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.
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.
The question remains of why gender transition carries such social stigma, and excites such confused and hysterical responses. J transitioned from male to female; a fairly humdrum social process, on the face of it, involving a change of role and the renegotiation of relationships. She didn’t sell drugs to teens, run a paedophile ring, or forget to delete her browsing history, and yet she was expelled from her community as if she was guilty of the most heinous of crimes. The news that a friend or peer or family member or colleague is transgender continues, despite what we tell ourselves about progress towards tolerance and acceptance, to provoke the most absurd of reactions. An inability to cope on a conceptual level with transsexuality brings out the worst in a lot of people, and I think the reason for this is a symptom of four faulty assumptions…
- Most people don’t understand why some folk want to change their gender. Whilst many of these people don’t let their ignorance bother them, and see no issue with treating transgender people as their equals (albeit as equals with eccentric clothing habits), there are plenty of influential groups and individuals who, rather than allow themselves to be educated (and to see that, actually, you know, just because so-and-so has grown their hair, they aren’t going to sexually assault me), prefer to convince themselves that transgender people are freaks.
- Gender transition is seen as a choice that is made as whimsically or impulsively as whether to have Chinese or Indian tonight. Anyone who changes gender, therefore, is seen as weak, or as caving in to an improper desire. A little of what you like never did anyone any harm, the reasoning goes, so why not limit your sartorial perversions to the privacy of your own home, and go to work dressed in a suit like everyone else?
- To many people’s minds, gender transition is too closely associated with sexual gratification for comfort. Problematically, male-to-female transsexuals are motivated to a great degree by trying to forge a comfortable sexual identity for themselves. But, whilst transition is often psycho-sexual in nature, wanting to feel attractive isn’t quite the same as wanting to go about one’s daily business in a state of permanent sexual arousal. Transsexuals want the right to enjoy being beautiful – to themselves as much as to others. Their concept of attractiveness just happens to contradict hegemonic expectations, but that does not mean their motives should be treated as synonymous with getting their rocks off by wearing dresses.
- People with the opinions outlined above who hold (or think they ought to hold) gatekeeping positions in our culture – such as teachers, religious fanatics, employers, and so on – assume a specious and unnecessary responsibility for protecting their fellow citizens (and their children) from undesirable influences. Their belief that they must prevent society from slipping into a mire of cross-dressing debauchery is, paradoxically, as strong as the futility and redundancy of their impulse to speak out against transsexuals. Society has nothing to fear from gender nonconforming people. We aren’t going to corrupt anyone’s children, slow the birth-rate, spread diseases or lower house prices. But transphobia (like racism, sexism, ageism, ableism and homophobia) is – because it originates, by definition, from fear – irrational. More often than not, transphobia is not motivated by hate. If it were, it would be much easier to condemn and to challenge. The root of transphobia is generally the erroneous belief that allowing men to become women, and women to become to men, serves to sanction a moral decline from which society can never recover. Bless.
In the face of such opposition, transgender people have every justification for feeling brave for continuing undaunted to live the life we want in the way we want. It sucks to be ignored, marginalised and abused, but it sucks even more to be depressed about something you’ve always wanted to do, and which huge numbers of your contemporaries take for granted. Transgender people, furthermore, have to work that little bit harder than our cisgender peers to earn and maintain a trusted and respected place in society, and two extra conditions are usually attached to our acceptance by the world at large.
The first is that social endorsement is linked inextricably to our ability to ‘pass’ convincingly as a biological member of our target gender. This, in turn, depends upon whatever concept of attractiveness has currently been deemed in vogue by social and media consensus, and holds especially true for male-to-female transsexuals. If you can look glamorous and/or sexy; if you can afford expensive clothes, be invited to the right parties, and depend upon the necessary connections; then you stand a greater chance of avoiding alienation and isolation. Heaven help the transsexual who is not able (either through lack of funds for the necessary surgery, or from being cursed with shoulders, hands and hips that will never look anything other than male) to present a glitzy or alluring face to the public: no-one, but no-one, is interested in reading interviews with, or in seeing photos or YouTube clips of, them.
An obsession with a particular type of transgender woman, moreover, contributes to harmful stereotypes of what constitutes femininity. Gender nonconformity ought to confront preconceptions of sexuality and raise unsettling questions about the nature of beauty, but if social validation is only granted to male-to-female transsexuals who pander to a narrow definition of red-carpet womanhood, then transsexuals are lying to themselves if they think they are challenging gender stereotypes and the harmful expectation that all women need to be skinny and elegant, and to trade on their sexuality.
The only other means of avoiding the exchange of depression and confusion for penury, unemployment and loneliness, is the presence of a supportive partner: a wife or girlfriend, I mean, who is either ‘into’ the idea of having a transgender spouse, or who is at least willing to put up with having a husband who takes longer in the bathroom than they do (because, when they said, “for better; for worse”, they meant it). There is no doubt that the presence of a partner buys a transsexual an enormous amount of immunity from censure and abuse: “Well,” onlookers reason, “if they’ve got a boyfriend or girlfriend, they must be alright under all that make-up.”
Both these options seem to have an attendant whiff of crappiness about them – not least because they reinforce reductive, heteronormative concepts of the nature of beauty, and of what is, and is not, a permissible family unit. Still: one step at a time. It’s only been 3400 years since Moses chiselled the book of Deuteronomy into a stone tablet.
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