Why Sex Sucks

“I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love… Yes, a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness, followed. Luckily, I – I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence. I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women – uh, women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I – I do deny them my essence.”

Brig. Gen. Jack D Ripper, Dr Strangelove (1964)

A catalogue of recent – and profoundly unsatisfying – sexual encounters has moved me to question the assumptions heterosexual men and women make (profound, taken-for-granted, unspoken and unconsciously thought assumptions) when they approach the marital act. I have suspected something was awry in the expectations of coitus held by the two (cis-) genders for a long time, but it is only very lately that I have begun to comprehend how seldom these expectations are interrogated by the participants in regular, vanilla, straight-forward, ‘straight’ sexual activity. But perhaps I should start with the experiences that have led me to the depressing conclusion that sex (whisper it, now) might not be very good

 

I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate in once having found a sexual partner whose needs and desires – up to and including the period of my transition from one socially constructed gender identity to another – complemented my own. When this relationship (in the form it had hitherto taken, at least) ended, I was left trying to build a sexual identity for myself almost from scratch – and that on top of the filial and professional identities I also found myself needing to reconstruct at that time. In practical terms, this meant learning how to date again. I had given birth to the new me: it was now time to go through adolescence.

The first unwary traveller to wander into the mire of my sexual proclivities was Mirela. Mirela was ten years my junior, and was evidently (as became dishearteningly apparent when we made it to the bedroom) expecting a sexual adventure with a man in a dress, rather than something more akin to a lesbian experience. As Mirela discovered to her horror, during our imbroglio, she was expected to lavish as much attention on my body as she seemed to assume I would want to lavish on hers. Her repertoire of kinky gimmicks was limited to – and by – her prior experience with men, however, and I soon saw how accustomed she had become to the ready sexual arousal of a man; to the almost instantaneous springing to attention of a (young) man when the air becomes pregnant with the heady promise of intercourse. When this failed to happen to me, poor Mirela was more than a little lost.

Mirela’s problem was that she simply wasn’t capable of attending to someone else’s anatomy in the way she had been educated to expect them to attend to hers. Moreover, she couldn’t comprehend the notion that a sexual partner might have more than one erogenous zone. She anticipated having her body manipulated with all the dexterity and attention to detail of a glass-harmonica player, whilst her erotic prowess was limited to a motion reminiscent of attempting to unblock a sink.

Mirela was also guilty of assuming the presence (or absence) of an erection to be the defining barometer of someone else’s excitement. When a thunderous hard-on failed to materialise on our abortive night together, Mirela considered herself to have flunked. It didn’t occur to her that other indictors of sexual excitement might exist: if her clumsy ministrations weren’t able to conjure a stiffy like a cobra from a snake-charmer’s basket, she had no further tricks up her sleeve.

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Elegy for lost youth: I remember a time when all I needed to summon a stiffy was the lingerie section from Freeman’s catalogue

Such was Mirela’s disappointment over our thwarted act of congress that she cried. During. Her previous heterosexual encounters had taught her to expect an event involving a dildo with a human being attached to it, with the needs of that human being either irrelevant or unimaginable if they involved anything beyond having their genitals manhandled, then orally ingested, then manoeuvred into someone else’s genitals. (And Mirela’s belief that I might enjoy making eye-contact with her during the second of those occupations continues to be a source of utter bafflement to me.)

After Mirela came Monika, who was keen to establish her bohemian, broad-minded credentials early on, and so regaled me with tales of threesomes and quasi-lesbian experiences, designed, I have no doubt, to reassure me that she wouldn’t be fazed by any left-of-centre peccadillos I might throw her way. This, I’ve since discovered, is a common strategy women use to assert their willingness to attempt sexual congress outside their comfort zone, and to prove that the risk of social stigma doesn’t eclipse adding a night with me to their roster of sexual conquests; of making me the punchline to a hen-night anecdote (“Let me tell you about this one time I had sex with a tranny…”).

These stories of youthful almost-encounters (usually drawn from a well of innocent teenaged fumblings and experiments, rather than from discerning adult assignations) aren’t for my benefit. I’ve realised that the women who reach for half-remembered reminiscences of the time they snogged their female room-mate aren’t trying to convince me: they’re plucking up the courage to attempt something new; marshalling their resolve to plunge into an erotic adventure in unchartered territory. I have no choice other than to make peace with the fact that women can be apprehensive about jumping into bed with me. Whether I can condone this reticence seems a moot point (in that the knowledge makes no functional difference to the outcome), but it appears to have three strands…

First, there is anxiety about the act itself. What exactly does a transgender co-shaggist do or want in bed? What will they look like without any clothes on? What disorientating combination of primary erogenous zones will be revealed once both parties have got their respective kits off? And – most viscerally – will I like what I see when it happens? Mirela (I realise in hindsight) was jealous of how much smoother my legs were than hers. The first time we met after doing the act of filthy beastliness (which was also the last time we met, uncoincidentally), she was uncomfortable with the false fingernails I’d had applied in the interim. These things made her feel defeminised, I think; elbowed unwillingly out of the role she had previously enjoyed in the bedroom dyad as ‘the smooth, moisturised one with a manicure’. It was at the point of disrobing, I see now, that Mirela’s second thoughts were visible in her eyes – even when those eyes were peering up at me over the expanse of my abdomen.

Second, there is the realisation – especially in the cold, post-coital light of day – that a continued relationship with me invites marginalisation, social censure, and the disapproval (and alarm) of family and friends. Holding hands in the street, lying on the grass in each other’s arms, enjoying the occasional al fresco kiss – and other assorted public displays of affection – take courage if you’re used to regular heterosexual relationships (and, if we’re honest, you aren’t of a particular social class, age bracket or body type). When most people confront the reality of snogging a tranny in public, they balk at the societal disfavour and unwanted attention it is likely to attract. When we stir in the additional adverse reaction of friends, family and colleagues… Well: having an atypical partner starts to look a great deal more hassle than it’s worth. Not everyone is ready and willing to blaze a trail for sexual non-conformity, no matter how much in love they think they are.

Third, entertaining sexual and/or romantic feelings for a transgender person forces an individual to confront unsettling possibilities about themselves. Having spent over twenty years in a committedly heterosexual relationship – or marriage, even – the realisation that you are attracted to a gender-nonconformist can come as something of a shock. What do such feelings say about you? Do they make you a lesbian, bisexual; what? You can’t be completely straight, surely, because he – sorry, she – has got boobs, so what does that make you? Once the lid is lifted on that kind of existential interrogation, there’s no knowing where it might lead. Safer, less terrifying, to simply walk away, rather than get involved with that..!

AAAA - Victorian
The modern woman who contemplates entering into a relationship with a transgender person could learn a thing or two from her Victorian forebears

Having demonstrated my capacity for empathy with my hypothetical bed-mates, I think I’ve now earned the right to reflect on what this all means for me.

My research sample may be small, but, as Monika and Mirela’s conduct in – and presuppositions of – the bedroom cannot but have been coloured by their respective sexual histories, I think it reasonable to assert that their engagement with the marital act has a degree of generalisability to the actively heterosexual population as a whole. Both Mirela and Monika, most conspicuously, were not accustomed to exploring the bodies of their lovers. Barring a token bit of nipple-tweaking, both of them had their hands on my wedding tackle before you could say ‘How’s yer father’. Other than that, they were very much of the lie-back-and-think-of-Romania school of lovemaking. To their minds, evidently, it was the man’s job to attend to the woman’s body; to probe, explore, lick, and fondle every inch of them, from anus to armpits. I realised (somewhat belatedly, I must admit) that they considered it my duty to minister to them in this way; moreover, that they thought giving them sexual pleasure should be enough to give me pleasure – that, in other words, I would get-off by helping them get-off.

Mirela’s mid-coital tears didn’t predispose me to question these assumptions with her, but, when Monika’s turn rolled around, I was ready to challenge the status quo. So I did. I began by asking if she found me sexually alluring:

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Definitely.”

“As in, you look at my body and think ‘phwoar!’?” (I’m paraphrasing slightly.)

“Absolutely!”

“Then why don’t you want to touch it?” I asked. “Why don’t you want to lick it all over and stick your fingers up my bum?”

“Eh?”

“Stick your fingers up my bum. Or a sex-toy. You can use a butt-plug, if you like.”

“I don’t know…”

“But you said you find my body attractive – sexy, even. If you find me sexually attractive, why don’t you want to touch me all over? Why is the only thing you’re doing is turning my balls around in your hand like a pair of walnuts? I find you sexually attractive. I’m touching your body all over: buttocks, toes, elbows, neck, earlobes, pubic bone… everywhere. Why aren’t you trying to do that for me? What aren’t you investigating every inch of me, worshipping my body, like I’m doing for you? Don’t you want to?”

The conversation deteriorated somewhat after that, but I discovered that I was the one with unconventional expectations; that I was the one wanting something women don’t generally expect to give; and that I was the one busting taboos and demanding equality between the sheets. All I wanted from these women was to feel attractive during sex; to believe that someone felt as possessively tactile about me as I was expected to respond to their nakedness. And that, I learned to my dismay, is not something men can take for granted.

Why?

Post-Monika, I sought the wisdom of my closest heterosexual male friends. Both of them assured me that ‘going to work on’ a woman’s body was par for the course, and that they had never expected any of their (female) sexual partners to reciprocate. “I don’t want a woman touching my body,” one of them told me: “why would they want to – men’s bodies are disgusting?” The other, when I adumbrated the surprise and disappointment that attended my experiences, gave me a look bordering on pity. “That’s just the way it is,” he told me when I asked why men bother with sex at all when there seems so little physical reward in it for them. “You’re over-thinking it, mate.”

I can’t blame the feminising hormones I take for my utter disillusionment with sex. My dissatisfaction with horizontal gymnastics has troubled me for decades: if men can glean such little personal, physical fulfilment from having ‘relations’ with a lady, then why, in god’s name, do they bother at all? Men invest an astonishing amount of time, energy, and (more often than not) money in convincing women to sleep with them. Men must complete gruelling series of Herculean labours before they get anywhere near the mattress: there’s paying for dinner; feigning interest in interminable non-anecdotes about her gap year in Australia; sitting through astonishingly poor films about divorcées drinking coffee in Manhattan, career women coming to terms with the smell of pig shit (but nonetheless lusting after the uncouth but ultra-sexy farm-hand) when they’re forced to relocate to Ohio for some reason, and hormonal teens who must choose to be bedded by a vampire with his shirt off and a werewolf with his shirt off; making interested faces during never-ending shopping expeditions; and pretending to like her insufferable friends and bizarrely still-on-the-scene ex. And then there’s the wholly unequitable assumption that the man should be the one to make the first move, and find the inner-strength to handle rejection upon rejection before a woman deigns to go to bed with him – as if she’s doing him a favour permitting him to worship every crevice and cranny of her body in exchange for a few fumbled seconds of wholly anticlimactic inny-outy.

Somebody explain, in the name of all that is holy, why men bother! Where lies the satisfaction for the male in all this rigmarole? “I gave her three orgasms last night!” Oh, really: and what did you get out of it? “She loves it when I hold this vibrating wand against her clitoris!” Good for her: and how did that feel for you? “She let me do her up the arse in Torremolinos!” Great: and how did she react when you asked her to do you up the arse?

Most astonishing of all is that I appear to be the only person questioning how lame heterosexual intercourse is from the male perspective; I am the only child in the crowd pointing at this phenomenon – the iniquity of which everyone else apparently takes for granted – and hollering, “Emperor: you’re not wearing any clothes!”

AAAA - Emperor
Like the deluded Emperor in the story, everyone is bafflingly willing to enter into the conspiracy that sex for men is better than masturbation (spoiler alert: it isn’t)

When the British raconteur and jazz musician George Melly was asked in 1989 how he felt about the deleterious effect of old age on his libido, the then octogenarian said, “Upset? Certainly not. It’s like being unchained from a lunatic.” The loss of his urges came as an enormous relief to Melly (like Sophocles, Plato, Da Vinci, Kenneth Williams and Kingsley Amis before him) – akin to liberation from prison after enduring decades as the unwilling slave to his sex-drive. Men spend a lifetime tethered to a maniac; vassals of their impulse to pursue women for sex. Remarkably few males have grasped what a spectacularly unrewarding chase it is, and that the kill occurs not with a bang, but a whimper.

Women are at least 50% to blame for this sorry situation. It seldom crosses the mind of a heterosexual woman that her man desires more in the bedroom; that he has more than one erogenous zone; that the arrival of an erection should not be taken as the sole indicator of his enjoyment; that he might want the beauty of his body celebrating with kisses and caresses from top to toe; that he may want to be an object of desire; that he, not to put too fine a point on it, deserves better.

Men, meanwhile, should cease tolerating this woefully unbalanced state of affairs immediately. After spending seven years living as a woman, the blind prophet Tiresias reported unequivocally to Zeus and Hera that women experience ten times the sexual pleasure of men. It does not need to be this way, and, if it is, it is because women grossly underestimate the sophistication and nuance of male needs; and because men, in their turn, don’t demand the respect implied in being made to feel beautiful by their women.

The epiphany for me has not been that heterosexual sex from the male perspective is depressingly unsatisfying (I’ve known that for years). Rather, it is how deep and unquestioned this assumption has remained, and how few men and women think it’s a problem that a wank is better than sex. It’s my right to feel pretty during sex, isn’t it? It’s only fair, isn’t it, that I should receive the same degree and quality (and earnest sincerity) of physical attention as women evidently believe they are owed by men? Kiss my body all over; look for my pleasure points, and the places that make me go weak at the knees; explore my orifices inside and out. Make me feel as beautiful as you.

One more thing. There has been one significant social boon from all this sexual disappointment: I’m much less interested in talking to women than I used to be. Men devote so much time and effort to scaffolding women’s self-centred monologues because – on some inevitable level – they entertain constant hopes of sleeping with them. Because I now know how bitterly unrewarding that sexual congress will be, I don’t interact with women with curiosity nagging at my reproductive cortexes over what sex with them might be like. (This is not misogynistic caprice, I feel compelled to add. The urge to size up potential child-bearing partners is a biological imperative, and any man who claims he is capable of conversing with women without – even subconsciously – entertaining erotic ideas about them, is lying in order to assert his pseudo-feminist credentials – which, paradoxically, is a claim made by some males in order to enhance their chances of bedding women in search of ‘the more sensitive type’.) Now I am no longer trying to have sex with every woman I meet, I can see their witless drivel for what it is: sexual signalling of their own, designed purely and exclusively to attract a mate. Once that sad fact is exposed – and once sex is definitely off the table – most people, it transpires, are unremittingly self-centred and boring.

 

An Absence of Crotch

It’s strange how certain themes can link trains of thought.  This month, it’s the subject of genitals that has provided the unifying motif of my daily experiences, and it all started with a chance encounter on Romanian public transport…

 

A tall, thick-set man with a broad bull-neck and glassy, angry eyes, sidled up to me on the platform of the Piaţa Victoriei station on Bucharest’s Metro system a few days ago and invited me to go to bed with him.  I have already made his approach appear more sophisticated than it was.  He asked me in which direction the next train would be heading, and discerned from my creaky attempt to reply in Romanian that I was not a native resident.  In a way that initially seemed friendly, therefore, he started to interrogate me in brusque, unpractised English: where was I from, what was my name, and so on.  He then extended one of his meaty, ham-like hands to shake my hand, and, when I accepted, he did not release his grip as promptly as a Brit has come to expect.  Instead, he pulled me towards his broad, wet mouth, and growled the following irresistible enticement: “You want sex with me?”

When he finally did release my hand, I was able to take a discreetly cautious step backwards.  “No thank you,” I said – not out of coyness, I should add, but because I really didn’t fancy him.

At that point – in my memory, at least – he held both his hands out in front of him, palms facing inwards like an angler boasting about the size of the one that got away.  “I have a big dick,” he told me; “a very big dick.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t fancy men.  I like girls,” I said.  He frowned at me, so I felt obligated to elaborate: “I fancy girls.  I’m a…” – I fumbled for the appropriate word, and settled on one that, even at the time, didn’t feel adequate, or (indeed) entirely accurate – “I’m a lesbian.”

He narrowed his eyes at me and shrugged, as if to say, It’s your loss, and then our train arrived, and we were both absorbed by the anonymity of the crowd.

This incident, I suspect, should leave me horrified and appalled.  At the very least, I’m sure some observers would tell me it should give me pause for thought to contemplate the indignity experienced by hundreds of cisgender women who are subject to such casual sexual harassment on a regular basis.  And maybe I should feel outraged and affronted, but the honest truth is that I was thrilled to bits by this gentleman’s clumsy advances.  This horny stranger on the platform of an underground station in a foreign city is an unlikely candidate for fuelling my sexual ego, but fuel it he did.  I so seldom experience the validation of being the focus of someone’s amorous or erotic interest that, far from being scandalised by what happened, I actually felt happy that someone thought me worthy of a fleetingly-entertained sexual fantasy.

But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?  According to the sexologist Ray Blanchard’s 1989 theory of autogynephilia, my attraction to women has somehow misfired and become directed towards myself, rather than towards others.  Consequently (and if Blanchard is right, of course), I experience arousal when I am perceived to be – or, more pertinently, am admired as – a woman.  Thus, I exhibit a form of pseudo-bisexuality, in that I get a kick out men fancying me without necessarily wanting to sleep with them.  The specific thrill inheres to the feeling of being an object of sexual or romantic interest in the same way that a woman can be an object of sexual or romantic interest.  Men are turned on by what they see, and by the idea that they are responsible for the arousal they witness in women.  Women are aroused by the idea of someone else being responsible for their arousal.  In other words: how a man makes a woman feel is far more important to a woman’s titillation than how that man looks.  For men, the opposite is true.  So: did I enjoy the invitation of an unkempt and slightly threatening stranger on the Bucharest underground to admire his prodigious penis?  Does the Pope shit in the woods?  That man made me feel attractive; to him, for a few ill-advised seconds, I was an object of sexual interest.  Despite his sinister undertone, that bloke gave me a gift that day: he made me feel good about myself as a woman.

If I had taken him up on his offer, of course, he would surely have murdered me.  It is chillingly easy to imagine his lustful sneer giving way to a snarl of fury as he thrust me down on a soiled motel mattress and peeled away my clothing – to reveal a set of biological equipment he was neither expecting nor desirous of seeing.  He would have translated his embarrassed outrage into a severe beating, I have no doubt, and left me with scars enough to remind me never to speak of this to anyone.  And that is the terrible epiphany of this minor episode: the knowledge that its outcome (and my physical safety) depended so wholly on the contents of my pants.

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A random commuter on the Bucharest Metro boasts about the size of his family endowment

There is a peculiar tendency amongst otherwise fair-minded individuals to assume that transgender people should be more transparent than other folk about what they’re packing in the trouser department.  Cisgender types often let their curiosity get the better of them in this regard.  It has happened to me with above-average frequency.  A conversation can be progressing quite naturally when it happens.  Usually, my interlocutor will hesitate briefly as their brain tries to convince them my junk is none of their business, but even the power of basic courtesy isn’t always enough to keep their prurient, childish question to themselves, and it’s out before they’ve had time to think it through.

“Do you mind if I ask you something?” they begin, with nothing other than a sheepish, slightly apologetic wince to excuse their interest.  People simply have to know whether or not a tranny has had their tallywhacker turned inside out.

It’s a profoundly offensive inquiry when stripped of its naïveté, and one that demands no more sophisticated a response than, “What the fuck has it got to do with you?!”  The helplessness with which people ask whether I’ve (whisper it) gone all the way, however, suggests that it is a nugget of information they must have in order to continue interacting with me on an equal footing; that they can’t think or act normally until they know.

If casual acquaintances can’t relax in my company until they have the information they need to fit me into whichever conceptual category makes them feel at ease, then perhaps I have a social duty to help potential sexual partners in a similar way.  Should I be prepared to be much more up-front than I currently am with people I want to go bed with about what they’re going to find if – and when – we get our respective kits off?  Is it simply fairer for me to assume responsibility for making sure no-one has any unwelcome surprises during the imminent bout of horizontal gymnastics?  Do I have a duty to somehow protect my inamoratae, whether male or female, from a sexual experience they might regret, by making sure, right from the off, that we’ve got something straight between us (ba-dum tshh!)?

I haven’t had to take this much responsibility for the management of other people’s feelings since I transitioned.  Back then, I broke the news to (and managed the expectations of) huge numbers of enormously diverse people, from the thousand-odd students and staff at the school where I taught, to my friends, acquaintances, PhD supervisor, mother, and – most terrifying of all – my unexpectedly conservative brother.  I thought I was done breaking the news to people, but it seems that, in the bedroom department, I may have to start all over again.  Is their any other group, apart from the horny and transgender, from which such an absolute degree of vulnerability and openness would ever reasonably be expected?

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Be careful what you wish for – Action Man’s first orgy was ruined when he forgot to ask his bedmates exactly what he’d find when he got their pants off

There is a conspicuous difference in the ways that men’s and women’s crotches are treated in western popular media.  In the case of the lady, a scantily covered vulva is openly and unsqueamishly sexualised: fashion magazines actively encourage the display of what James Joyce called “those succulent bivalves”, while music videos flaunt them and sports events positively ram them down our throats.  I already feel intimately acquainted with the camel-toes (or is it camels-toe?) of Lady Gaga, Jessie J, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Beyoncé, all of Little Mix, and every Olympic gymnast who has ever walked a beam or twirled a ribbon (to name but a few).

The trouser-fronts of men, meanwhile, are not presented with quite so much alacrity for our delectation and enjoyment.  Tight swimming trunks are determinedly desexualised by being laughingly referred to as budgie smugglers, whilst the fashion of sagging pants that was popular in the late nineties and early noughties was roundly criticised for promoting a form of legitimised sexual aggression.

The vogue for sagging trousers probably originated in the American prison system, where prisoners are not permitted the use of belts.  Belts (like shoelaces) could be used as a weapon, or as a means of attempting suicide, so inmates have them confiscated before they are escorted to their cell.  When their popularity in the arena of hip-hop music took low-riding pants into the domain of urban fashion, the result was a huge number of adolescents and young men wearing denim or canvas trousers so low on their hips, that their underwear was clearly visible, their arse was pretty much completely on show, and the buttocks of the low-riders themselves hung down loose and empty, like the glutes of aging elephants.

Sagging trousers may also be prison code for sexual availability, or that the wearer has already become the sexual property of another inmate.  When the fashion exploded in US and UK cities, at the very backside of the twentieth century, those with a penchant for low-riding trousers were accused of indecency, and the wearing of them in some American states was, ironically, made a criminal offence.  Indeed, it was not uncommon in the mid-noughties to see a gentleman with trousers slung so low on his hips that a shock of public hair was visible over the waistband of his Calvin Kleins.  The threat of actually seeing someone’s penis became very real, with some low-riders held up by little more than the law of good-taste.

Frame Trousers
Slaves to fashion – There is simply no excuse for some men’s fashion trends

My argument is not that the vogue for saggy pants was an affront to human decency, but that it illustrates the dichotomy between the way popular culture views the loins of men and the crotches of women.  Groinal displays by men are either hilarious or sickening; they’re either the ‘lunchbox’ of a well-endowed decathlete – to be giggled at through their flimsy lycra modesty – or they’re a statement of sexual aggression so egregious, that some would see them banned in public.  The inguina of women, meanwhile, are proudly exhibited on bill-boards, paraded unashamedly on stage, and lingered over by the camera operators of superhero movies.  The disparity is so stark, that it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that, for the purposes of entertainment and advertising, women’s crotches aren’t regarded as genitalia at all.  When a woman’s loins are emblazoned on hoardings three-metres square, perhaps they are displayed there simply to demonstrate that women don’t have penises, and it is the mere fact of women’s lack of a trouser-snake that our attention is being drawn to.  When a woman announces her front-parts in a pair of leggings, skin-tight trousers or a leotard, perhaps it isn’t a crotch that is being shown at all.  If the presentation of lady-loins is neither hilarious nor obscene, but the display of a gentleman’s groin is, then maybe it isn’t a crotch that we’re seeing.  The only way to explain this cultural discrepancy is to assume that the thing we are looking at when we look through fabric at the V between a woman’s thighs isn’t a thing at all.  Maybe it’s a vacuum; something that isn’t there.  Perhaps what we’re seeing is an absence of crotch.

What’s in a Name? – The Labels we Use to Identify as Gender Non-Conforming

As in a kinky game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, ‘transgender’ beats ‘transvestite’.  The latter is just a sartorial hobbyist; a part-time gender-bender who just can’t find the right department in Marks and Spencer.  A transgender person, meanwhile, is much more committed to their new social role, and often has a letter from a qualified psychologist attesting to their determination to defy natal categorisation.  Neither ‘tranny’ nor ‘transgender’ can compete with ‘transsexual’, however, who trumps both with a preparedness to go under the surgeon’s knife in the pursuit of contentment that leaves the other two intimated into submission.  There is a trans- hierarchy, whether we like it or not.  I could not, for example, have gone to work in a dress without being sent home.  In order to present the public face I was comfortable with to the children in my classes, I needed to declare myself ‘transgender’.  Without changing the name in my passport and starting a course of hormones and counselling, I would not have been able to enjoy the legal protections of the gender non-conforming person.  Declaring myself a mere transvestite would not have been enough to protect me from summary dismissal.   Clearly, therefore, how gender non-conforming individuals self-identify has economic, legal and political consequences.  As the UK government announces a review of the Gender Recognition Act this autumn, and Stonewall calls for the introduction of a ‘gender-X’ category for non-binary people in British passports, it seems timely for this month’s post to argue that the best way to describe gender is not to describe it at all.

 

Two years ago, the security staff at Bucharest International Airport treated me to a strip-search.  What began as a rather enthusiastic frisking led, with surprising rapidity, to an invitation to accompany a group of broad-hipped ladies in three-sizes-too-small uniforms straining the buttons over their amble bosoms, to a small anteroom with anaglypta on the ceiling and only a bare chipboard table by way of furnishing.  My passport has an F in it; I am blessed with a feminine face and an almost invisible Adam’s apple; but when the hand of the hapless security guard had brushed against something unexpected, she had been left discombobulated and embarrassed, and had no idea how to deal with the situation.  Fortunately for me, I had recently brushed-up on the paragraphs of EU law protecting me from such harassment, and, despite the language barrier, I was able to impress upon the three ladies how much trouble there would be if they didn’t let me go.  (And I was able to resist the temptation to tell them I needed to be given what-for for smuggling swollen goods.)

The problem, it seems, had been the temporary bewilderment the security staff had encountered over the apparent discrepancy between the sex in my passport and the contents of my pants.  The staff simply had no mental resources – no experiential precedent – to tell them how to react.  I like to think I am now the subject of ten minutes’ mandatory staff-training at Henri Coandă airport, but, if my passport had contained no gender determination at all, this unpleasant episode would never have occurred.

I’m never comfortable explaining to people how I describe my own gender.  I don’t mean that it embarrasses me: rather, I just don’t get why folk want to know.  If pressed, I suppose ‘female’ would be my preferred moniker (I do, after all, present as a woman), but aspects of masculinity still run through my character like the lettering through a stick of Blackpool rock.  I never get mushy around babies; I can’t stand romantic comedies; I don’t understand why anyone would bother with ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ when there is a whole internet full of real porn; and I still, very definitely (despite my best efforts to convince myself otherwise), fancy girls.  I describe myself as female for convenience, and only do so when I’m asked by official agencies (like banks and potential employers) because it is required.  I remain acutely aware, however, that the labels ‘male’ or female’ fail to capture the nuance of how I feel about myself: occasionally either, often both, and sometimes neither.

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Diversity and equal opportunities training for staff at Henri Coandă airport has been dragged kicking and screaming into the twentieth century

The opportunity transgender people have to describe themselves using continua serves to compound the problem.  On the one hand, I want to applaud academic efforts to achieve definitions of gender that capture how inexact a science it is – how delicate and nonspecific gender can – but, at the same time, I remain unconvinced that it’s necessary.  Do we really need to clarify the extent to which someone is male, female, or something in-between?  Wouldn’t equality be better served if we simply stopped trying to define maleness and femaleness altogether?

Either way, the most progressive thinking about gender holds that it should be determined using a dashboard comprised of four variables.  Each variable takes the form of a continuum, with absolutely male at one end, absolutely female at the other, and all shades of intersex along the way.

The first sliding-scale of self-identification is gender identity, or who an individual thinks they are.  In other words, we interpret the soup of hormones swilling around our vitals to form a way of thinking about ourselves.  This, in turn, interacts with environmental factors and our biological sex, to constitute a gender identity that coalesces (according to common scientific consensus) around the age of three.

Next, our gender is defined according to our gender expression; how we demonstrate who we are on a spectrum from feminine to masculine, via androgynous.  The primary means of gender expression are the way we dress, act, behave, and interact with others, and it can be unintentional or the product of deliberate affectation.  Almost everyone’s gender expression is in a constant state of flux – we change the extent to which we display masculine or feminine traits depending on our mood and choice of company – but, even when our gender expression fluctuates, it does so within predictable (and socially acceptable) parameters.  A man may be allowed to cry, but if he smudges his make-up by doing so, people are apt to disapprove.

The third ingredient of our dashboard description of gender is biological sex, as determined by the sexual organs we are born with, and whether our chromosomes are in the XX or XY configuration.  Biological sex is the default go-to definition of gender for transphobics and the religious right, because common sense dictates that the easiest way to tell if someone is male or female is to examine their reproductive equipment.  As the foul-mouthed cuddly-toy Ted discovered in his 2015 sequel, however, “There are no chicks with dicks, Johnny, only guys with tits!”: not even someone’s junk can provide a reliable yardstick of their gender in every single case.  Research by the Intersex Society of North America found that, between 1955 and 1998, as many as one-in-100 registered births in the USA produced intersex infants, who had bodies that deviated from standard male and female models in one way or another.

The final determiner of gender is sexual orientation, which is a measure of who an individual is attracted to, and encompasses degrees of hetero-, bi- and homosexuality.  Using the gender dashboard, I would describe myself as F(ish)-F-M-F.  That is, with the amount of artificially induced hormones swimming around my system, I feel female feelings; present as female; was born a boy; and am sexually attracted to women.

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The Genderbread Person – if it helps…

 

Where does all this sociological theorising leave Nkechi Amare Dolezal – the forty-year-old human rights teacher from Montana, USA, who describes herself as ‘transracial’?  Having insisted on her own black heritage for over a decade, it was revealed in 2015 that Dolezal’s family tree contains no African American ancestry whatsoever.  And that is when Dolezal embraced the term ‘transracial’ to define her own identity, and declared that “challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving human consciousness”.

If someone can identify as transgender, then it seems perfectly reasonable for another to demand the right to be transracial, doesn’t it?  Well, that would depend on a couple of things, I suspect.  First, is claiming to be African American when you were born Caucasian offensive in anyway?  Does it show wilful ignorance of the historical and political struggle of black people, and breath-taking naïveté, to attempt to bandwagon the victimhood of an ethnic group?  If it is and if it does, can a similar accusation be levelled at transgender people?  Secondly, what role could biology possibly play in a transracial identity?  To what extent can wanting to be black be the product of environmental factors, and, once again, can transsexuality claim greater legitimacy in this regard?  Thirdly, how accepting should the black community be of Nkeche Dolezal?  Ought they to embrace her as one of their own, and, similarly, what should biological, cisgender men and women make of the transgender people trying to elbow into their ranks?  And, for that matter, should transracial people be allowed to serve in the US military?  Tune in next month, if you think you’re hard enough…

 

Bibliography

A better article than this one about gender continua can be found here…http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2011/11/breaking-through-the-binary-gender-explained-using-continuums/

To explore the case of Nkechi (née Rachel) Dolezal – the trans-racial teacher from Montana – you could do worse than to start here…http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/rachel-dolezal-white-woman-black-racial-fluidity-accepted-transracial-naacp-a7653131.html

How do you Solve a Problem like Chelsea Manning? – A moral framework for interpreting the actions of WikiLeaks’ most notorious transgender snitch

It is rare for a transgender person to become the subject of media interest for something they have done rather than something they are.  Usually, when transsexuals attract the attention of TV, magazines or the internet, it is because they satisfy a prurient interest in what they are wearing, how much they have spent on plastic surgery, or how so-much-like sexy women they appear.  Caitlyn Jenner might make some trite and genteel comments to Donald Trump about the policy vacuum that characterises his presidency; or a sex-swap couple might carp about how ordinary they are by adopting a baby; or – if we’re really lucky – we might be invited to leer at what a film director, boxing promoter or ex-marine looks like now they’ve had the op…  The menu of transgender role-models offered by the media is woefully under-nourishing.  The case of Chelsea Manning stands out, therefore, because it concerns someone who has done something interesting as well as change their sex.  Manning’s gender history is a mere footnote to her story.  Your opinion regarding Manning’s leak of American military data to WikiLeaks in 2010 will depend entirely on your view of post-conventional ethics, but there is no denying that it is refreshing to read about someone who is in the news who has changed their sex, but for whom that change of sex is the least interesting thing about them.

 

Chelsea Manning was born Bradley Manning in Oklahoma in 1987.  Her parents separated in 2001, and she lived with her mother in Wales for a while, before moving back to the US in 2005.  Of the internet gossip that swills around concerning Manning’s biography at this time, there are titbits about her confiding to friends as an adolescent that she thought she was gay; about her mother attempting suicide in 1998; and about Manning contacting a gender counsellor to discuss the possibility of sex-change surgery.  By engaging in such lurid speculation about Manning’s formative experiences of gender-roles and sexuality, I have demonstrated how easy it is to fall into the trap of making the gender history of a gender nonconforming individual the foreground to any discussion of their later actions.  Any adumbration of Manning’s psycho-sexual proclivities should be – at the very most – of marginal relevance to consideration of her behaviour whilst serving in Baghdad for the United States navy.

Being transgender should be as secondary to someone’s reputation as anyone else’s biological gender ought to be.  That said, however, it is tempting to speculate that a heightened sensitivity to the morality of conflict and oppression, and a hyper-developed sense of empathy for the suffering of others (even those we have never met) could be symptomatic of growing-up transgender.  When your life is peppered with disappointment and thwarted expectations, it is easy to get angry when you see similarly unfair treatment being eked out on others – especially when that treatment originates from state institutions with vested interests in perpetuating the social, political and economic status quo.

Such musings aside, Manning showed considerable aptitude for computer programming at school, and joined the US navy as an intelligence analyst at the age of 19.  She was posted to Iraq in October 2009, where her job granted her access to sensitive and privileged military data.  Troubled by what she learned about the civilian casualties of American strategy during her first tour of duty in Iraq, Manning made her first contact with WikiLeaks in January 2010.  By April, WikiLeaks had posted a video of a 2007 airstrike on Baghdad by American helicopters, that Manning had smuggled out of Iraq on an SD card whilst on leave.  The video showed two helicopters firing on groups of Iraqi civilians, with the second helicopter targeting a van that had stopped to help a man who had been wounded in the previous airstrike.  Among the crowd were Reuters journalists: the helicopter crew had mistaken their cameras for weapons.  Two children were in the van: they were both wounded.  Their father was killed.  Perhaps the most shocking element of the recordings, however, are the audible comments of members of the helicopter crews.  Post-traumatic stress disorder had clearly taken its toll on them, with their speech suggesting they had become completely detached from what they were doing; their psychological connection to the bombing raids had been reduced to the emotional neutrality of playing a video game.  When the crew are informed that a child has been injured in their attack, one soldier can be heard saying, “Ah, damn.  Oh, well: it’s their fault for bringing kids into a battle.”

Amongst Manning’s other submissions to WikiLeaks were the 2011 Guantánamo Files – a list of prisoners that had been held at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp since 2002.  The Files show that the American Government’s claim that Guantánamo was a facility for detaining dangerous militants was false, and that most prisoners were deemed as not posing any threat to national security.  Many of them had been held for periods of over five years, in the hope that information could be extracted from them by means of torture.  The Files also showed that nearly one hundred prisoners were suffering from depressive and psychotic illnesses, and that the list of inmates included an 89-year-old man with dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time as a result of being kidnapped from his home-village by the Taliban.

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Snitch! – Chelsea Manning poses for a selfie when she really should be focusing her attention on the road

Manning was arrested in May 2010, and charged with leaking classified information.  In July that year, she was moved the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia, where she was held for up to 23 hours a day in a solitary cell.  When Manning’s court-martial concluded at Forte Meade, Maryland, in August 2013, she was found guilty of twenty offences under the Espionage Act.  She was sentenced to a prison sentence of 35 years – chiefly for the crime of leaking US state secrets to the WikiLeaks website – but cleared of the more serious offence of ‘aiding the enemy’, which would have meant serving her punishment in solitary confinement.

During Manning’s trial and subsequent imprisonment, international newspapers published the Guantánamo Files, along with other material she had passed on to Julian Assange.  These included 250,000 US embassy communications, which exposed diplomats’ true feelings about their postings, and exposed widespread corruption in regimes across the Middle East; and the Iraq War Logs, which revealed that, of the 150,000 Iraqi deaths recorded during the American invasion of 2004-2009, as many 80 percent of casualties had been civilians.

The day after sentencing, Manning’s lawyer announced her wish to be known as Chelsea, but it took until April 2014 for her request to be recognised under Kansas state law.  Whilst United States legislation does provide help for gender dysphoric prisoners, in 2014, transgender individuals were prohibited from serving in the US military.  This policy meant that the hormone treatment and counselling accessible under certain circumstances to civilian prisoners was not available in military gaols.  It took two law-suits and another eleven months before Manning was permitted hormone therapy, although she was never allowed to grow her hair beyond the regulation length for a male prisoner, use cosmetics, or to have any female-specific pronouns used in her prison records.  She tried to take her own life twice in 2016 – once in July, and again in November, straight after being put in solitary confinement as punishment for her first suicide attempt.

Frame - Prisoners
Does my shiv look big in this? – for transgender prisoners, there can be no guarantees of access to the feminising comfort blankets that biological women take for granted

In January 2017, President Barack Obama announced that Chelsea Manning’s sentence was being commuted, and, on May 17th, she was released from Fort Leavenworth penitentiary in Kansas.  Now: your opinion of whether Chelsea Manning is a hero or a traitor depends almost entirely on where you stand regarding post-conventional ethics.

The American psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) began developing his theory of moral development in his 1958 doctoral dissertation.  In this paper, Kohlberg outlined three levels of moral development (divided into two stages each), which describe the development of human moral reasoning.  The first level, Kohlberg maintained, was that of pre-conventional ethics.  At this level, human ethical decisions are made according to self-interest (What is in this for me?) and individuals’ orientations towards obedience and punishment (What course of action will help me avoid being punished? in other words).

At the second level – that of conventional ethics – individuals make decisions based on their desire to conform to social norms (such the accepted way in which boys and girls should dress and behave), adherence to contracts of employment, and their orientation towards authority, social order and the law.  An employee who chooses to turn a blind eye to a morally dubious practice in order to keep their job or protect the reputation of the company, for example, is practicing conventional ethics.

The third type, or post-conventional code, is the most highly developed level of ethical reasoning.  At this stage, the individual makes decisions according to universal ethical principles that transcend concern for personal security or the quiet life.  Whistle-blowers are the archetypal post-conventionalists: people like Chelsea Manning, who decide that they cannot keep quiet about something they see as a moral outrage, no matter what the personal costs for them might be.  This level of morality requires abstract reasoning, and an ability to see far beyond the immediate needs of the self.  When an individual acts according to a post-conventional ethical code, they do so categorically and deontologically, with the greater good and the moral advancement of society as a whole as their primary concern, rather than the protection of short-term interests and the avoidance of censure.

Chelsea Manning’s sacrifice must thus be judged according to Kohlberg’s framework.  I’m not going to tell anyone what to think, but it can be argued that the very nature of American involvement in the Middle East (including the closure of Guantánamo Bay detention camp) changed as a direct result of Manning’s preparedness to face court-martial and imprisonment for what she believed.  If, after chewing over that philosophical morsel, you still prefer your transgender role-models to sing at Eurovision, act in TV prison dramas, or be related to the Kardashians, then you really need to rethink your priorities.

Frame - Drag Queen Story Hour
Drag Queen Story Hour – in which drag queens read stories… for an hour

All transgender people act according to post-conventional ethics when they take the step of refusing to conform not a minute longer to the social expectations of the traditional gender binary.  For transsexuals, there are always consequences to the choices they make, whether they be marginalisation or denial of advancement at work, estrangement from friends or family, and the occasional mouthful of vigorous abuse from a stranger on the street.  How galling it can be, then, to learn that public libraries in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco are choosing to promote tolerance and understanding of transgender people by hiring drag queens to read to groups children; to discover that the chosen representatives of my community include Honey Mahogany, Tempest DuJour and Alaska Thunderfuck.

Drag Queen Story Hour was launched in December 2015, and involves pretty much what it says on the tin: drag queens in Carmen Miranda wigs, taffeta gowns and platform heels descending on public libraries, schools and bookshops in Brooklyn and neighbourhoods of San Francisco and Los Angeles every weekend lunchtime to read stories to children.  The aim of the project, in the words of its website, is to create an environment which captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models.  In spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish; where dress-up is real.”

Whilst it would be churlish not to applaud any in-your-face showboating of alternative lifestyles and flaunting of gender diversity – especially in educational contexts – I remain unconvinced that drag queens are the best ambassadors for this.  Drag queens are performers, after all; entertainers who adopt personas in order to provide amusement.  In traditional drag (such as that embodied by the British institution of the pantomime dame), the entertainment (or artform, if you will) only really works if the performer communicates the idea that they aren’t really enjoying what they are doing; if their performance is constantly haunted by the suggestion that they were somehow coerced into this grotesque parody of femininity, and are humiliating themselves solely for the pleasure of the crowd.  Furthermore, drag does not blur the lines between the sexes; it does not generate curiosity about gender by offering ambiguity and challenging stereotypes.  Rather, drag is an exaggerated pastiche of female behaviour, sexuality and sartorial habits, and is, by definition, an attention-seeking performance-art that trades on bawdy jokes and sexual innuendo.  Drag is not, in short, an amusement designed for children.

What is most disappointing, however, is that the enthusiastic kiddies of Brooklyn and San Francisco are not being exposed to gender non-conforming people who live everyday lives – who go about the humdrum business of earning a living as a member of a gender to which they were not assigned at birth.  It is as if, in those American libraries, the organisers of Drag Queen Story Hour are nervous of allowing children to meet actual transsexuals and homosexuals; that the founder of Drag Queen Story Hour, Michelle Tea, is only brave enough to expose children to alternative lifestyles provided it is through the sanitised filters of performance, ostentation, camp and exaggeration.  Drag, like all pretence, distances the performer from their audience – it does not bring the two of them closer together.  When, one Saturday lunchtime at San Francisco Public Library, six-year old James Mendenhall asked how, if she had been born a boy, Honey Mahogany had acquired breasts, I just wish he’d been asking J (the British transwoman forced to leave her community of north Manchester Charedi Jews) why a judge had told her in 2017 that she couldn’t see her children anymore.  Now that would have been educational.

 

The Drag Queen Story Hour website can be found here… https://www.dragqueenstoryhour.org/

My analysis of the case of J and the Charedi Jewish community of north Manchester can be read here…                              https://abigailrobinsonblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/05/too-high-a-price-to-pay-the-personal-cost-of-changing-gender/

Hormonally yours… A Transgender Person’s Adventures in Endocrinology

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.

Frame Sweets
The obligatory photograph of some generic medication, which tradition dictates must accompany any article about prescription drugs

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.

Frame Meat
We are able to claim ownership of very little in our lives, but if we can rightly claim that anything truly does belong to us, then it is the meat that hangs from our bones

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.

 

Psycho-sexually Frustrated – Four Case Studies about the Role of Sex in Gender Transition

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.

(The curious can have a gander at Blanchard’s arguments in favour of publicly funded gender reassignment surgery, here… http://individual.utoronto.ca/james_cantor/index_files/Blanchard2000.pdf)

Frame Blanchard and Teacher
The young Ray Milton Blanchard delighted his teachers by announcing, at a tender age, his intention to grow up to become a sexologist

Case Study One: M. at the Dubrovnik Swimming Pool

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 Marsden’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.

Frame Treasure Chest
The Box of Delights – you never forget your first encounter with pornography

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.

Frame Gollywogs
“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” – October 31st has been providing ideal cover for people whose clothing habits lean towards the unconventional for as long as anyone can remember

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.

Too High a Price to Pay? – The Personal Cost of Changing Gender

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 characteristics, 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.

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Hebrew or She-brew? – Although Biblical transvestites had highly sophisticated tastes in jewellery and frocks, they never quite got their heads around beard removal

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 lightly.  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.

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Quitting is for winners! – If doing something makes you miserable, then stop doing it. Durr.

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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
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Made for each other – Not every couple is lucky enough to receive universal approval for their lifestyle choices

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.

 

Further details on the case of the transgender woman who lost everything due to the reactionary, Old Testament beliefs of her Jewish community, can be gleaned here…                                                                                                          https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/j-v-b-and-the-children.pdf

Great Gender-Benders from History, Volume One: Le Chevalier Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont

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.

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Easily Fooled – Thomas Stewart’s 1792 portrait of Charles de Beaumont was airily dismissed as the anonymous ‘Portrait of a Woman with a Feather in her Hat’, until the slightly butch appearance and tell-tale five o’clock shadow promoted a reassessment of the painting in 2012

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?

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It’s been out of print since 1979, but, if you can find a copy, Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Dressing Up’ provides as comprehensive a low-down on the Chevalier de Beaumont as you could hope for

The website of The Beaumont Society can be visited here… http://www.beaumontsociety.org.uk/

Duck and Cover – Transgender Survival Strategies for 2017

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.

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A neat encapsulation of the sophisticated and reasoned arguments against allowing transgender people to use the public toilet that is right for them

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

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In these enlightened times, anti-desegregation propaganda would seem laughable if it weren’t so disturbing

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.

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President Elect, Donald J Trump, continues to show how tirelessly he is working to drag American moral and intellectual debate back out of the twenty-first century

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.

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A neat encapsulation of the sophisticated and reasoned arguments used to bar transgender people from participating in mainstream sport

Sound familiar?

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.

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Sporting competition has always been an arena for the healthy, good-natured letting off of steam, as witnessed in these early twentieth century newspaper cuttings

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.

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A proud and noble tradition – Anonymous death threats to the athletes Jackie Robinson and Fallon Fox, written in 1946 and 2013, respectively

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.”

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A neat encapsulation of the sophisticated and reasoned arguments advanced for not caring about the civil rights of transgender Americans

Sound familiar?

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.

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Who do you think you are? – Not everyone is fortunate enough to belong to a group deemed worthy of basic liberty and equality
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Some people are never satisfied – Not content with having men to run their businesses and keep their world safe, at the dawn of the twentieth century, a small, lunatic circle of western women started demanding the right to vote

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.

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A neat encapsulation of the sophisticated and reasoned arguments espoused by people who do not believe they should moderate their language to take account of modern sensibilities

Sound familiar?

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.

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Give them an inch and they take a mile – History is littered with groups whose sole aim was to unsettle established mores and impose prohibitions on their peers’ native language

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!

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A neat encapsulation of the sophisticated and reasoned arguments made against the rights of transgender people and same-sex couples to enter into the beautiful and noble institution of marriage

Sound familiar?

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.

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Part of the (unsuccessful) legal opposition to the 1967 Loving versus Virginia court battle, in which it was argued that permitting two consenting adults from different races to marry was as unthinkable as incest, paedophilia or the rape of the disabled

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:

  1. 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).
  2. The assertion that gender transition is a choice, the consequence of which should be self-imposed marginalisation (and a change of career).
  3. 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.

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A neat encapsulation of the sophisticated and reasoned arguments put forward for taking transgender rights off the political and social agenda

Sound familiar?

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.

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Not every pseudo-scientist is an oddball or an irrelevance – even Charles Darwin was not above trying to offer evolutionary ‘proof’ that women were inferior to men

Bibliography

A sobering tour of current, attempted and pending transphobic legislation in the United States can be taken here…                               http://www.transequality.org/action-center

The chilling insight into human nature provided by reactions to the policy of the American cut-price retailer, Target, to allow transgender customers to use all its fitting-rooms and toilet facilities, can be read on the website of The Washington Post, here…                                                         https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/04/26/a-danger-to-wives-and-daughters-petition-to-boycott-target-over-transgender-inclusive-bathrooms-claims-growing-support/?utm_term=.2bf316b3044b

More detail about the relaxation of entry requirements for wannabe transgender Olympians can be gleaned here…https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/jan/25/ioc-rules-transgender-athletes-can-take-part-in-olympics-without-surgery

Donald Trump’s opinions on efforts by legislators in a number of American states to stop transgender people going to the toilet can be studied here…http://www.advocate.com/politics/2016/5/24/donald-trump-claims-accommodating-transgender-people-too-expensive

The report into Transgender Equality by the UK Women and Equalities Select Committee (January 2016), can be viewed in full here… http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmwomeq/390/390.pdf

My witty and insightful deconstruction of said white paper can be enjoyed here…                                                https://abigailrobinsonblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/24/overt-and-unchallenged-part-i-what-needs-to-happen-before-governments-can-address-transphobic-prejudice/

For a glimpse at the tenets of trans-exclusionary radical feminism, Cathy Brennan’s 2011 letter to the UN challenging non-biological definitions of gender in law, and calling for the protection of female-only spaces, can be explored here…                                                                                                         https://sexnotgender.com/gender-identity-legislation-and-the-erosion-of-sex-based-legal-protections-for-females/

My article about my experiences of gender transition whilst working as a teacher (and the responses it provoked) can be read in its partially denuded state here… http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2016/01/how_i_ruined_my_teaching_career_by_changing_gender.html

 

…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!

Our Own Worst Enemy – How Transgender People were Complicit in the Election of Donald Trump

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.

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Geoff Love’s version of the Star Wars soundtrack – like the John Williams’ original, but with added ‘pew-pew’

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).

(If you want to know what you missed, feel free to study the programme of events here: http://www.glaad.org/issues/transgender.)

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.

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“Trump: the pussy-grabbing, wall-building, climate-change-denying, healthcare-abolishing, tax-dodging, shit-spewing demagogue.”

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!”

(To read the version of events as published in The Guardian newspaper, have a gander at this: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/nov/25/eddie-izzard-reveals-years-of-transgender-abuse-to-court.)

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.

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The Flag of Transgender Pride – no doubt making some clever point about shades of masculinity and femininity through its use of pastel pinks and blues, but a stark example of what can happen if you allow a symbol to be designed by committee

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 electorate.  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.

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Motivational posters – if this sort of nonsense inspires you, then you’re an idiot. And who on Earth is Jamie Paolinetti?

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.