can be advanced via a presentation from an executive at Tinder about how their dating app is becoming more trans-friendly. Perhaps Shea Diamond’s trans-power anthem will curb violent crime against transgender people, or maybe appearances by members of the cast of Transparent will help remove religious bias from state legislation on people’s access to public toilets…
A lot of time was spent in the penultimate week of November on activities with little or no power to make any genuine difference to the way transgender people are regarded or treated. As watch a live screening of Taiwan’s LGBT Award ceremony, or upgrade your avatar on SimCity to a transgender character, you might as well do nothing: no-one who isn’t transgender could possibly give a toss about anything that happens at a jamboree as self-serving and vacuous as the one adumbrated on the website of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
What is especially frustrating is that good, well-intentioned people gave up their time to engage in this stuff: they wanted to contribute to some kind of change; they needed to feel as if they were doing something – anything – to forward the transgender cause. Those participants had their time well and truly wasted, which is why I would like to propose a radical new format for future transgender awareness weeks. My scheme ensures delegates can still enjoy participating in collective activity, feel positive about investing time and energy in a good cause, and be guaranteed to reach an audience beyond the immediate transgender community. Instead of spending the best part of a fortnight sucking up to famous faces and pretending beauty pageants aren’t always a bad thing (whether the contestants are transsexuals or not), I suggest you recall some exact moments when you were the victim of discrimination, rudeness or unjust treatment, simply because you are transgender. Then find out where the people work who caused you distress, find a group of likeminded people to accompany you, and go and pay your aggressor a visit. Once you arrive at their office, there is no need to be surly or confrontational: simply point at the employee in question and explain what they did to hurt or ill-treat you. Once you have named and shamed your antagonist in this way, tell them what the consequences of their actions were, and how you were made to feel; then invite them to justify or apologise for what they did. Alternatively, you and your awareness week chums should use the bureaucratic tools of their office to inconvenience the hell out of them. If they work in a bank, for example, all of you should clog up the lobby filling in applications for pointless loans and queueing to ask idiotic questions.
My list of awareness-raising activities would include a visit to the headquarters of Prospero Teaching Agency (of 6-8 Long Lane, London, EC1A 9HF), where I would ask to see Becky. I would tell Becky how her behaviour made me feel, and invite her to clarify why she told the schools I was being sent to that I was transgender (despite me never self-identifying as such to the staff at Prospero Teaching, of 6-8 Long Lane, London, EC1A 9HF), a month before I was invited to become a poster-girl for the agency’s belated (and, in light of their previous conduct, somewhat hollow) equal-opportunities campaign. You see: if I don’t give Becky the chance to help me understand why she did what she did, then I’ll never be able empathise with her. If I can’t empathise with her, then I’ll never be able to help her appreciate what she did wrong, and I will have failed to make sure she never does it again to anyone else.
To be able to educate Becky in the covert and unthinking ways employers and potential employers discriminate against transgender people, I need to create an opportunity for myself to be able to view what happened from her perspective. Furthermore, the people guilty of prejudice are the ones transgender awareness projects need to speak to most directly, because we need to understand why people hold transphobic attitudes before we can educate them out of ignorance. It is a mystery to me why anyone in a position of authority or with gatekeeping responsibility is ever permitted – unchallenged – to allow transphobia (or homophobia or sexism or racism or ageism or ableism, for that matter) to influence their behaviour. Then again, I don’t understand why a very large percentage of voting Americans hold the views they do on gay marriage, climate change, gun control and abortion. If I heard Donald Trump’s election promises correctly, it also appears that there are millions of Americans who are opposed to the idea of affordable universal health care, and that can’t be right, can it? To object to the aim of Obamacare to provide access for all Americans to medicines and a doctor – irrespective of their social class – is just mental, isn’t it? Yet the assurance the he would repeal this policy is one of the ways Trump secured his victory. If I can’t get my head around why US voters appear to hold preposterous attitudes to sexuality, the environment, and the right to buy military-grade assault weapons, then I can’t enter into meaningful dialogue with them. If I can’t communicate with them, then I can’t begin the process of persuading them that I’m not a borderline paedophile who will steal their souls or lower the value of their homes, and who only wears dresses because I want an excuse to sneak into women’s toilets.
Two: The discourse used by the political left with regard to the political right (and particularly towards members of the latter who are poor and uneducated) has degenerated into insults and name-calling; the insistence on a message dominated by proclamations of being ‘out and proud’, ‘in your face’ and ‘here to stay’ by the transgender community frightens and alienates people who have little or no direct contact with gender nonconforming people.
Anger, disbelief and frustration are perfectly comprehensible responses to the abuse and bigotry experienced by transgender people on a daily basis. Whilst rage may fuel the drive for political engagement, however, it can serve no constructive purpose if it is allowed to colour the nature of debate. If you shout at someone or insult them, then you cannot expect them to be responsive to your arguments, no matter how well-formed and persuasive those arguments are. Hillary Clinton made a terrible mistake when, during a fundraiser in New York on September 9th, she described Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”, before going on to accuse half of anyone who would vote for Trump of being “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.”
(Ironically, Clinton began that same speech by thanking the speaker who had preceded her – Laverne Cox. “Her endorsement,” Clinton said as she thanked Cox, “her strong words, her passion, her example, her advocacy on behalf of the transgender community – particularly transgender women of colour – is just so extraordinary, and I love the way she wove in so many of the issues that are up for grabs in this election.” And so, with what should have been a moment of triumphant visibility for gender nonconforming people, Laverne Cox was rendered guilty by association. Appearing on the same platform as Hillary Clinton, and offering vocal support for the latter’s campaign, Cox further the alienated the transgender community from ordinary, working, cisgender Americans – that is, Americans whose lifestyle does not consist of collecting TV awards, sipping champagne on red carpets, and rubbing shoulders with billionaire presidential hopefuls.)
Hillary Clinton should have been able to beat Donald trump easily – how bad do you have to be to be incapable of persuading people not to vote for him? – but she muffed it. Instead of patiently deconstructing Trump’s bizarre election promises – one-by-one; step-by-step – Clinton set about insulting precisely the people she needed to vote for her, and then recruiting wholly inappropriate role-models to help her insult them some more. If you call someone names, they shut down. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to know that.
That is not to say that transgender people should turn the other cheek when random strangers are rude and abusive. On November 30th, 24 year old Jamie Penny was given a suspended sentence by Hammersmith Magistrates’ Court for using threatening behaviour and homophobic language in an exchange with Eddie Izzard in Pimlico, in April, 2016. Penny had, it seems, reacted somewhat negatively when Izzard had refused him a lift in his vintage Volkswagen Beetle, calling the marathon runner and professional Eddie Izzard tribute act a “f*cking pooftah”, and saying, “Izzard: we are going to do over your house when you are away.”
I want to applaud Izzard’s brave stand against homophobia; I want to salute his courage in facing up to Jamie Penny and making an example of him by pressing charges, but, again, I find myself thinking this should have been handled differently. Penny, it should be noted, is autistic, has a short and tragic history of petty abusive behaviour, is most likely suffering from depression, and has further addled his brain through marijuana addiction. Whilst none of these justify his behaviour towards Izzard, they do go some way towards explaining it, and allow Penny to be recast as the victim. Izzard’s on-the-spot reaction to Penny’s attack in Pimlico was to hurl abuse back at him, and now the millionaire performer can flounce off into the sunset in his designer heels, whilst Penny scrapes together the £715 in fines and costs he was ordered to pay.
The story would have a happier ending if Penny had been reformed; if Izzard and he were later seen staggering home from the pub together with their arms around one another’s shoulders, spiritually richer for the experience of having got to know each other better. Instead, Penny remains unrepentant, uneducated, and – much worse – even angrier with the artsy-fartsy transvestite set than he was when the whole sorry episode began. For proof that he has learned nothing, spend a moment reflecting on Penny’s parting bon mot, shouted from the dock as he was escorted from court after sentencing: “Eddie Izzard is going to burn in hell!”
Donald Trump’s election and Britain’s departure from the European Union are chilling instances of what can happen if we don’t engage with and persuade the individuals and institutions responsible for discrimination and oppression. Instead of political activism, however, celebratory and affirming events organised by and for transgender people inevitably degenerate into beauty pageants, and it is depressing to see how many transgender fashion models are offered as evidence that transgender people can succeed in a cisgender world. Confetti cannons and catwalks do not a political statement make. Culturally, we have moved on from thinking that becoming a fashion model or beauty queen means a cisgender female has made it as a woman: we should not be tricked into believing that a similar aspiration is any less sexist or body-fascist when the participants are transsexuals. Moreover, when transgender propaganda is dominated by fashion and glamour, and when social media are swamped with pouting selfies of drag queens in short skirts, the effect on outsiders is the further breeding of suspicion and the cultivation of distrust.
First, reducing transgender culture (and that of male-to-female transsexuals in particular) to lip-gloss, selfies and fashion parades is demeaning. It is precisely the sort of retrograde behaviour that compounds gender stereotypes, and which rationalises the concept of trans-exclusionary feminism. I would never begrudge anyone the right to party, but to try and glue a political label to – or to claim that something is being celebrated by – partying, is just silly. There is nothing ennobling, transformative or educational about a catwalk full of trannies.
Second, the sexualisation of any group of people is extremely damaging, both to the status of the group itself, and to the esteem with which it is regarded. When sexualised transvestism is permitted to dominate transgender discourse – and to define the face the transgender community presents to the world about itself – then neutral observers should be forgiven for questioning our motives. It is precisely the imitation of Hollywood glamour and red-carpet soft-porn that Donald Trump and Brexit voters find so creepy about transgender people. When they see trans-women acting out their fantasy of being snapped by paparazzi in backless dresses, outsiders quite rightly wonder why. Sexuality is always a bit weird when taken out of the context of the bedroom or the solitary internet search, and it is frankly silly to demand to be taken seriously in social, economic, cultural or political life if you’re dressed like Grayson Perry or an extra from The Rocky Horror Show. Sexualised transgenderism puts up barriers – it doesn’t break them down. Many transgender people are striving towards equality; of trying to strike a balance between our exceptionality and our freedom to operate on equal terms with cisgender people in everyday life. This work – this actual, political work of education and awareness-raising – is undone when it has to take place against the constant backdrop of a bunch of preening cretins who think they’re Marilyn Monroe.
Three: Being told to vote for the preservation of the status quo by someone who is a beneficiary of that status quo (such as Jay-Z and Beyoncé in the case of the American election, and Richard Branson and David Beckham in the case of Brexit) is offensive to people who do not benefit from it; the transgender community chooses spokespersons limited to a very narrow spectrum of glamour, celebrity and economic prosperity, who are not only meaningless to most people, but who compound the stereotype of transgender people as shallow, vain and self-absorbed.
Role-models need to be normal. They need to connect with people in a meaningful way. If a proffered role-model lives a life unattainable to people not born in the shadow of inherited, Hollywood wealth, then they ought to be – quite rightly – rejected by anyone over the age of six. Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, for instance, are useless as sources of inspiration for the working-class north-of-England boy who has just been beaten to a pulp by his father because he’d asked for a Barbie for Christmas. Vulnerable transgender people need reassuring that they can come out without needing to jump out of a cake to do so; they deserve exposure to ordinary, working transgender people who live relatively humdrum lives, in order to receive the gift of realising, “Oh – I can just come out: I don’t need to mince about like RuPaul in a Carman Miranda wig and have silicone buttock-implants.”
Hillary Clinton’s terrible choice of celebrity endorsements, and those attached to the remain campaign in the British referendum on EU membership, fell into exactly the same trap: they couldn’t connect with the elctorate. If you’re working eleven-hour shifts and wondering how on earth you’re going to feed your family this month, the last thing you need is a billionaire telling you how to vote. Laverne Cox makes much of her humble, single-parent, Alabama origins, but she is ambulant proof of how quickly exposure to the limelight can nudge someone out of touch. Take this ‘inspiring’ 2014 quote, in which Cox celebrates the progressiveness of the US film and television industry:
“I was on the cover of Time magazine in June and, that same month, four trans-women of colour were murdered in the United States. So, just because I got an Emmy nomination doesn’t mean the lives of trans-people aren’t in peril every day.”
Meanwhile, enjoy this platitude from Caitlyn Jenner (who, for the record, supported Donald Trump’s campaign for the American presidency), made during her acceptance speech for a ‘courage prize’ at the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award ceremony, in June 2015:
“If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions – go ahead. The reality is, I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being true to who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.”
Forgive me for not giving a shit about what anyone says about anything at a lavish awards dinner, and Jenner’s revealing use of the phrase ‘thousands of kids out there’ shows the true extent to which she can honestly claim to be ‘in touch’ with vulnerable transgender youth. They are ‘out there’; Cox and Jenner are very firmly ‘in here’. Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t dislike either Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox, and I don’t resent them for being rich and famous (I thought the first series of Orange is the New Black was quite good), but if the privileged and the smug are the faces transgender people want to present to the world, then we are complicit in the perpetuation of a social and political order that breeds precisely the kind of selfish vanity, small-minded protectionism and thinly-veiled xenophobia that created President Trump and led to Britain’s retreat from the EU. Once you join the Los Angeles nouveau riche, you forego the right to act as spokesperson for anyone who doesn’t move in the same circles as you. Becoming out-of-touch is the price of success, I’m afraid, and I would prefer my advocates to be a little more sophisticated in their arguments; to live at less of a remove from my everyday experience; and to be, for want of a better word, a bit more ordinary.
Transgender Awareness Week is also fertile ground for the propagation of banal slogans and hollow clichés: “The biggest challenge of life is to be yourself in a world that is trying to make you like everyone else”, for example; “People will stare: make it worth their while”; “What is normal, anyway?”; “I am more than my gender”; and “Nature chooses who will be transgender” – trite inanities with all the inspirational power and educative bite of those terrible workplace motivational posters with photos of leaping orcas on them, or of free-climbers hanging from a precipice by their little finger. It doesn’t matter how loudly and proudly we shout our mottos of transgender self-affirmation if we haven’t first connected with our audience, and if our mottos of empowerment refer to nothing more complex than how gorgeous we think we are, then we only have ourselves to blame if the public perception of transgender people is of squealing, narcissistic attention-seekers.
Of course, no-one would ever publicly admit that they found the proselytising and self-aggrandising of the transgender community tedious and off-putting. The climate of insulting anyone who disagrees with us has made sure of that. But when a voter finds themselves in the privacy of a polling booth, they are suddenly blissfully free to express opinions that the liberal left has deemed unfashionable. Shove a microphone in someone’s face or a clipboard under their nose and ask them how they voted, and they are bound to give the answer they think is expected of them (“I voted Clinton!”; “I chose ‘remain’!”). Saying you are worried about immigration, feel uneasy about gay marriage, or feel awkward and embarrassed around transgender people, has been branded taboo, and invites social censure of the most disaffecting kind. Unfortunately, for prejudice to be challenged – and for the prejudiced to be helped – bias and ignorance need to be exposed and admitted to. If our shouting and shaming renders people fearful of confessing their discomfort with difference, then we cannot intervene. Little wonder, then, that pollsters and prognosticators were left discombobulated by Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory: respondents were afraid to admit they’d voted against the evangelising left. Transgender people, likewise, need to stop screaming their slogans if they are going to be able to listen to the reasons why gender nonconformity invites fear and disapproval, and provokes such irrational and prejudicial behaviour.
We live in a delicate time, when the rights of transgender people to social, political, economic and religious parity could be meteorically advanced or severely hobbled. There are influential political advocates on both sides of the debate. The toothless, pointless, navel-gazing template of Transgender Awareness Weeks has remained pretty much the same since the inception of Transgender Visibility Day in 2009, and if future awareness-raising events are not given a helping hand to evolve into a phenomenon that is genuinely empowering and transformative, a valuable opportunity to promote transgender rights and advocate for transgender equality will have slipped through our fingers.
Donald Trump’s transphobic agenda has already been mandated, and he will soon be able to implement his frightening policies limiting the freedoms of transgender people to serve openly in the military, condoning the arbitrary ghettoization of the South Dakota Bathroom Bill (and its clones in other states), repealing laws on same-sex marriage, and supporting programmes of conversion therapy for gay and transgender children. In the UK, meanwhile, withdrawal from the European Union means the British government is free to draft its own version of the European Convention on Human Rights, and abdicate from its legal obligation to safeguard the right of transgender people to recognition and protection from discrimination, as laid down in the treaty, and signed by all EU member countries, in 1953. My legal protections are now in the hands of the Lord Chancellor, who will be leading the process of drafting the English Bill of Rights. At the time of writing, that person is the Conservative MP, Liz Truss, whose ethical credentials include voting in favour of reducing legal aid – the financial support provided by the state that ensures people without the funds for expensive lawyers can at least be guaranteed some form of qualified legal representation, should they need it. If transgender people do not change the perception held by them of a large portion of the electorate, then we will never be able to convince them that these policies are wrong, and we will never persuade the majority to side with us. We get the government we deserve, and, if we continue to spend our precious awareness weeks baking cakes and worshipping celebrities, then we truly are our own worst enemy.
In the world of South Park, nothing is sacred; no subject – no matter how sensitive – is taboo. In that fictional little corner of Colorado, there appear to be no topics immune from satire – including (but by no means limited to): the desperation of disempowerment and abject poverty in developing countries (“We’ll kick your ass and rape your lass: Somalian pirates we!”); working-class jobs being lost to time-travelling immigrants prepared to work for much less (“They took our jobs! They terk er jerbs! Durka durr!”); and the link between pop-culture sentimentalism and the moral inertia of American politics (“’Member Bionic Man? ’Member the Millennium Falcon? ’Member Chewbacca again? ’Member when there weren’t so many Mexicans? ’Member when marriage was just between a man and a woman? ’Member feeling safe? ’Member no ISIS? ’Member Reagan?”). However: when a television programme shows no fear of ‘going there’, regardless of the topic, the viewer is always in danger of discovering that something they care about (or a topic that is dear to them, or a group to which they belong) is just as vulnerable to attack as any other value, preference, prejudice, belief, identity or principal. When you are the person being laughed it, it can sting, and it may require a very thick skin to continue to see the joke.
When the fourth-grade teacher at South Park Elementary School goes under the surgeon’s knife to realise his dream of becoming a woman in the 2005 episode, ‘Mr Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina’ (series 9, episode 1), transgender viewers could be forgiven for taking a sharp intake of breath. “Oh, god,” it is tempting to think, “what are they going to say about me now?” Such a reaction, however, would be to underestimate the sophistication of South Park’s satire. Transgender people are undoubtedly subject to occasional mockery by the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but South Park wouldn’t be half as clever as it is if the satire stopped there – gender nonconforming people per se are too easy a foil for South Park. The programme takes a broader perspective on the issue than mere sartorial finger-pointing, and is more interested in examining society’s inability to form and articulate appropriate responses to people who do not conform to gender norms, than it is in laughing behind trannies’ backs. It is, therefore, lazy to accuse South Park of being transphobic. ‘Mr Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina’ needs to be considered as a critique of the place of transgender people in social and political life, not as an instrument of oppression and prejudice. If you can force yourself to watch it, South Park’s examination of gender identity can be a means of encouraging members of the transgender community to confront how they feel about their place in society, and to reflect on their portrayal in popular culture.
(That is not to say that South Park isn’t guilty of the occasional misfire. When Caitlyn Jenner appears on the show, for example – as a broad-shouldered, malformed, lisping, torpid background omnipresence – it really isn’t funny: not because there isn’t plenty to mock Jenner for – she did kill someone with her car in February 2015, after all – but because the way she looks is too banal a target. Getting a cheap laugh out of someone’s appearance is beneath South Park. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, something Family Guy would do.)
As Mr Garrison is being prepped for anaesthesia preparatory to receiving his ‘Fancy New Vagina’, he looks tearfully at his surgeon, Dr Biber, and says, “My whole life I’ve been a woman trapped in a man’s body. A sex-change operation is my last chance at happiness.” But Mrs Garrison is destined for disappointment. As the episode unfolds, it becomes evident that Garrison will never be satisfied with the mere appearance of womanhood: what he wants to experience is all the gory biology of being female. She is heartbroken to discover that the reason she has missed her period isn’t that she’s pregnant, but that she can’t have periods. Garrison is similarly crestfallen when she is told that she is physically unable to have an abortion:
“Mrs Garrison: You mean, I’ll never know what it feels like to have a baby growing inside me, and then scramble its brains and vacuum it out?
Doctor: That’s right.
Mrs Garrison: But I paid five thousand dollars to be a woman. This would mean I – I’m not really a woman. I – I’m just a – I’m just a guy with a mutilated penis!”
For the depth of his transsexual ambition, I think, Garrison deserves a great deal of credit. His/her version of femininity isn’t posing inanely on the front cover of a magazine, or of parading vacantly down a red carpet at some fatuous awards dinner; his motives are not psycho-sexual in the way trans-exclusionary radical feminists would describe them. Garrison seeks the lived experience of a real woman, not the mere cosmetic approximation of looking like one, and he is distraught and outraged to learn that surgery cannot grant him what he wants.
To ensure the point is fully and comprehensively made that sex-swap surgery is not a passport to true womanhood, Garrison’s doctor provides a graphic commentary of the procedure as he performs it. “I think,” he says with deadpan irony, “if more people could just see a sex-change operation, they would know how perfectly natural it is.” In a scene intercut with footage of an actual vagino-plasty, Dr Biber grunts with effort as he performs the operation. He pauses breathlessly from time-to-time to describe his actions: “Now, I’ll just… turn your… penis inside out. …All we need to do now is… stuff the… unskinned penis inside your… pelvis… And now I’ll use the skin from your penis to make vaginal lips.” When the surgery is over, Garrison gazes hopefully at the doctor. “Do I look like a woman?” she asks, nervously. Dr Biber pauses. He wears an uncertain frown, but manages to force a smile as he raises an encouraging thumb at his patient. “Pretty much,” he says.
In South Park’s 2006 series, Mrs Garrison begins a torrid and unlikely affair with the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins (series 10, episode 12), and this is when curious viewers get to see Garrison’s post-operative body in all its naked, full-frontal glory. It is a mangled horror-show of scarred, asymmetrical breasts, shapeless hips, and the unaltered bald-head of Mrs Garrison’s former male identity. When Dawkins learns of Garrison’s gender history, he is appalled, and cannot flee from Garrison quickly enough. By this stage, another statement of how grotesque and ridiculous South Park’s creators think sex-change surgery is seems somewhat redundant, but here it is, anyway: the real-life Richard Dawkins has built an academic career on arguing the case for natural selection. His horror at Garrison’s revelation demonstrates just how unnatural he considers transsexuality to be. The message seems clear that, if you aren’t born a particular way, then you can’t ever be that particular way. It may be seem cruel, South Park maintains, but that’s the way it is. Wanting to be a woman when you were born a man is as hopeless and unfulfillable a pipedream as wanting to be a black, six-foot-five basketball player when you were born a five-foot-nine Caucasian, or of wanting to live as a dolphin when you are clearly homo sapiens.
…Which is a coincidence, as that is exactly what nine-year old Kyle Broflovski and his father, Gerald, seek to do in the ‘Mr Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina’ episode. Whilst Garrison strives for acceptance by the sorority of his female peers (“Wow, just look at all these tampons! Regular, heavy flow… Oh, boy, I can’t wait till I get my first period!”), Kyle and his father have transformational ambitions of their own.
Disappointed by being denied entry to the state basketball team by a visiting talent-scout, Kyle is forced to confront the harsh reality that “you’re just not physically built for the game… Jews can’t play basketball.” Kyle refuses to be brushed-off so easily, however, and pays a visit to the same surgeon who performed Mrs Garrison’s sex-change, where he is told that, to “feel like a tall black man” (and therefore, in Kyle’s mind, to earn him a place on the team), what he requires is negro-plasty:
“It’s a fairly common procedure, really; just the reverse of a caucasio-plasty, just like Michael Jackson had. Let’s take a look here. What we do is slice your face and peel it back so we can insert now pigment producing cells inside. We break the arm-bones in several places and put braces to make them longer. Now, the knees we need to snap off and fill with small round objects that can cause better movement, and we finish it off with a nice peni-plasty to enhance the genitalia. Negro-plasty takes about seven hours, and costs roughly three thousand dollars.”
Kyle’s father, Gerald, is outraged when he discovers what Dr Biber has done to his son. Furiously, he drives to Dr Biber’s clinic to challenge him (“What kind of nut-job would agree to surgically alter my son into a tall African-American?”), but, during the course of their conversation, Dr Biber discovers Gerald’s affection for dolphins…
“Dr Biber: Ah, you like dolphins, hm?
Gerald: Ah, bu… I love dolphins. Ever since I was a child, I dreamt of… Huh, b – b – But that has hardly any bearing on what I’m here to –
Dr Biber: I can make you one.
Dr Biber: Invert the back; move the oesophagus to the top of the head. Yes, a full dolphin-plasty could be achieved relatively simply.
Gerald: Make me a… dolphin? …No. No, no; it’s crazy.
Dr Biber: There’s nothing crazy about a person wanting to look on the outside the way they feel on the inside.”
Using a sub-plot to underscore the main action of a drama is an ancient theatrical trick, of course – think of the Earl of Gloucester’s troubled relationship with his sons in King Lear, or of Levin’s underwhelming marriage to Kitty in Anna Karenina – but in ‘Mr Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina’, the stories of Kyle and his father serve to further emphasise the absurdity of physical transformation at the hands of a surgeon. You can approximate the object of your desire through nips and tucks and hormones and implants, but you can never truly become that thing. Kyle’s new legs shatter at exactly the moment he is about to score the winning shot (“I only made him look like he could play basketball. If he actually does it, the testicles in his knees will explode!” Dr Biber wails), whilst Gerald realises very quickly that being transspecies is not all it’s cracked up to be: his dolphinism can never be more than skin deep, and he will never be able to frolic gracefully in the ocean with real dolphins (the basketball stadium he visits doesn’t even provide “special seating for dolphins”; nor is there “a large tank with salt water” that Gerald can use to go to the bathroom).
If you’ve never seen South Park, then it pains me to have to be the one to reveal that Mr Garrison ultimately elects to reverse his sex-change. With the unforgettable cry of, “My penis is on the loose!”, in a 2008 instalment of the show, Garrison chases desperately after a laboratory rat that has had a male member genetically engineered on its back for the purposes of restoring the teacher’s manhood. It is difficult to imagine a more definitive statement of the programme’s view of the folly and futility of sex-swap surgery. “You did this to yourself,” Garrison moans, “get your hopes up with a stupid genetic experiment, and now all your money’s gone – along with your penis.” And to his baffled students, he reflects, “I’ve learned that I’ve really been a dude all along, because the key difference between men and women is that women can have babies. If you can’t have babies, then you’re a man.”
(But ‘Eek, a Penis!’ – series 12, episode 5 – isn’t quite finished there. “Hang on a second,” one of Garrison’s colleagues says. “My wife had ovarian cancer, so she can’t have babies.”“Then get an AIDS test,” Garrison tells him, “’cause your wife’s a dude”.)
Ultimately, to appear on South Park is a form of validation. When a group is chosen for ridicule on the show, it means that that group has achieved significance; to be deemed worthy of satire is an indication that a social group has reached a level of exposure and influence sufficient to make it a notable cultural and political force. Transgender people should not bemoan or begrudge their presence on South Park: rather, they should celebrate the fact that they are deemed worthy of the airtime. Mr Garrison’s journey into womanhood – and back again – may constitute damning criticism of the essential dissatisfaction experienced by transsexuals; the unsettling depictions of the grisly minutiae of sex-change operations may be intended to shock and appall viewers into regarding such procedures as aberrant horror-shows; Kyle Broflovski’s negro-plasty – and his father’s dolphino-plasty – may be an unequivocal indictment of the absurdity and narcissism of sex-swap surgery (and of the grasping unscrupulousness of doctors who manipulate patients into forking out small fortunes for procedures they neither need nor truly want)… but transgender people who feel they should be offended by their portrayal in South Park ought to remember Oscar Wilde’s maxim that there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about at all.