Three years ago, with the help of a fellow superhero, I abandoned my secret identity for good and became Abigail Robinson. I now travel the globe, pausing wherever I'm needed to right wrongs and fight injustice.
At this time, I am residing in Bucharest and running a school for adults and children who want to learn English.
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.
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.
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…
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
I have always been deeply suspicious of people who claim to be changing sex because they feel “like a woman trapped inside a man’s body” (or vice versa). With a woefully underdeveloped concept of what it means to be a woman – or a man, for that matter – I have long been incapable of articulating what, precisely, are the emotional and psychological differences between the sexes, and, consequently, highly sceptical of anyone who claimed they ‘felt’ like a member of the gender to which they were not assigned at birth. I was just… me, I thought, not a set of variables within a biologically determined category allotted a prescriptive set of parameters regarding how I should think and behave. Transition, by implication, couldn’t possibly be a process of setting free one’s inner-male or inner-female, I reasoned, because it was more a question of redefining my social space, not my interior life; an endeavour to shape a male or female identity from the outside in, not the inside out. After two months of taking the testosterone-inhibiting drug, Diphereline, however, I’m no longer as sure as I was about whether it is biology or environment that maketh man or woman…
I started taking oestrogen because of the minor cosmetic adjustments I had been assured it would trigger. I was told I would notice some redistribution of fat – a tendency to gain weight on the hips rather than the belly, for example – and that I should look forward to enjoying a full head of hair for a good while longer than presaged by my father’s youthful baldness. A couple of months in to the treatment, I was told that my face had changed; that my previous jowly plumpness had disappeared to expose my cheekbones. Changes to the way hair grew on my body were also promised, but, as I was also following a strict regime of depilation, it was difficult to tell exactly how much of my tonsorial success could be attributed to the hormones I was on.
Before commencing the treatment, I was also cautioned to expect a significant change in my emotional state. I would be prone to mood swings, I was warned, as well as a tendency to take criticism and slights to my character very personally. I was highly sceptical of that prediction, however, and I still believe I was right to be so: I did not experience any shifts in the way I reacted to emotional stimuli that were conspicuous to me (apart, perhaps, from an irrational anxiety that oestrogen would be unavailable when it was time to stock up again).
From inside one’s own skin, it is rarely possible to be sensitive to the changes taking place on the surface. I’ve never been one for staring at my reflection for hours, and, not being a Facebook narcissist, I haven’t compiled a meticulous photo-journal documenting my physical transition. As a result, I’d be lying if I said I felt I had undergone a miraculous transformation as result of dosing myself regularly with feminising oestrogen. I’m told the change is pronounced – that I’ve got hips now, and round, peachy buttocks – and that the old me has long since vanished, but I find it very difficult to trust the assurances of others. I worry that people are only telling me what they think I want to hear, and I’m aware that the hormone medication I have been taking is not deigned to help male-to-female transsexuals to look and feel more feminine, but to ease the symptoms of the menopause. That knowledge makes me dubious of the power of oestrogen to affect physical transfiguration, and I occasionally wonder whether I’ve been prescribed a placebo, intended to satisfy my need to feel as if I’m doing all I can to continue and maintain my transition, rather than a metamorphosing wonder-drug. I never, for example, enjoyed the glorious burst of breast growth augured in internet chatrooms on the subject of hormone therapy. For that, it was necessary to seek a surgical solution.
For these reasons, being prescribed feminising hormones seemed to me a symbolic, rather than a physiological, victory. The reason I felt this way predated my application for medical assistance to continue my transition. The cultural milieu of twenty-first century, western, capitalist life means that a person cannot simply decide to dress and behave in a way contrary to stereotypical expectations of gender and still expect to journey unmolested through everyday public and professional life. When you finally pluck up the courage to make the switch, a number of significant social and bureaucratic barriers are immediately erected in your way. There is the painstaking process of informing family, friends and colleagues, for a start, with all the diplomatic wrangling this entails. Then there is the need to subject oneself to counselling before permission for any sort of surgery or medication can be considered – irrespective of whether one goes private, or joins the queue for NHS support. Some of these obstacles, the individual can legislate for; others depend on the munificence of key medical, legal and professional gatekeepers. For example, I can demand the agreement of my boss for me to attend work in my new gender role, but I cannot control the effect this may have on my prospects of promotion.
By the time I approached my GP to request a course of oestrogen (and later, for approval for breast augmentation that I was paying for myself), I had already started living in female role in every area of my life except one (work); dabbled in private health care as far as my budget would allow; and applied to change the name in my passport. Consequently, I was able to smile, look my doctor confidently in the eye, and ask as casually as if I needed help sleeping for them to put me on oestrogen patches. To my immense relief (I felt much less sure of myself than I was able to pretend), the doctor simply shrugged and sent me away with a prescription.
I would say that I was lucky in finding a GP willing to prescribe HRT so blithely, but the pattern has repeated itself often enough now – and in more than one country – that I have started to take much of my own credit for the ease with which I have found help to transition. I think that the reason I have been able to obtain what I want from medical professionals with only a minimum of fuss and the most token amount of jumping through hoops lies in the way I have conducted myself during key gatekeeping meetings. With the sole exception of my first appointment at the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic in Hammersmith, I have appeared calm, measured, courteous, rational, and, above all, sure of what I want. In turn, the doctors I have met have treated me exactly as they should: as a person in full possession of their faculties who is merely exercising their right to put in, stick on, cut off, and turn inside out whatever they like of their own body. We are able to claim ownership of very little in our lives, but if we can rightly claim that something (anything!) truly does belong to us, it is the meat that hangs from our bones. It is an outrage that a transgender person requires the permission of a psychologist before they can exercise that right, and heart-breaking that some transsexuals are so afraid of rejection by medical professionals that they resort to the dangerous on-line black-market of untested and unverified substances.
An individual’s ability to get what they want depends on patience, doggedness, and, ultimately, on being in the right place at the right time. Through just such serendipity, I have recently been taken on as a science project by a family doctor who lives in the same apartment block as me in a south-west suburb of Bucharest. As luck would have it, that doctor’s specialism is endocrinology. She was stunned to learn that I was relying solely on oestrogen patches to tinker with my hormones. This, she said, was like subjecting myself to the emotional rollercoaster of permanent menstrual tension; that having oestrogen swimming around my system as freely as testosterone was positively sadomasochistic, and was leaving my brain utterly bewildered as to which set of emotional precepts should be allowed to dominate. My brain, in short, was both male and female, and probably didn’t know if it was coming or going.
Accordingly, my doctor/neighbour wrote me a prescription for the intravenous testosterone-blocker, Diphereline, and I have now been taking it – in conjunction with a reduced dose of oestrogen – for three months. And, suddenly and unexpectedly, I find myself revising my original conviction that what differentiates feeling like a man and feeling like a woman is spurious and unknowable. I now cry at the drop of hat – and sober up just as instantly. I have become hopeless in an argument: whereas I once prided myself on my patient, smart-alecky ability to listen humbly to someone else’s point of view before demolishing it completely with a poetic tirade of perspicacious verbiage, I now crumple before the determination of other people to assert themselves, and can do nothing but whine and sulk during a row because I’m not getting my way.
The most alarming change to my emotional and psychological state, however, has occurred in the bedroom. Whilst I remain sexually attracted to women (at least, I assume, for the time being), the sort of treatment I want between the sheets has altered. I want to be held, I realise; wrapped in the protective arms of someone bigger and more powerful than me. I want to be clubbed over the head and dragged into the boudoir by my hair, and then have things done to me whilst I meekly submit to a more dominant partner. I have become simultaneously very demanding and very lazy when it comes to having my physical desires satiated, and I have become almost incapable of successfully initiating a bout of horizontal gymnastics. The trouble is, of course, that that is precisely how (with only a handful of exceptions) heterosexual women wish to be treated in the bedroom department, and so finding a compatible playmate is proving very difficult indeed.
Man! I feel like a woman! Shania: I think I know what you mean; it’s made me a gibbering wreck, and I wouldn’t change it for worlds.
The psychologist Ray Milton Blanchard gained his PhD from the University of Illinois in 1973. His post-doctoral research looked at the clinical castration of sex offenders, which led him to join the Clark Institute for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario, before he became their head of Clinical Sexology Services in 1995. Whilst Blanchard’s name may not exactly be a household one, at the age of 71, he’s still kicking, and currently serves on the American Psychiatric Association’s Subcommittee for Gender Identity Disorders.
Blanchard’s 1989 theory on transsexuality posits that male-to-female transsexuals can be categorised neatly in two distinct groups. The first, the ‘homosexual transsexuals’, are individuals who are sexually attracted to men – particularly heterosexual men – so homosexual transsexuals seek to acquire a female body in order to be able to appeal to the objects of their desire. The second group – ‘heterosexual fetishistic transvestites’ – are heterosexual men who seek to become the object of their own sexual attraction; men who find women so alluring that they wish to imitate them completely. Heterosexual fetishistic transvestites, Blanchard argues, are men who gain a sexual thrill from the thought of being women, and, to describe them, Blanchard coined the term ‘autogynephilic’; which is “a man’s paraphilic tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman”.
Blanchard further maintains that there are four types of autogynephiliac. Transvestic autogynephiliacs are aroused by the act (or fantasy) of wearing female clothing, while behavioural autogynephilia is arousal from the act of performing actions generally regarded as feminine (such as household chores, depilation, or putting on make-up). Physiological autogynephilia, meanwhile, is the achievement of arousal by fantasising about feminine bodily functions, and anatomic autogynephiliacs get their kicks by possessing (or dreaming of possessing) all – or parts of – a normative woman’s body.
Blanchard’s views may be alarming to those who cling to the notion that being transgender is a more transcendent, spiritual condition than simply getting one’s rocks off wearing fishnets and a belted mackintosh, but he cannot be accused of being illiberal. He is, notably, a proponent of state-funded gender reassignment surgery – although his primary reason for holding this opinion is that he considers sex-change operations an appropriate palliative for the psychological suffering endured by many transgender people. In other words, in Blanchard’s view, surgery for transsexuals is as worthy of government funding as any other form of mental health treatment for any other kind of patient.
Such theorising may be grist to the ideological mill of trans-exclusionary radical feminists, but I can’t shake the suspicion that objection to Blanchard’s typology is based on a hope that it isn’t true rather than a conviction that it isn’t. No-one likes having their lifestyle choices and ambitions – and the huge sacrifices made to fulfil them – reduced to a base, atavistic drive. Thus, I would like to offer four short tales of psychoanalysis that I think strongly support Blanchard’s assertion that gender nonconformity (particularly amongst non-homosexual men) is an issue of misplaced sexuality and malfunctioning self-esteem, rather than a noble decision to pursue a social and sartorial third way.
I guess I would have been about eleven or twelve when my parents took me on holiday to this resort on the Adriatic. I can’t remember the name of the town where we went, but I know it was a few miles up the coast from Dubrovnik, so I’ve always thought of that as my Dubrovnik trip. Most of the holiday is just a blur now – I can’t even say for sure how long we stayed there – but I know it must have been during the summer, because that’s when we always went away as a family. I know that it was a pretty disappointing holiday, too, and that my parents blamed me for it. We usually spent our August fortnight in Cornwall, and I had nagged my parents to take me on a foreign holiday because that’s what I thought all my schoolfriends did. My mother didn’t want to fly, I know that much, so it must have taken quite an effort of will to get her on the aeroplane and put her life in the hands of the pilot and the engineers who had built the 7-3-7. When the Dubrovnik trip turned out to be such a crushing anti-climax – after weeks of excitement that I was finally going to spend a holiday somewhere other than on the M5 – my mum and dad had yet another reason for giving me their weary, I-told-you-so looks.
The only clear memory I have of the trip (apart from that my parents had wasted their money on account of my keeping-up-with-the-Joneses response to playground peer-pressure), was the afternoon we spent at an open-air swimming pool with a wave machine and water chutes. The complex was called Poseidon, and probably covered about sixty acres. There were areas with tables and bars, and others with sun-loungers and parasols. Once my parents were installed a one of these, and my mum had had a bit of a swim and settled down with a paperback while my dad nodded off in the sun, I wandered off to explore. I spent time idling in a jacuzzi, and then found a shallow little pool for toddlers that was heated to pleasantly volcanic temperatures. I got thrown out of that by a lifeguard for being too old when I tried swimming along the bottom, so I made my way to the water-slides.
There were two slides, and they started at the top of a tall tower at the centre of the park. The tower had flights of wooden steps on the inside to reach the platform at the top. The blue-painted handrails were rusty and the steps were slimy with mildew, and the queues were interminable. Dozens – maybe a hundred – holidaymakers waited in line on those flights of stairs, rejoicing when they reached a ninety-degree turn on the staircase because it meant a slight change of scenery. Once you reached the top, you were helped into the mouth of whichever slide you chose by one of the lifeguards, but then you were held in suspense by one of them placing a sinewy, sunburnt leg in front of you across the fibreglass halfpipe. When the lifeguard judged the previous thrill-seeker was safely out of the way, he would lift his leg, and you were carried away by the rush of water.
I had ridden (and queued for) the slides maybe a dozen times, and was waiting on the final flight of steps just before emerging from the shadows inside the tower into the sunshine, when I became aware of a sort of ripple passing through the huddles of people below me. Punters were reluctantly shuffling on the narrow steps to make room for someone who was shouldering their way self-consciously up between them, and making their way to the top.
When the source of the disruption reached the flight of steps where I was standing, I saw that it was a girl. She was a little bit older than me, but not much – thirteen or fourteen, I reckon. Her long, black hair was already wet from swimming, and she had smooth, olive skin from, I fancied, spending hours in the Balkan sun. She was wearing a green, two-piece swimming costume the colour of an avocado. She had a heart-shaped face, and we made eye-contact, very briefly, as she climbed past me. She had a sulky, bored-looking expression, and her eyes were wide apart and a very light, almost transparent brown colour, like marbles held up to the sun.
The lifeguards exchanged secretive, knowing looks as the girl passed between them and settled herself at the start of the water-chute nearest to me. I now realise that she was probably the daughter or something of some bigwig at the waterpark – the owner’s niece, probably – and that she therefore had immunity from the tedium of queuing, and was able to jump straight to the front of the line. The glances the lifeguards gave each other certainly, I now realise, suggested that they had seen this girl before, and that they were more than familiar with her silent, haughty jumping in line. I know now that that was what their bemused looks meant, but, at the time, my confused adolescent mind connected this girl’s apparent power and aloofness with the fact that she was slim and pretty. I wanted what she had; I wanted the same authority to have people move aside for me, and I wanted people to gaze enviously at my trim shoulders and slender legs as I walked past them. But to have that dominion, I knew I had to be a girl.
At the top of the chute, the girl didn’t turn and look back. After a few seconds, the lifeguard lifted his leg, and she was gone – borne away down the halfpipe in a plunging churn of water.
Case Study Two: R. Explores Spencer Marsden’s Pornography Collection
During my second year of high school, I formed an unsavoury friendship with a plump, freckled boy in my year called Gavin Marsden. Marsden had flame-red hair and bulging, thyroidal eyes, and he led me astray in no small measure. With the basic expedient of peer pressure, he intimidated me, at various times, into playing truant, committing acts of mindless vandalism, and indulging in petty bouts of small-scale shop lifting. I am in no way proud of my twelve-month association with him.
Marsden’s principal appeal wasn’t his magnetic personality, his double-jointed thumbs, or his ability to belch, to order, phrases of increasing lexical complexity. It was his step-brother’s compendious assortment of pornography that kept me in thrall to him. Spencer Marsden was a good decade older than Gavin and me, and his library of grot ranged from the everyday mainstream material of the newsage’s top-shelf, to hours of videotape of eye-popping acts of sexual kink and vulgarity. In his limited defence, Spencer Marsden didn’t appear to have amassed this impressive Aladdin’s Cave of filth for mere titillation: like Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis are reputed to have done with the Victorian porn they accumulated, Spencer kept his treasure-trove well catalogued, and padlocked in an impressive oak wardrobe in his bedroom. To my callow sensibilities, Spencer’s connoisseurship lifted him high above the rank of a mere common-or-garden masturbator, but, unfortunately for him, Gavin and I were soon adept at picking the wardrobe lock, and we skipped school on many afternoons to pore over the collection while Gavin’s family were all at work and the house was empty.
This pornucopia of muck constituted the lion’s share of my adolescent sex education. In today’s parlance, most of the content was pretty vanilla, but, every now again, Spencer’s library included something a little less middle-of-road. Gavin and I whiled away hours fast-forwarding through miles of tape for fleshy tableaux to boggle at in amazed awe. We squinted in disbelief at vaginas stretched to accommodate dildos the size of saxophones. We gasped in horror at a woman fellating a donkey with a West Country accent. We winced in revulsion at the squatting coprophiliacs performing with alacrity at the Glass-Topped Coffee Table Club.
I realise, looking back, that some of the X-rated imagery I witnessed left me with deep, irreparable scars, and, as a young adult, I fretted for years over the psychological damage watching Down on the Farm must have done me. (I was granted some emotional solace years later by a random encounter with a friend of a friend at a party, who told me, “To be haunted by images of men violating chickens and woman being serviced by horses is a good thing. The time to worry is when you find yourself thinking, Where can I get my hands on more of this stuff?” God bless him, whoever he was: he restored to me tremendous peace of mind.)
But it would be impossible to fully exorcise the troubling memories of every fifth-generation grumble epic that flickered before our adolescent eyes in those afternoons in the front room of Gavin Marsden’s parents’ house with the curtains drawn. My psyche will never be completely purged of some of the things I saw, but what all these startling masterpieces had in common – to my impressionable eyes, anyway – was that the women seemed to be the ones having all the fun. That is not to say the men (when they appeared) didn’t appear to be enjoying themselves, but it was the women who always had the interesting toys; or had food mashed into their bodies; or had bendy things inserted into them; or had two or three (or more) men attending thoroughly and diligently to their every sensual need at once; or (and this is perhaps the most important and relevant observation about the whole, clandestine, year-long experience) who wore the sexy costumes. The women seemed to be deriving all the pleasure, I deduced, whilst the men were doing all the hard work. If ever I were to appear in a naughty movie, I decided, it would be in one of the women’s roles, and in one of those beautiful costumes of lace and silk and corsetry and garters.
Spencer Marden’s pornography collection probably did me deeper, more complex and more lasting damage than over-exposure to adult entertainment does most individuals. Even now, when I watch porn as one of the worldly-wise, I don’t imagine myself doing things to the female performers. Instead, I imagine myself as one of the female stars, having those things done to me. Did my crossdressing blossom as a consequence of seeing the submissive, accelerated enjoyment of sex (with all the fabulously fussy outfits) the women appeared to be having in the movies in Spencer Marsden’s archive? At that vulnerable age, how else was I supposed to connect the dots between the clothes and the women and the attention and the pleasure in those films? Of course I wanted those ecstatic experiences or being worshipped and attended to for myself; of course I did.
Case Study Three: J.’s White-Trouser Rejection
When I think of the sort of thirteen-year old I was – mawkish, awkward, pathologically unfashionable, no discernible taste in music, capped with a pudding-bowl haircut like a minor character in a Billy Bunter story – it doesn’t surprise me in the least that none of the girls at school fancied me, but that didn’t stop me wanting a girlfriend more than anything else in the world.
I had that uncanny capacity, too, of being able to oscillate wildly from pudgily overweight to very skinny, so that my blazer and school trousers either hung off me like bags, or barely met at the zip. This capacity for rapid and dramatic weight loss and gain was, I suspect, a symptom of the bouts of depression I suffered during puberty. I wasn’t able to diagnose myself at the time – nor to connect my mental state to the ebb and flow of my waistline – but I certainly spent a great deal of time as an adolescent crying, and, on those occasions when I did attempt to confide in my mother, complaining to her that I was ugly.
The thing I blamed for these periods of misery, of course, was my inability to get a girlfriend. Unfortunately, being such a spaz (to use a moniker that was all the rage back then) meant that I didn’t handle rejection gracefully, or particularly philosophically. Instead of taking a long, hard look at myself and attempting to replicate the things my contemporaries did who had more success with the ladies, I elected to play the averages game, reasoning that, if I threw myself at enough hapless females, one of them would eventually cave in and say yes. Sadly, however, it didn’t work out that way, and, the more clumsy proposals I made, the more rejections I racked up. Or, to put it another way: my conversion-rate of propositions to rebuffals remained constant at a perfect one-hundred percent.
On top of my increasing desperation, I realise with hindsight that I was granting the girls at my school more and more power over me. In fact, I started to assume that their power over me had been earned for no other reason than that they were girls, and that it must be a marvellous thing to be female, because, that way, you had boys simply hurling themselves at you, and you could take your pick without any thought for the broken corpses of unrequited suitors littering your wake. To my mind, you see, I wasn’t giving girls power over me: they had pre-eminence for no other reason than that they had nice hair, no hair on their legs, and could wear pleated skirts and shoes with buckles on them.
To make matters worse, my mother’s advice on the subject was always jaw-droppingly inadequate. The most telling example of this happened while we were on holiday that summer on a campsite of static caravans near Scarborough. Overall, I think I’d been enjoying the holiday up until the night I’m going to tell you about. There was an amusement arcade on the campsite, and plenty of other things to keep me amused: trampolines, a pool, and it was possible to hire bicycles for the afternoon, and I idled away hours in my own company while my younger brother and my parents did whatever it was they did to pass the time back at the caravan.
The campsite had a clubhouse with two distinct areas. In one room, there was bingo, stand-up comedy, a bar, and general adult entertainment; and, in the other, there was a disco for under-eighteens to keep them out of their parents’ hair for the evening. Not being big drinkers, however, my mum and dad seemed quite happy to hang around the children’s disco with my brother and me, smiling benignly from their table as my brother drifted off with the new friends he’d made and I pleaded for a ten-pence piece to go and play another round of Space Invaders in the arcade next door.
Having put the best part of two pounds into the Space Invaders machine, I was sitting disconsolately with my parents when my mum leaned over to me so I could hear her over the sound of Agadoo. She told me that a pretty, blonde-haired girl on the dancefloor had been staring at me. This seemed unlikely – and I was right to be dubious – but I asked my mother how she knew anyway. By way of explanation, she simply said that the girl had been hanging around by the edge of the dancefloor to get my attention, and that I should go and ask her to dance.
I wasn’t convinced. Every instinct in my body (raw from the memory of the long list of rejections from the girls at school) screamed that my mother was wrong; that it was mere coincidence that the girl had been looking my way. We were sitting quite near the door, and it was very possible that the girl had just been squinting through the flashing neon to see where her own mother and father were. Deep down, I knew my mother was mistaken, and that to listen to her would only invite disappointment and humiliation, but, with the wretched credulity of perennially desperate, I stood up and made my way to the dancefloor, braced to ask the pretty blonde if she would stand facing me from two feet away, and watch while I gracelessly leaned from one foot to the other with my fists clenched and arms bent at the elbows like I might punch someone in the stomach, and while I wore a pained and embarrassed expression like someone ordered to fake enthusiasm with a gun held against their head (or ‘dance with me’, as I liked to call it at the time).
A period of about seven or eight minutes passed before the girl offered me a weak smile and walked away, but, as she hadn’t actually laughed at me or burst into tears, I considered my preliminary advances something of a success. I couldn’t wait to go back to the caravan and wallow in my victory, and I was still so pleased with myself the following morning that, over breakfast, I allowed my parents to persuade me to undergo something of a makeover. I needed to ditch the corduroy, they said, and get some jeans. And not just jeans: white jeans, no less, with high-top trainers, and a tie-died tee-shirt to top off the ensemble.
So: they took me into Scarborough and kitted me out like a prize dickhead, and I was so stoked by the afterglow of the previous night’s conquest, that I allowed them to. I was more than an innocent bystander: I was a willing accomplice to my own disgrace, and, as my dad had a shave and we got ready to retire to the clubhouse that evening, I even used my mother’s hand mirror while I applied a generous dollop of hair gel to my unfashionably utilitarian locks. I like to think I still had possession of sufficient wherewithal not to wear a medallion with a silver-plated marijuana leaf on it, but I have the awful feeling that I pulled such an item of jewellery over my head nonetheless.
You can’t gild a turd. It takes a certain je n’ais c’est quoi to pull off white jeans, high-top trainers and a tie-dyed tee-shirt, and I just didn’t have what it took. No amount of hair gel could compensate for the self-conscious slope of my shoulders or my tarmac-gazing, pigeon-toed gait, and I went into the clubhouse that night like a lamb to the slaughter.
When I eventually found the pretty blonde-haired girl and tried to reacquaint her with who I was (“Hello. I’m the inverse Cinderella! We danced last night, when I looked more like a ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ tribute act and less like a sex offender…”), she goggled at me in wide-eyed horror for a few seconds, and dashed over to a group of boys my age who were hanging around the Slush Puppy machine. When she had reached the relative safety of her peers, I was acutely aware that the slow, dawning turning of their attention onto me meant that she was telling them that that nutter from last night was harassing her again, and that they must kill me if I made any further attempt to speak with her.
I watched with petrified ignominy as the group closed ranks around my blonde-haired princess. I knew the game was up, and that my mortification was complete. I had gone out and tried to dress myself like the boys I had seen who didn’t stutter like an imbecile when they tried to talk to girls, and those clothes had swallowed me whole. I had drowned in them. It was the defining statement, I think, of my relationship with male clothes, and I hated what I had done to myself by attempting to fit them. Certainly, I was never able to go shopping for clothes after that with any sense of enthusiasm or joy, and I knew, as plainly as I knew that girls had the power to humiliate and hurt me, that I would never, never, listen to the advice of my mother and father again.
Case Study Four: Matty Dresses like a Girl for Hallowe’en
I cannot exaggerate how unexceptional I was at school. When report-writing season came around, I suspect I was one of those students my teachers had to really think long and hard about before they could remember who I was. I wasn’t popular; I didn’t excel in any particular subject; and I had no sporting ability whatsoever (and this is, cruelly, the aptitude that is prized above all others in schools – by children as well as their teachers). I never won a competition; was never chosen to represent the school for anything; I was never invited to the front of the hall during assembly; I never had my work framed and displayed on the wall. In fact, the most memorable thing about me was that I once wet myself when I’d been sent out of a maths lesson for talking and was too scared to go back inside to ask if I could go to the toilet. When my classmates were allowed out at the end of class, they could see (and smell) that I was standing at the centre of a broad, pungent circle of urine.
Everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame, though, and, when I was nine and in the third year, I had mine. For reasons that escape me, every October my school thought it more appropriate to devote a day of effort and curriculum time to a Hallowe’en costume parade than to marking a more meaningful, less pagan, festival like Diwali or Yom Kippur. (My school was in a district of Manchester that had quite a large population of Sikhs and Hindus. Now I’m older and wiser, I often wonder those children felt knowing my school was more interested in witches, zombies and Dracula than it was in the Festival of Lights.) The last two Hallowe’ens, I had shuffled around in the costume parade with heavy heart. Some of the kids had parents who took the event very seriously, and they always had great costumes. They were so good that them winning the parade was always a foregone conclusion, and there was almost no point anyone else making an effort. (Mark Baxter, for example, usually came as a wizard, and the attention to detail on his costume was always breath-taking. He had half-moon glasses and a little goatee beard, but the thing that impressed me most was that he had an old hard-back book under his arm that his step-dad had rebound in black paper and painted a pentangle on in Tipp-ex. I couldn’t compete with that: my parents just didn’t have the imagination.)
It was the girl’s costumes that I envied most, though, and I always wished I had a princess’ gown or a Snow White dress that I could pull out of the wardrobe to fall back on at events such as this: something pretty that I could enjoy wearing without it bothering me that I had no chance of winning. My fancy-dress options were always so pitifully thin that one year my mum told me to pull one of my arms out of my sleeve and hide it inside my shirt. I was given a pair of her tights to wear on my head and a cardboard sign on a string to put round my neck with ‘One-armed Bandit’ written on it. That was how bad things were for me.
This one year, however, I determined not to be miserable on Hallowe’en. I told my parents I wanted to go the parade as the bearded lady, and my mum couldn’t root out a dress for me fast enough. My father was a member of the church pantomime society (he usually played the villain because he was quite stocky and had quite a good singing voice), and he had a word with the woman who usually did the make-up and wigs for their performances, and I was booked for a beard fitting with her when my dad was next expected at rehearsals. My mum lent me a pair of her sandals and a long, dark brown wig she had (and which matched her own actual hair so exactly that I still can’t fathom why she owned it). The pièce de résistance of the outfit, though, was, without a doubt, the fulsome pair of rubber breasts my older brother had once returned with as a souvenir from a stag-do in Blackpool.
I’d never had any intention of wearing the false beard. That had been a ruse to get my parents to agree to me wearing a dress for school (and quite a well-chosen one, if I may say so), and I threw it away in the park on my way to school.
When it came time to get ready for the costume parade, my transformation created quite a stir. Peter Varnavas (who, as well as having a father who owned a fish and chip shop, was – by common consent – the hardest kid in school) was especially captivated by the false breasts. If I’d worn a dress in public under any other circumstances, Peter Varnavas would undoubtedly have fed me my own teeth, so it was especially gratifying to have won his approval through the simple expedient of rubber tits. And his reaction proved to be just the tip of the iceberg. When I appeared in the assembly hall, a buzz went around the room that granted me a celebrity status that was both immediate and spectacular. When I stood up to sashay up and down before the judges with my class, the crowd went wild, and I will never forget, over the clamour, making eye-contact with Peter Varnavas. His eyes were wide; he was grinning from ear to ear, and he was cupping his hands in front of his own chest as if holding two imaginary galia melons. Even through the din of three hundred hyperactive school children, I could hear him shouting, “Push ’em up! Push ’em up!”
Peter Varnavas is dead now. He had a boxing coach and was a junior champion, and he suffered a brain haemorrhage during a match when he was sixteen. But on that afternoon in October when we were both nine, he gave me a gift as intangible as it is impossible to repay. Along with the student body of my primary school, Peter Varnavas taught me that people pay attention to you if you look like a woman. If you wear sandals and a nice dress, and if you have long hair and big boobs, people look at you; they cheer you and shout your name; they approve of you and make you exceptional. If you look pretty, people like you.
David Ebershoff’s novel, ‘The Danish Girl’ (2000), tells the story of the life (and marriage) of Lili Elbe – one of the first people ever to undergo sex reassignment surgery. The passages in Ebershoff’s book detailing Elbe’s first experiences of crossdressing may be coy, but they communicate an undeniable sense of the sensual thrill experienced by Elbe (then called Einar Wegener) when he first posed in women’s clothes for his wife to paint. “Einar began to feel dizzy and warm”, Ebershoff writes when Elbe ascends the model’s podium. “The yellow shoes looked too dainty to support him, but his feet felt natural arched up, as if he was stretching a long-unused muscle”, Ebershoff continues, before offering the following version of Einar’s emotions as he transforms into Lili:
“A strange feeling was filling Einar as he stood on the lacquer trunk, the sunlight moving across him, the scent of herring in the air. The dress was loose everywhere except in the sleeves, and he felt warm and submerged, as if dipping into a summer sea. …the silk was so fine and airy that it felt like a gauze – a balm-soaked gauze lying delicately on healing skin. Even the embarrassment of standing before his wife began to no longer matter, for… Einar was beginning to enter a shadowy world of dreams where Anna’s dress could belong to anyone, even to him.”
If you overlook the saccharine prose of these passages, there is something in Ebershoff’s fictionalised version of Lili Elbe’s formative crossdressing experiences that every male-to-female transsexual can identify with: the desire to feel attractive and to believe that you look attractive, in the way that women do and women can.
Is this desire sexual in origin? A more useful question is surely, Does it matter that this desire is sexual in origin? I would argue that it doesn’t. It is almost impossible to separate huge numbers of human actions from their sexual motivations, from the way we dress to the way we walk; from the way we interact with others to the language we use and the sort of music we like. If so much of our behaviour and impulse is already psycho-sexual in nature, then why should it matter that some men want to look the way that millions of women do every day, and why they wish society would treat them accordingly?
The individuals whose stories are told in this article – that is, the autogynephiliacs whose souls are laid bare – have clear and comprehensible reasons for assuming that the power and pleasure they witnessed (and, in one case, experienced) originated from the femininity of the people who wielded and enjoyed it. While the names and places have been changed to protect the innocent, they are all true stories. Imagine for a moment, however, that they aren’t the encounters of four separate individuals, but the cumulative vicissitudes of the same person. That would be intolerable, wouldn’t it? The individual in question couldn’t be blamed for embracing their new identity rather than attempting to process in another way what happened to them, could they? These incidents are so closely related to different ways in which boys and girls are treated as children and adolescents – and the role of clothing is so intricately woven through these narratives – that it seems only natural that the participant should seek solace in transition.
What impresses me most about these stories, however, is that they weren’t told to a therapist, or pulled from the mind like a thorn from a foot after hours of psychotherapy. This self-awareness was achieved through introspection and the patient interrogation of people who care. These people are far more precious than the professionals who charge by the minute for their willingness to listen. Therapists are a poor replacement for good friends.
When ordinary transgender folk tell their stories of transition, the dominant motif is always the inevitably of sacrifice – of what has to be surrendered in order to change sex. For transsexuals who are not cushioned by inherited wealth or magazine-cover notoriety – or who do not enjoy social acceptance by dint of their serendipitous ability to physically ‘pass’ in their preferred role – life boils down to a terrible choice: dysphoric misery (as suppression leads inexorably to depression) on the one hand; and, on the other, the loss of friends and family, denial of the right to self-efficacy at work, and the suspicion and scorn of disingenuous, lowest-common denominator pundits like Richard Littlejohn and Jeremy Clarkson. The assumption that such sacrifices are a necessary evil on the road to self-realisation is made with a casual cruelty that legitimises and exacerbates prejudice against transgender people: in the twenty-first century, institutional transphobia remains overt and unchallenged. (If you don’t believe me, try going for a wizz in Virginia, where the county schoolboard has welcomed an executive order from President Trump that actively discriminates against transgender teenagers.) The emotional price of gender transition is illustrated nowhere more tellingly – nor more heartbreakingly – than in the January, 2017, ruling by a UK family court judge that a transgender woman should not be granted access to her five children, because to maintain contact with them would adversely affect those children’s treatment in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in which they live. It is a troubling verdict because the presiding judge has ruled in favour of preserving chauvinism and validating small-mindedness. The case also serves to remind transgender people of two niggling, perennial questions: why would anyone elect to change their gender when the consequences can be so grave? And, more fundamentally: why does a change of sex carry such a high social price in the first place?
If you’re looking to subscribe to a belief system founded on suspicion of outsiders, fear of divine judgement, and the assumption that the prestige of your peers should depend solely on your adherence to a set of frighteningly irrational, paranoid and intolerant precepts, then you could do much worse than convert to Charedi Judaism. The Hebrew Bible is unequivocal in its views on homosexuality, for instance: not only does the book of Leviticus twice describe same-sex relationships as “detestable”, it insists (in chapter 20, verse 13) that, “if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind… they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” The book of Deuteronomy, meanwhile, famously dictates that “A man’s item shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment; whoever does such a thing is an abhorrence unto Adonai” (chapter 22, verse 5), and Judaical belief is rooted firmly in the conviction that to be born in the body of a man requires the individual to live as a man, that being born female carries with it the obligation of living as a woman, and that each gender must play the social and biological role bequeathed it at birth. And woe betide anyone who touches the carcass of a dead pig, wears clothing woven of more than one kind of cloth, or makes a sacrifice of anything containing yeast and honey.
In January, 2017, an English court ruled against the right of a transgender woman to maintain contact with her children. The plaintiff (known as J in court documents) left the North Manchester community of strict, Charedi Jews where she’d lived in June, 2015 – just before beginning life as a woman. J accepted that her marriage must end in order to pursue her desire to transition, but was hoping that, with patience and sensitivity, she would be able to help her five children get used to the idea that dad had changed quite a bit, and thus continue to enjoy at least a sliver of meaningful contact with them. And so began the legal proceedings necessary to protect J’s right to see her offspring (who, for the record, were aged between two and twelve at the time).
When Justice Peter Jackson delivered his verdict in January, however, he said it was “with real regret” that his decision meant that a loving parent would be denied direct contact with her children:
“Weighing up the profound consequences for the children’s welfare of ordering or not ordering direct contact with their father, I have reached the unwelcome conclusion that the likelihood of the children and their mother being marginalised or excluded by the ultra-orthodox community is so real, and the consequences so great, that this one factor, despite its many disadvantages, must prevail over the many advantages of contact. I therefore conclude with real regret, knowing the pain that it must cause, that the father’s application for direct contact must be refused. I reject the bald proposition that seeing the father would be too much for the children. Children are goodhearted and adaptable and, given sensitive support, I am sure that these children could adapt considerably to the changes in their father. The truth is that for the children to see their father would be too much for the adults.
“I can see no way in which the children could escape the adult reaction to them enjoying anything like an ordinary relationship with their father. In the final analysis, the gulf between these parents – the mother within the ultra-Orthodox community and the father as a transgender person – is too wide for the children to bridge. This outcome is not a failure to uphold transgender rights, still less a ‘win’ for the community, but the upholding of the rights of the children to have the least harmful outcome in a situation not of their making.”
In other words, a community of religious fundamentalists – in a western democracy in the twenty-first century – has succeeded in permanently silencing, if not expunging completely, one of its transgressive members. More shockingly still, the community has achieved this via the chilling process of threatening the ostracism of five of its children. For anyone interested in replicating this Lord of the Flies style social manoeuvre, it has three essential components.
First, like Cheetham Hill’s Jewish school, wilfully fail to meet the legal obligation to encourage respect for citizens with protected characteristic, such as gender nonconformity (as enshrined if the UK government’s 2014 Education Regulations, and 2010 Equality Act), by ensuring that pupils learn intolerance through a pedagogy designed to guard “their children… against what they regard as the dangers and excesses of modern society” (to quote the beliefs of Rabbi Andrew Oppenheimer, who gave evidence during the case).
Second, the programme of (mis-) education should to be so absolute that youngsters have no knowledge that transgender people even exist. As the head-teacher of one of J’s children told the court, a child would be subjected to “social isolation” by the entire community if any of their peers were to learn that their father was now a woman; “just hearing about it would be terribly confusing and unsettling”.
And finally, the community must offer witnesses in a court of law who are (in the judge’s words), “clear examples of discrimination and victimisation”, and who provide living, breathing proof of the bigotry and deliberate ignorance that are the central reason the parent should not be granted access to her children. Amongst the testimony of the birth-mother in the case, several jaw-dropping nuggets stand out which illustrate exactly what this means in practice. The statement of the head-teacher quoted above also said, “If a child was already in the school, the school would face tremendous pressure from the parent body, private donors and the governors, to suggest that the child find a more suitable educational environment”, whilst a teacher at one of the other children’s schools added, “The school will experience tremendous pressure… not to allocate a place to any child who will bring these potential risks. It would therefore be very difficult for the school to process an application for a child who fits the above description.” And you needn’t be transgender to find yourself at the brunt of such ire: a fifteen-year-old girl in the same community was ostracised and forced to move schools when word got around that she’d been sexually abused (by, nightmarishly, someone from within the community). Another local mother (whose ex-husband had fled the cult) attested that her youngest child had been denied a school place “as the school would not risk the influences their father’s contact with the child might have on the rest of the student body… This is the unfortunate price a child within an ultra-orthodox community pays for the actions of their parent.” Proof indeed that, in a society that considers itself enlightened (and over three-thousand years since the Old Testament was written), a child can still be punished, quite literally, for the sins of their father.
Whatever J’s intentions when she initiated court proceedings, there is to be no confronting prejudice and educating ignorance in Manchester’s Charedi community this decade. The mystery remains, furthermore, over why anyone with even a sliver of doubt about their sexuality or gender identity would choose to subscribe to the tenets of a doctrinaire religion, given that all religious doctrine, without exception, preaches fear and condemnation of any form of sexual difference: Judaism is but one of the many religious sources of transphobic prejudice available to the would-be convert. J didn’t choose to join a community of zealots and fanatics, however: she elected to escape it. Life in that community – and, more specifically, the added pressure of suppressing her true identity within such intolerant company – would surely have caused her years of mental anguish. In 2015, therefore, she realised that she could kid herself no longer, and took the plunge to live as a woman full-time – despite the colossal personal ramifications of such a course of action.
So: why did she do it? Why did J take a step that may mean (and, ultimately, did mean) losing everything – including the right to parenthood? The answer is as stark as it is simple: the alternative is much, much worse. When I took the final step of confirming my gender identity and of leaving my male self behind for good, there was a price to pay. I lost two teaching jobs in a month – I was made forcibly redundant from my assistant principal post, and then told that the head of high school post I was moving to was no longer mine. For a brief period, I satisfied myself with classroom teaching posts in either the most liberal or desperate of schools, but my over-qualified ascent up the greasy pole of promotion had very definitely come to an end. It still came as a shock when it happened, but I was prepared my fall from the career tightrope: if I’d learned one thing in twenty years, it was that, despite their key role in shaping the minds and attitudes of the nation’s youth, schools are startlingly conservative and parochial places. After much soul-searching, I decided that, if schools didn’t want me, then I didn’t want to be a part of them, either. Unlike a homosexual Christian, I had no desire to be a part of a club that made no secret of the fact that it didn’t want me.
My transition temporarily wounded both my bank-balance and my self-esteem, but I can’t help thinking that I got off likely. J from North Manchester has had to give up far more, and he is by no means alone in pursuing a course of action that carried a dire penalty. For many gender nonconforming people, the road to transition is littered with absent spouses, estranged children, expensive divorces, missed promotions, broken friendships, disgruntled siblings, repossessed houses, disapproving employers and thwarted ambitions. We know that these are occupational hazards of changing sex, but we transition anyway.
Why do we risk all on what many people dismiss as frivolous caprice? Simply: because transgender isn’t a choice; it’s a need; an urgent, consuming drive to adopt a social role enjoyed by fifty percent of the population as an accident of birth. Acting to remedy the crippling depression of gender dysphoria may be a conscious decision, but, more often than not, it is the only option we have left. J knew the perils of transitioning, but did it anyway. Her actions were not evidence of gross selfishness: on the contrary, J made the ultimate sacrifice in order to save herself from a lifetime of depression that would have caused collateral suffering to everyone around her. I cannot exaggerate how tormenting it can be to gaze on the gender you want to be from the beneath the skin of the one you wish you weren’t. I transitioned because I could stand the misery of delaying my transitioning no longer. I had lost days to debilitating bouts of depression, and couldn’t see why I should anaesthetise myself with anti-depressant medication. Pursuing more complex (and spurious) therapeutic solutions to my profound disappointment with my social and sexual identity seemed both delusional and ridiculous when the most honest and straightforward solution was staring me in the face: if I was miserable because I wanted to be a woman, then the smartest thing to do, surely, was begin to work towards becoming one. True womanhood is a destination I can never reach, but remaining steadfastly dedicated to the journey has brought me closer to happiness than any other solution I have – and could have – tried.
The question remains of why gender transition carries such social stigma, and excites such confused and hysterical responses. J transitioned from male to female; a fairly humdrum social process, on the face of it, involving a change of role and the renegotiation of relationships. She didn’t sell drugs to teens, run a paedophile ring, or forget to delete her browsing history, and yet she was expelled from her community as if she was guilty of the most heinous of crimes. The news that a friend or peer or family member or colleague is transgender continues, despite what we tell ourselves about progress towards tolerance and acceptance, to provoke the most absurd of reactions. An inability to cope on a conceptual level with transsexuality brings out the worst in a lot of people, and I think the reason for this is a symptom of four faulty assumptions…
Most people don’t understand why some folk want to change their gender. Whilst many of these people don’t let their ignorance bother them, and see no issue with treating transgender people as their equals (albeit as equals with eccentric clothing habits), there are plenty of influential groups and individuals who, rather than allow themselves to be educated (and to see that, actually, you know, just because so-and-so has grown their hair, they aren’t going to sexually assault me), prefer to convince themselves that transgender people are freaks.
Gender transition is seen as a choice that is made as whimsically or impulsively as whether to have Chinese or Indian tonight. Anyone who changes gender, therefore, is seen as weak, or as caving in to an improper desire. A little of what you like never did anyone any harm, the reasoning goes, so why not limit your sartorial perversions to the privacy of your own home, and go to work dressed in a suit like everyone else?
To many people’s minds, gender transition is too closely associated with sexual gratification for comfort. Problematically, male-to-female transsexuals are motivated to a great degree by trying to forge a comfortable sexual identity for themselves. But, whilst transition is often psycho-sexual in nature, wanting to feel attractive isn’t quite the same as wanting to go about one’s daily business in a state of permanent sexual arousal. Transsexuals want the right to enjoy being beautiful – to themselves as much as to others. Their concept of attractiveness just happens to contradict hegemonic expectations, but that does not mean their motives should be treated as synonymous with getting their rocks off by wearing dresses.
People with the opinions outlined above who hold (or think they ought to hold) gatekeeping positions in our culture – such as teachers, religious fanatics, employers, and so on – assume a specious and unnecessary responsibility for protecting their fellow citizens (and their children) from undesirable influences. Their belief that they must prevent society from slipping into a mire of cross-dressing debauchery is, paradoxically, as strong as the futility and redundancy of their impulse to speak out against transsexuals. Society has nothing to fear from gender nonconforming people. We aren’t going to corrupt anyone’s children, slow the birth-rate, spread diseases or lower house prices. But transphobia (like racism, sexism, ageism, ableism and homophobia) is – because it originates, by definition, from fear – irrational. More often than not, transphobia is not motivated by hate. If it were, it would be much easier to condemn and to challenge. The root of transphobia is generally the erroneous belief that allowing men to become women, and women to become to men, serves to sanction a moral decline from which society can never recover. Bless.
In the face of such opposition, transgender people have every justification for feeling brave for continuing undaunted to live the life we want in the way we want. It sucks to be ignored, marginalised and abused, but it sucks even more to be depressed about something you’ve always wanted to do, and which huge numbers of your contemporaries take for granted. Transgender people, furthermore, have to work that little bit harder than our cisgender peers to earn and maintain a trusted and respected place in society, and two extra conditions are usually attached to our acceptance by the world at large.
The first is that social endorsement is linked inextricably to our ability to ‘pass’ convincingly as a biological member of our target gender. This, in turn, depends upon whatever concept of attractiveness has currently been deemed in vogue by social and media consensus, and holds especially true for male-to-female transsexuals. If you can look glamorous and/or sexy; if you can afford expensive clothes, be invited to the right parties, and depend upon the necessary connections; then you stand a greater chance of avoiding alienation and isolation. Heaven help the transsexual who is not able (either through lack of funds for the necessary surgery, or from being cursed with shoulders, hands and hips that will never look anything other than male) to present a glitzy or alluring face to the public: no-one, but no-one, is interested in reading interviews with, or in seeing photos or YouTube clips of, them.
An obsession with a particular type of transgender woman, moreover, contributes to harmful stereotypes of what constitutes femininity. Gender nonconformity ought to confront preconceptions of sexuality and raise unsettling questions about the nature of beauty, but if social validation is only granted to male-to-female transsexuals who pander to a narrow definition of red-carpet womanhood, then transsexuals are lying to themselves if they think they are challenging gender stereotypes and the harmful expectation that all women need to be skinny and elegant, and to trade on their sexuality.
The only other means of avoiding the exchange of depression and confusion for penury, unemployment and loneliness, is the presence of a supportive partner: a wife or girlfriend, I mean, who is either ‘into’ the idea of having a transgender spouse, or who is at least willing to put up with having a husband who takes longer in the bathroom than they do (because, when they said, “for better; for worse”, they meant it). There is no doubt that the presence of a partner buys a transsexual an enormous amount of immunity from censure and abuse: “Well,” onlookers reason, “if they’ve got a boyfriend or girlfriend, they must be alright under all that make-up.”
Both these options seem to have an attendant whiff of crappiness about them – not least because they reinforce reductive, heteronormative concepts of the nature of beauty, and of what is, and is not, a permissible family unit. Still: one step at a time. It’s only been 3400 years since Moses chiselled the book of Deuteronomy into a stone tablet.
There are those who will tell you that The Beaumont Society is a UK charity and support group for transgender people that aims “to promote and assist the study of gender differences”. There are others who will attempt to explain that it was founded in 1966 with the aim of establishing “an association for the transgender community to facilitate mutual support and communication in order to improve the health, emotional well-being and confidence of transgender people”. A third group will even maintain that the Society contributes to a “better understanding of the conditions of transgender, transvestism and gender dysphoria in society”, and that, for a mere £35 a year, you, too, could be a part of the work it does to “educate lay and professional groups about transgenderism” and “its associated issues”. But don’t believe a word of it. The Beaumont Society is a social club for middle-aged, heterosexual transvestites, that is, criminally, “not [even] available for sexual liaisons”. It is named after the French eighteenth-century soldier, diplomat and spy, Le Chevalier Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, and, this month, I kick of my occasional series of posts exploring the lives and careers of great gender-benders from history with a look at the legacy of this relatively insignificant monarchist and eccentric, who gave his name not only to a little-used euphemism for transvestites (‘eonists’, in case you were wondering), but also to a clandestine, London-based knitting-circle for nocturnal crossdressers.
Charles d’Eon de Beaumont was born in 1728. Throughout his infancy and early childhood, his mother – as was the custom – dressed him as a girl. He adopted male attire in his youth and early twenties, but his formative sartorial experiences must have left their mark on his psyche, because, when he was sent to the Court of the Empress Elizabeth in St Petersburg as a spy in 1755, he chose to present himself dressed as a woman, and adopt the pseudonym Madame Lia de Beaumont. His mission to Russia on behalf of the French government was a diplomatic success, but the experience of public crossdressing evidently deepened the Chevalier’s taste for drag.
Upon his return from Russia, Beaumont began a promising military career. He commanded a company of dragoons, but his flair for disguise and dissimilation soon resulted in his recall to the French secret service, and, in 1762, he was dispatched to London. Once there, however, his impetuous and extravagant behaviour resulted in the French ambassador petitioning Louis XV to summon d’Eon back to France. The UK capital must have won a place in d’Eon’s heart, however, because he refused to obey his king’s behest: he broke off relations with the French diplomatic corps, and remained defiantly where he was.
The new king, Louis XVI, sent his envoy, Beaumarchais, to London to make peace with Beaumont, but the Chevalier succeeded in convincing Beaumarchais (who was by no means a stupid man) that he was actually a woman trapped in male clothes, and the victim of a devious plot to indenture him to French service, under threat of arrest and execution. Beaumarchais was undeterred by d’Eon’s protestations, though, and remained insistent that the Chevalier return to Paris with him. Beaumont finally caved in 1777, but it was as a woman that he returned to his native country.
Contemporary accounts suggest that the Chevalier’s permanent state of transvestism did not go unnoticed – and unremarked. When he was presented at Court, his awkwardness and inelegance made people less than comfortable:
“The long tail of her dress and the three types of ruffles contrast so ill with the attitudes and quips of a grenadier that the effect is one of low company.”
Beaumont was not happy with the scrutiny and disapproval he encountered in France, and he returned to England in 1785 – still dressed as a woman. For a while, he was accepted as an eccentric figure in London society, but recurring financial problems prompted him to take up a new career as a female fencer. Like most sporting lives, of course, Beaumont’s life as a duellist could not continue indefinitely, and his later life was lived in relative poverty, melancholy and loneliness. In his private diary for the period, he chooses to refer to himself throughout using the first-person feminine pronoun. So thorough was his assumption of female role that most people began to assume he was a woman, and rumours circulated that the tales of his early career as a man were a fabrication. It appears as if d’Eon even convinced himself that that was the case, and yet, when his corpse was finally laid out following his death in 1810, the body was undoubtedly that of an octogenarian male.
The Chevalier d’Eon inspires me to a mixture of admiration and pity. It is tempting to envy him the freedom he was granted by his birth, position and ability to pass as a woman – living full-time in female role in the suspicious and uncertain climate of revolutionary France would have been all but impossible if it weren’t for his noble birth. His tragic and erratic personality, however – his apparent oscillation between the paranoiac and the threatening; the vindictive and the placatory – makes him a strange role-model for the Beaumont Society to choose. At times, D’Eon could be a sullen and petulant male who was quick to take offence; whilst, at others, he behaved like an aggressive, wisecracking female. His transvestism – and the contradictory attitudes held about it by the society in which he moved – drove him a little potty, no two ways about it. Is this the sort of mental quagmire the Beaumont Society seeks to cultivate amongst its members? The Chevalier d’Eon was rendered so unsure of his gender identity that he retreated into a duplicitous, neurotic secrecy that ultimately forced him to reject the attention and approval his diary testifies he so desperately craved:
“Man or woman?I am none the better nor the worse…I have been the plaything of Nature…I have gone through all the strange vicissitudes of the human condition.”
Who in their right mind would want to be like him?
It’s 2017! Yay! And what a thrilling year it promises to be! Of all the apocalyptic excitements lined up for the next twelve months, I’m most excited about Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th President of the United States of America, because his first term promises to be absolutely peachy for transsexuals. First, there’s all the brouhaha about which public toilets transgender students are permitted to use, with Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming all looking to control people’s lavatorial access because of what is written on their birth certificates; and refusing to provide alternative provision – even when this is in direct contradiction to national government policy. And then there’s the thorny issue of allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military; the likelihood that transgender people will be denied the right to choose their own gender designation on identity documents; resistance to marriage equality for gay and transgender people; and proposed legislation to prohibit transgender Americans from owning a gun. (I made that last one up, but it would be interesting to see what would happen, wouldn’t it?)
On top of all that are the billionaires Trump is choosing to fill key posts in his cabinet and the supreme court, with Vice President Mike Pence, by way of an example, making no secret of his belief in curative ‘conversion therapy’ for gay and transgender people – even arguing that funding for research into HIV/AIDS should be diverted for the purpose.
But the fun doesn’t stop there! Britain’s departure from the European Union is surely now only three months, two years, two-and-a-half years, four years or six years away, which means I can look forward to a protracted period of uncertainty regarding which legal statutes are safeguarding my right to participate in social and economic life, and protecting me from discrimination on the grounds of my gender. Fingers crossed that, by the time the British government begins drafting the English Bill of Rights that will replace the only specific strictures protecting transgender people from legal, financial, religious, educational or employment prejudice, England will have a Lord Chancellor who does not believe anyone who requires state aid – or who is a little bit different – is vermin.
The legitimisation of a politics that is self-serving, xenophobic, and which breeds suspicion, fear and hatred to serve its own grubby, venal ends, is by no means limited to America and the United Kingdom. 2017 promises to witness the election across the globe of a slew of right-wing extremists to positions of power by a disaffected working class, and a host of countries braced to abandon even the pretence of upholding the rights of minorities to work where they want, get paid what they deserve, marry who they choose, live where they like, and go about their daily life without fear of molestation.
It is not good time to be different: ignorance, nimbyism, selfishness, isolationism and hatred are in the ascendency. The attributes of fitting in, following the herd, making the right connections, and playing the system are now not only prized above all others; they are essential for the successful navigation of twenty-first century life. We are learning to revile anyone who isn’t capable of standing up for themselves, and being educated to make pariahs of any individuals or groups who depend for their wellbeing upon the beneficence of government and the generosity of public funds. We all have the right to be different and be true to ourselves, the modern-day lie maintains, provided the ways in which we want to be different and true to ourselves are in accordance with socially sanctioned ways of thinking and behaving. As the fourth-grade philosophers at South Park Elementary remind us:
’Cause you gotta do what you wanna do!
Don’t let nothin’ get in your way;
Chase your dream every day!
True, girl, you know it’s true,
That if you really wanna be you,
You’ve gotta do what you wanna do!
You gotta do what you wanna do!
Just make sure that what you’re doing
Is what’s cool and popular with everyone!
Do what you want, don’t have restraint;
Don’t stress about it or you just might faint.
(If you wanna get high and jack off, it’s cool.)
Try to do what you wanna do!
As long as what you wanna do
Is what everybody wants you to!
What, then, can you do to defend yourself from hatred and stupidity in the age of ignorance? Not a lot, is the honest answer, but you can at least ensure that you are well-informed. When someone is trying to tell you what you should do, how you should think, where you can go, who you can marry, what you can and cannot do to your own body, and what job you can have, be ready to mount the best intellectual defence that you can of your refusal to conform to convenient social stereotypes. History might not repeat itself exactly, but it does rhyme, and there are a number of historical precedents transgender people can refer to when they must challenge bigotry, educate idiocy, and stand up for their prerogative to be different.
Forewarned is forearmed. Here, therefore, are six common transphobic arguments that are rolled out to justify the unjust and prejudicial treatment of gender nonconforming people, along with a number of telling historical parallels of the use of similar discriminatory nonsense against racial and minority groups. So: if someone tells you can’t take a wizz in a public convenience, or that god made Adam and Eve – not Adam and Steve, be ready to flummox them with a well-aimed political zinger about how their arguments have been tried (and found severely wanting) before, and about how, ultimately, the tide of history is on our side.
One: Transsexuality is just an excuse for being a pervert!
When the American chain of discount stores, Target, unveiled a bathroom and fitting-room policy in April, 2016, that would allow customers and staff to use the facility that felt right for them, nearly one-and-a-half million people signed an online petition calling for a boycott of Target outlets.
The issue was covered by The Washington Post under the headline, “ ‘A Danger to wives and daughters’: Petition to boycott Target over transgender-inclusive bathrooms claims growing support”, which highlighted the belief that the policy of Target stores “could facilitate sexual abuse, particularly against minors.” It is terrifying to belong to a group whose members can be so casually labelled as child abusers and sexual deviants, and it matters very little to the mob that there is no statistical evidence whatsoever to support the assertion that transgender people are more likely than any other citizen to commit sexual assault. Apart from anything else, there are much easier ways to satisfy a fetish for toilet rape than alienating your friends, losing your job, and facing physical and verbal abuse on a daily basis, as a result of coming out as transgender.
The argument that violence or wanton depravity inevitably follows when different groups of people live and work together is a particular favourite of the cretinous racist. During America’s much overdue period of desegregation in the 1950s, reactionary propaganda sought to persuade unwary liberals that forcing people to live in a multicultural society would lead to disorder and conflict. The English politician, Enoch Powell, made a similar assertion in 1968, when he predicted urban neighbourhoods would flow with “rivers of blood” if immigration into the United Kingdom was permitted to go ahead unchecked.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that an irrational fear of integration is a mere comedic anachronism. There are some very powerful people who continue preach that, when people from different genders live and work side-by-side, the temptation to commit sexual assault is irrepressible, and that paedophilia and rape are only a heartbeat away. The only thing scarier than the people spouting such garbage are the folk who are prepared to vote for them.
Two: It is unfair to allow transgender people to participate in mainstream sport.
In January, 2016, the International Olympic Committee announced that it was relaxing its rules on the rights of transgender athletes to participate in international competitions. Under the new regulations, gender reassignment surgery ceased to be a condition to take part in events, although aspiring male-to-female competitors must demonstrate that their testosterone levels are below a given threshold before they can participate (because that’s the only performance-enhancing chemical the IOC needs to be worried about right now…).
Given that caring who wins a sporting competition is absurd anyway, the outcry which followed this announcement was not difficult to predict. Even an organ as sober as The Times newspaper responded with a column unequivocally headlined, “Transgender athletes are unfair to women”; the response on social media to the IOC’s announcement, meanwhile, was positively hysterical.
Competitive sport is such an elitist (and, it seems, permanently and intrinsically corrupt) institution, that it is difficult for rational persons to get worked up about it, but historical parallels to the exclusion of transgender athletes tended be focused on a fear that the purity and ‘tradition’ of sporting activity would be eroded by policies of inclusivity. Discrimination was justified with claims that the integrity of competitions could only be maintained via the preservation of the (white) status quo.
It took until 1946 for Jackie Robinson to ‘break the colour barrier’ in American sport, when he became the first black American to be signed by a professional baseball team. When he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was initially greeted with racial abuse from spectators, teammates refusing to play alongside him, and death threats from fans of both baseball and racism. Sixty-seven years later, the mixed martial artist, Fallon Fox, became the first transgender woman to participate professionally in her sport. In deference to over half a century of human stupidity, Fox was welcomed into the martial arts community with grammatically risible death threats.
Three: Why should precious time and resources be spent pandering to the whims of the tiny minority of transgender people living in this country?
Donald Trump’s position on the rights of transgender people is not easy to pin down precisely, but in May, 2016, he did tell a Fox News interviewer that national government should stay out of transgender politics, and that it should be left to state legislatures to decide how to serve their transgender constituents. When Trump was asked for his opinion on the North Carolina Bathroom Bill, he responded with, “You know, Obama’s getting into very tricky territory. The amazing thing is so many people are talking about this now, and we have to protect everybody even if it’s just one person, but this is such a tiny part of our population.” Did Trump provide gender-neutral bathrooms in his properties? “No, we don’t have that. I hope not, because, frankly, it would be unbelievably expensive, nationwide. It would be hundreds of billions of dollars.”
The argument that the problems of a minority should not be disproportionately elevated above that particular group’s actual cultural significance is, of course, as paradoxical as it is poisonous. Trivialising the needs of a section of the population on the grounds that the numbers affected are small is an effective way of subordinating that group’s rights and entitlements, and of justifying inaction when the groups requires protection. It is precisely because a group is small that it needs powerful advocates to act on its behalf.
Both the Civil Rights movement and the campaign for women’s suffrage were marginalised and ignored because propaganda encouraged them to be seen as fringe groups whose needs would have to wait until more pressing societal problems were resolved; as spurious pseudo-movements dreamt up by lunatic extremists claiming to speak for a non-existent membership; and even as smokescreens for smuggling communist ideas into the United States.
Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter how many people identify as transgender, and how large (or small) a percentage of the population this constitutes. A society which cannot protect the entitlements and freedoms of all its members to live ordinary, decent lives is a society that is failing. There can never a quorum for how large a group needs to be before the safeguarding of its human rights should be enshrined in morality and law: that group simply needs to be human.
Four: Telling me I can’t abuse transgender people is a denial of my right to free speech!
The politicians, media moguls and millionaires who campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in June, 2016, did so by appealing to voters’ base prejudices. The tantalising (and fundamentally dishonest) promise of splendid isolation offered by the emetic triumvirate of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Rupert Murdoch exploited xenophobic anxieties that cut across social strata. Small businessmen were persuaded that Brexit would stop Bogdan and Lukasz from undercutting their nascent painting and decorating businesses, while that the already-rich were encouraged to look forward to an era when they would be even less constrained by equal-opportunities legislation and the requirement to meet minimum standards of decency in the way they treat their workforce. The Daily Mail reading classes, meanwhile, were told they would no longer have a faceless bureaucrat telling them from Brussels that they couldn’t sing ‘Baa-baa Black Sheep’ in schools, buy curved bananas, or refer openly to gollywogs, blackboards, Christmas, jigsaws, Um-Bongo, remedials, fairy-lights, pooftahs, ching-chong Chinamen and fuzzy-wuzzies.
Happily, the lexicon with which gender nonconformity is discussed and described is moving gradually away from conceptions anchored in the clinical and pathological disciplines. The encouraging (but largely forgotten) report on Transgender Equality published by the UK government in January, 2016, argues that the reliance for legal matters on labels derived from surgical procedures – like ‘gender reassignment’ and ‘transsexual’ – to determine gender nonconformity should be replaced with language predicated on the assumption that transgender people have the right to autonomy of self-identification.
Not everyone is equipped for readily adjusting the way they talk and think when the casual cruelty of the vocabulary they use to describe sexuality, race or gender identity becomes socially unacceptable. Consigning certain terminology to the dustbin of history does not come easy to people who have not been helped to understand the damage certain words have the power to do. Letting go is hard to do, and the bigoted have become adept at portraying themselves as the victim when social pressure tells them they need to mind their language. Such thinking linked linguistic change with thought-policing by opponents of the Civil Rights movement (when jettisoning the word ‘negro’ from everyday speech proved challenging for some people), and again by enemies of the campaign for women’s suffrage. As society has grown out of an outmoded vocabulary for talking about race and women’s rights, so too will people cease to feel comfortable insisting on medicalised labels for transgender people. Hopefully, one day, people will even stop denying us the right to choose how we self-identify.
Five: Marriage should be between a man and a woman, not between two women, two men, nor anything in between.
Under UK law, if one of the partners in an existing marriage declares their intention to change gender, the marriage must be dissolved to allow the partner (or partners) in question to obtain legal recognition of their new gender, before the couple can remarry. In the United States, meanwhile, the right of transgender people to condemn themselves to a lifetime of connubial misery is covered by the same laws as same-sex marriage.
The legal precedent that enshrined the right of same-sex couples to marry in American law was established by the June, 2015, ruling of the Supreme Court in the case of Obergefell versus Hodges. This move, of course, has been far from universally popular in the US, and incites particular apoplexy for adherents to America’s unique brand of excitable, evangelising, deep-south Christianity. Nothing upsets the cast of Deliverance quite like gay marriage, with anything outside the absolute, predetermined, cisgender, heterosexual norm equated with devil-worship, paedophilia and bestiality. There is, it is argued, a natural order of things, and if anyone who wasn’t unequivocally born a man or woman seeks to make a public declaration of their love for another human being, then they are committing an act of gross indecency in the eyes of god. Transsexuality’s just not natural, Cletus!
One person’s establishment of legal precedent is another person’s slippery slope to Sodom and Gomorrah, and the argument that allowing one break with tradition will lead inexorably to anarchy, was a popular one to advance when members of the American establishment were just starting to get their old testament heads around the idea that people were capable of falling in love across long-held barriers of race and ethnicity.
Six: Gender Nonconformity has nothing to do with biology or neurology – it’s just a silly lifestyle choice.
We don’t yet know exactly what is at the root of a person’s desire to change the gender they were assigned at birth. On the one hand, the Dutch neuro-scientist Dick Swaab (in his 2014 book, ‘We Are Our Brains’) argues that transsexuality occurs when the gender mapping that takes place during prenatal brain development differs from the sex organs grown by the foetus, and is therefore just as much a product of development in the womb as the colour of our eyes or the shape of our feet. At the opposite end of the nature versus nurture spectrum, meanwhile, proponents of the trans-exclusionary school of radical feminism (most notably, British academic, Julie Bindel, and Maryland lawyer, Cathy Brennan) argue that transgenderism is entirely socially constructed. Specifically, TERF dogma maintains that female-to-male transsexuals are motivated by the desire to experience the power mandated to men by hegemonic processes in patriarchal societies; whilst, for transwomen, the appeal of transition is purely sexual – they just want to get their rocks off by pulling on fishnets and having a taste of being stared at.
Whether gender transition is a compulsion, a conviction, a compunction or a contrivance – or whether it is the result of over-indulgent mothering, childhood trauma, psychosis, psychology, psychiatry, psychopathy or psychometry – the label attached to its origins should never be an excuse for prejudice and discrimination. In January, 2015, I had an article published on a website for American teachers and administrators called ‘Education Week’. In it, I described the effect my transition had had on my teaching career, and how, ultimately, the barriers to employment and advancement I suddenly encountered had convinced me that I no longer wished to be part of such a toxic and reactionary profession.
The comments about my article that were appended to the ‘Education Week’ website proved to be startlingly and overwhelmingly negative. That said, analysis of these responses proved quite interesting, and showed that – however colourfully they expressed their prejudices – American teachers had three interconnected preoccupations when it came to gender nonconformity:
A need to label transgender people, and to deny them the right to choose how they label themselves (most notably, by prohibiting male-to-female transsexuals from calling themselves women).
The assertion that gender transition is a choice, the consequence of which should be self-imposed marginalisation (and a change of career).
Shock at the effrontery shown by transgender people when they expect society to accept difference, safeguard the principle of equality, and accommodate the desire of all its members to live healthy and happy lives, find paid employment, have aspirations commensurate with their skills and qualifications, and walk down the street without being screamed at.
These weren’t the views of cave-dwelling bigots, I forced myself to remember – these were teachers; professionals entrusted with the shaping of young minds. Belonging to a caring, nurturing, selfless profession, however, does not preclude a person from being subject to the same societal forces that influence mainstream opinion. That teachers hold conservative views should not be surprising, but it should remain disappointing: the reasons why people elect to live different lifestyles should not eclipse the defence of their right to live them.
History is littered with examples of pseudo-sciences that have been used to generate typologies that, in turn, have been used condone persecution, tyranny and repression: instances of pure bullshit, which enjoyed brief periods of popularity before being debunked and dismissed as the nonsense they clearly were. Phrenology, and the less snappily named racial-anthropological physiognomy, are no longer used as excuses for racism and eugenics, and monarchs and prime ministers no longer consult astrologers before making strategic military decisions. (Mind you, I would criticise astrology: cynical and suspicious, that’s me – a typical Taurus.)
Societies tend to grow out of mediaeval attachments to faulty scientific reasoning, but not all pseudo-science is easily dismissed, especially when it is used as an instrument of oppression. Neither is specious scientific reasoning the sole recourse of the crackpot or mountebank, and we must all accept our individual and collective responsibility for questioning and rejecting justifications for prejudice and hatred based on false logic, dodgy reasoning, scientific ignorance, or (heaven forbid) the Bible.
…And remember, kids: plagiarism is okay, provided the source you’re stealing from is rubbish. The bare idea for this article (and the bulk of the archival material it contains) were cribbed from an October 2016 submission to the blogging website, ‘Cracked’. However: when the grammar and syntax of the original article have all the grace of a six-year old’s homework, but the point being made is an interesting and a worthy one, it deserves a second draft by a better writer, right? Accordingly, the links to the political landscape of 2017, the placing of the arguments in their wider perspective and broader cultural context, and the eloquent written style, are entirely mine. Have a Very New Year!