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…
Two of the worst pieces of advice I’ve ever been given both came from members of the Christian clergy. The two events were twenty years apart, and both nuggets of guidance were offered without any solicitation from me. The first happened when my then girlfriend was discussing with her Catholic priest what she should make of her transvestite partner (which was, at the time, the most accurate way of describing me). The priest asked if he could see me, and, for no other reason than that I wished to appear magnanimous, I agreed. During the meeting that followed (which was over tea and biscuits at the priest’s house, as I recall), he told me that I should think of my transvestism as I would the death of a good friend or dear relative. Just as with bereavement, I would occasionally experience a profound longing to spend time in the company of the dearly departed, but I must accept that this was no longer possible; I needed to be content with memories of happy times spent with the deceased, and to revisit these recollections in times of anxiety and depression, instead of upsetting myself by yearning for something I could no longer do. More recently, while I was being shown the sights of my new home city, my guide took me to Radu Vodă Orthodox monastery in the centre of Bucharest. During our visit, my guide started talking with one of the resident preoţi, and, very soon, I was beckoned over. After an initial exchange of pleasantries (Did I like Bucharest?, What did I think of the church?, etc.), the preot – apropos of absolutely nothing – told me that I was welcome to join their congregation, but I would need to abandon all pretence at being a woman in order to do so, and return to the body and social role that I had originally been granted by god. Both incidents have stayed with me not merely because of the utter worthlessness of the advice I was offered in both cases, but because, when both priests met me, my gender (or my sartorial habits, in the case of the earlier encounter) were all they could see: to them, it was my defining characteristic – a barrier to further interaction with me that they could not overlook. They felt it was their duty to ‘fix’ my gender identity by convincing me to give up any attempts to blur or change it. My wishes were completely irrelevant to them, but the strangest aspect of both episodes was the priests’ obvious belief that it was their ecumenical responsibility to broach the subject with me, even though I had attempted to make no issue of my gender identity, nor expressed any wish to talk about it.
There are a small number of very specific issues that are ordinarily of no interest to anyone except those whom they directly affect. Abortion is one; gay marriage another; and, of course, gender nonconformity comes in a close third. These three topics excite the interference of the religiously inclined in a way that is completely illogical, wholly unwarranted, and irritatingly unwelcome. For the zealot, however, ‘correcting’ someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity – and dictating what they should and should not do with their own bodies – is considered a doctrinal obligation; interference in other people’s basic right to live the way they want to, be who they want to, and fall in love with whomever their heart chooses, is held to be scripturally sanctioned. Perhaps precisely because I am not religiously inclined, I would begrudge no-one whatever version of the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas they need to believe in in order to come to terms with the ultimate futility of existence, but I do find it odd that a transgender person would seek to join an organisation that requires them to subscribe to a belief-system that is fundamentally opposed to their very existence; that cannot look past their gender identity in the way it defines and treats them; that disapproves or pities their lifestyle choices; and which believes there are – and, indeed, ought to be – cures for their compulsions, behaviour and preferences.
Although my formative experiences at the nexus of religion and transgenderism occurred in domains of the Christian faith, transphobia in one form or another is by no means unique to that religion. Whatever its origins and causes, gender nonconformity can have the effect of wonderfully complicating your life. Should you wish to complicate it further by trying to join a club that will only accept you on the condition you give up the one thing you’ve been wrestling with since you were old enough to tie a curtain around your waist and shuffle around in your mother’s shoes, then I think it is worth taking a long, hard look at what the major world faiths have to say about their aspiring transgender converts. If, after this, you still fancy taking communion, fasting for Ramadan, or sitting crosslegged whilst chanting Om, then (for want of a better phrase) god help you…
None of the sacred texts of Buddhism assert that transsexuality should be prohibited, and they do not contain any explicit guidance for devotees regarding what their attitude to gender nonconformity should be. Accordingly, it is difficult to distil any consensus on this subject from Buddhist teaching, although transgender issues are usually treated synonymously with questions of sexual orientation and behaviour. The Eight-Fold Path (which provides Buddhists with direction for achieving enlightenment) has a branch entitled The Five Precepts – five problematic aspects of contemporary existence, of which Buddhists are encouraged to ‘be aware’ in order to guide their morality, understand the suffering that can result from unethical behaviour, and help them make appropriate decisions. The third of these urges Buddhists to be aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct:
“I undertake the training to refrain from using sexual behavior in ways that are harmful to myself and to others. I will attempt to express my sexuality in ways that are beneficial and bring joy.”
For a Buddhist, the physical modifications that are usually part-and-parcel of gender transition (such as taking hormones and undergoing surgery) are considered acts of hedonism and ascetic masochism. To transition from one gender to another violates this third precept; it invites suffering because it entails the pursuit of an egotistical goal.
Because concepts of charity and pacifism are at the heart of Buddhist dogma, underlying disapproval of gender transition almost never translates into overt criticism of, or discrimination and aggression towards, transgender people. Buddhism does tend to insist, however, that true transsexuality can only be truly achieved via genital surgery. Within Buddhism, people are either male or female: because nature is similarly organised into binary male and female categories, gender fluidity or indeterminacy is considered anathema. Buddhist countries (most notably Thailand) do, of course, contain conspicuous transgender populations. These groups tend to be ghettoised, however, and, as in the case of Thailand’s kathoey (or ladyboys, as gawpers call them), their exclusion from mainstream economic life usually forces them into prostitution and side-show freakery.
At first glance, it would appear that, of all the world’s major religions, Hinduism takes the most enlightened and tolerant approach to gender nonconformity. In Hinduism, the concept of a third gender is enshrined in doctrine, and describes any biological male (regardless of their external appearance) who is thought to have feminine essence dwelling inside them. Hindus believe that transgender people are such by nature – that they are, in short, born that way – and they are therefore accorded a special, semi-divine status in Hindu society. Crossdressing dancers are integral to a number of religious ceremonies; some are believed to have the power to heal or to curse; and transvestites are often invited to perform blessing-rituals at the inauguration of festivals and public buildings. To add further to its trans-friendly credentials, Hinduism does not repeat the erroneous assumption of most religions that transgenderism be equated with homosexuality, and Hindus appreciate that gender nonconforming people can experience sexual attraction that is as varied as anyone’s.
But every silver lining, unfortunately, has a cloud. The ‘problem’ of trying to simultaneously accept transsexualism whilst being unable to openly condone it is solved by Hindus in a similar way to Buddhist practices: by insistence on the segregation and ghettoization of transgender communities. Members of the third gender suffer enormously under Hinduism’s insidiously racist caste system, and are expected to limit their social interaction to people of their own kind; to live in designated neighbourhoods; and to undertake forms of employment that are just as euphemistic as they sound – floristry, domestic service, hairdressing, and (ahem) massage. Members of the third gender are not considered to be fully male or female, but, by definition, to exist somewhere in between, or as a combination of both. They are not, accordingly, expected to behave like ordinary women or men, and are thus prohibited from participating in normal life. Unless you are exceptionally superstitious or unnaturally easy to please, it should come as no consolation – as you awaken in your slum every morning and set out for a job that is a glorified form of slavery or prostitution – that people who are richer and more powerful than you think you might be able to do magic tricks.
Of the six principal world religions, the only one which is absolute in its condemnation of gender nonconformity is Judaism. Other faiths may prefer an expression of benign disapproval of the transgender lifestyle to open hostility, but the god of the Old Testament is a jealous and vindictive one, who is unequivocal in the ire he directs at those who refuse to conform to the traditional gender binary. The passage from the Hebrew bible most often quoted in the context of the transgender debate is, of course, chapter 22, verse 5 of the Book of Deuteronomy, but it would be a mistake to think that transsexuals and transvestites are the only group singled out for god’s disapprobation:
“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. (Deuteronomy, 22:5)”
The prohibitions and diktats set down in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy appear frightening and bizarre when viewed through modern eyes. To make sense of them, it needs to be remembered that they were originally written in times of severe population crisis: the tribe of Moses was in very real danger of dying out, and it was felt that a set of instructions were needed in order to ensure the continuation of the Jewish people. Thus, commandments were laid down regarding masturbation, menstruation, incest, sodomy, sexuality and gender with the aim of maximising procreation and encouraging propagation of the species. Thus, God’s punishment of Onan for “spilling his seed upon the ground” rather than using it to inseminate his widowed sister-in-law; the enforced segregation of menstruating women ordered in the Book of Leviticus; the immense popularity of incest in the families of Noah and Abraham; and God’s annihilation of two entire cities because some of their citizens liked it up the chuff; were all motivated by increasing the birth-rate. Any sexual activity that wasted opportunities to make babies, or which risked the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, was strictly forbidden. Pregnancies caused by incest were considered better than no pregnancies at all, and women who were on their period needed keeping out of the way in order to ensure that productive sexual activity could continue without any danger of infection. Any men who were wasting time poncing around in frocks needed the lord’s reminder to get busy filling up the gene pool.
Followers of mainstream Christianity tend not be openly hostile towards transgender people: the teachings of the New Testament have mitigated most of the fire-and-brimstone fury of the books of Moses and his cronies. Whilst the second half of the Christian bible reverses many of the edicts of its older counterpart (such as those regarding menstruation and the wearing of clothes woven of mixed fibres), the condemnation of homosexuality and transvestism does not get a repeal, and so the attitude of Christians to gender nonconformity tends to be one of pity and tacit reproach. Christians don’t hate transgender people: they feel sorry for us, and want to help bring us back into the light by curing us of our improper desires.
The chief reason Christians get in such a flap over gender transition is that they hold the notion that our body was fashioned by god very dearly, and to express the desire to change what was beneficently granted us by the lord is to suggest that god makes mistakes. That it is possible to be dissatisfied with – and to reject – god’s design is beyond Christian comprehension. God is infallible, and the desire to change sex is considered so heretical that Christians will ascribe a transsexual’s motives to psychosis or delusion. There are some Christian sects, chillingly, who still blame gender nonconformity on demonic possession, and who miss the barbarity and ignorance of the Middle Ages to such an extent that they will attempt to ‘treat’ gender dysphoria by means of an exorcism.
In 2007, Iran became the unlikely runner-up for the coveted title of ‘country performing the most sex change operations’ – second only to Thailand. That year, official statistics estimated that the number of transsexuals living in Iran was somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000, and the government was providing grants of £2,250 per patient to cover the cost of surgery, with further money available for hormone therapy, and loans for transgender people to start their own businesses. Iran’s apparent transgender bonanza should not be taken as evidence that the country had reached a state of such cultural magnanimity that the belief that no-one should be a prisoner in their own skin had been enshrined in law: in fact, state sponsored sex change operations were a radical solution to the country’s cultural inability to accept homosexuality. The Quran does not specifically state that gender reassignment is a sin, whereas it does explicitly condemn same-sex love. In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death: using sex change surgery to bring the appearance of offenders’ bodies into line with the twitching of their loins was considered by many to be a more palatable alternative to execution.
In Islam, there are no specific guidelines on gender nonconformity, apart from that, when considered side-by-side with homosexuality, it is thought to be the lesser of two evils. That said, Muslims generally only consider someone to be transsexual if their genitals have been altered to approximate their preferred gender role. Eunuchs, as a case in point, have an important place in Islamic culture, but (as they are within the Buddhist and Hindu faiths) members of the mukhannathun are expected to live in social segregation, and to seek employment only as musicians, dancers and entertainers. Genital mutilation seems a particularly high price to pay for a measure of tolerance.
The attitude of Islam to gender transition depends on the individual’s reasons for making the change. For male-to-female transsexuals, a clear distinction is made between the mukhannath min kalqin (who were born hermaphrodite, or with innate feminine traits; who did not bring gender nonconformity upon themselves, and who, therefore, need feel no guilt or shame about their gender identity), and the mukhannath bi al-takalluf (that is, men who act like women for immoral – i.e. sexual – purposes, and who have chosen to be that way, rather than being blighted by femininity at birth). Provided they do not intend to ‘use’ their gender nonconformity for profit or sexual gratification, the min kalqin are godly; because sexual gratification defines their motives, the bi al-takalluf most certainly are not.
Either way, the preoccupation in Islam with the state of people’s genitals to determine gender makes a little sense when placed in its historical context. In the same way that Moses was faced with the challenge of ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people, so Islam has lived through a time when it was extremely useful to be able to categorise the reproductive functions of its populace. In an age before hormonal, chromosomal and sociological indices of behaviour and identity, the quickest way to ascertain and dictate someone’s social role was to inspect the contents of their pants. The more efficiently you could pigeonhole members of your community, the quicker you could send the men out to till the land, and the more efficiently you could ensure the women stayed at home to raise the children. The only thing that doesn’t make sense is why the belief that genitals should dictate social roles – and that there can be good and bad reasons for gender transition – continue to enjoy such sway.
One of the principal tenets of Sikhism is that adherents should refrain from modifying their bodies in any way, as to do so is to insult god’s creation. Sikh scripture does not specifically legislate about gender nonconformity, so attitudes towards it within Sikhism have to be largely extrapolated from the conviction that people are created the way they are according to a divine plan, and from the belief that god does not make mistakes. People may not know god’s reasons for making them the way they are, but their trust in his intentions should prevent them from changing their appearance. Tattoos, therefore, are considered taboo; committed Sikhs will neither shave nor cut their hair; and cosmetic surgery is, of course, a complete no-no.
Sikhism does not exclude the existence of a third gender, however, and the hijra community are often ascribed mystical powers which they are called upon to utilise in the service of bestowing blessings at weddings and birthing ceremonies. By now, it will come as no surprise to learn that, as is the case in Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, the hijra are expected to live in segregation from ordinary society, and, as a result, are often forced to resort to employment that is, even if it isn’t called such exactly, little better than prostitution. Membership of Sikhism’s third gender is also conditional upon the genitals an individual possesses, and, therefore, most hijra are either eunuchs, people born hermaphrodite, or individuals who have undergone sex-reassignment surgery.
Anyone who attempts an internet search of the beliefs of the world’s principal religions regarding gender nonconformity, is quickly led – as I discovered whilst researching this article – to a variety of discussion forums regarding what the attitudes of the faithful ought to be towards this subject. Some of the contributors to these on-line discussions are simple-minded folk who merely want to be told how to think; who, evidently, lack confidence in their instinctive response to transgender people, and need the security of knowing the nature of prevailing wisdom before they are willing to commit to an opinion. More often, however, these chatrooms are populated by people who have experienced a kneejerk response, but need to have it validated by their fellow adherents. This would be harmless if the people concerned needed nothing more than a word from the wise to correct a prejudicial or discriminatory gut-reaction, but, alas, the majority of intellectual traffic flows in the opposite direction. People who err on the side of compassion and generosity of spirit – who, because they are reasonable, intelligent human beings, couldn’t really care less how someone wishes to present their sexuality or gender – find themselves being instructed to show disapproval and outrage:
essentiallydecentperson84 • 2 days ago
I have a really good friend/trusted colleague/beloved family member, who has changed/is changing/wishes to change, their gender. I really like them, and would like to stand by them and show the support and respect that a loyal friend/colleague/relative should. I have no issue with transgender people per se, but, because I subscribe to a laughably anachronistic religious doctrine, a small voice at the back of my mind tells me I should disapprove. Should I have a problem with it/them?
deuteronomy22:5 • 1 day ago
Unfortunately, our religion says that your friend/colleague/relative is committing an egregious sin by choosing to pursue a disgusting lifestyle habit that spreads evil and disease. In an obscure section of our sacred texts (written in a language so ancient that it is probably the product of an enormous number of translations and retranslations – as well as seismic shifts in the social and political contexts that originally gave rise to them – and which have rendered the original meaning of those texts almost completely obscure), it says that anyone who has/is/wants to change their sex is the bastard offspring of the unholy union of a sea cucumber and some bellybutton fluff, and that they should to be cast into isolation from their peers and forced into demeaning, low-paid work. We know this because a group of dusty scholars with an alarming lack of contact with contemporary society (and, let’s face it, a whole bundle of shocking sexual proclivities of their own) believe that one possible interpretation of the aforementioned ambiguous phrase legislates specifically against transgender people. Either them or the gays; I forget exactly. So: no, you should not support your friend. If you really, really, really have to do something nice for them, then you may, at best, offer them your sympathy, but we would prefer it if you urged them to find a cure for their filthiness that basically involves the suppression of their feelings. Please note that I am giving you the benefit of the doubt regarding your claim to be inquiring about a friend/colleague/family member, and I am not assuming that this is a thinly veiled enquiry about your own prurient and shameful inclinations.
This synthesis is not an attempt to critique the behaviour of groups and individuals who like to pass off as religious dogma what is essentially nothing more dignified nor sophisticated than reactionary prejudice, personal stupidity, or bigotry born of fear and ignorance. What I have attempted to do is to summarise what the holy books of the world’s major faiths dictate to their followers on the subject of gender nonconformity. By doing so, I have identified five themes that recur, in one form or another, in religious teaching about transgender people. These are:
An expectation that transgender groups be separated, segregated, and operate in the margins of mainstream social, economic and political life.
An obsession with the genitals of members of transgender communities, and an insistence that gender be defined according to which set of private parts a person possesses.
A disapproval of body modification, from which follows the belief that gender transition invites suffering on the individual undertaking it.
A conviction that gender nonconformity is an aberration, and that transgender people require treatment and cure.
A distinction between ‘good’ (who were born that way) and ‘bad’ transgender people (who are only transitioning for kicks).
Feel free to print out this handy, easy-to-use guide to the dominant attitudes of the six most popular faiths. Next time you are passing a church, temple, mosque, gurdwara or synagogue, and fancy popping inside for a religious fix, simply whip this pocket-sized taxonomy out of your handbag and discover in seconds the extent to which you will be welcome, and what the dedicated will be thinking when they look at you. (You could always, of course, choose not to be religious at all.)
Is all this half-baked, ill-informed theologising blasphemous? Possibly. Whilst some people may find my synthesis of religious attitudes to sex and gender heretical (or even offensive), it can’t be argued that I haven’t been inclusive. As Eddie Izzard once said when he used to be funny (on his 2002 Circle tour):
“Blasphemy; Blas for you; Blas for everybody in the room.”
I haven’t had a very good week – and yes, I do mean that from the morbidly introspective, self-pitying, emotionally hyper-aware viewpoint of the periodically depressed. I haven’t had a very good week because, from time-to-time, the unfulfillable longing to be beautiful and sexy in a female way, and my irrational regret at never having had a childhood where I twirled in dresses and went to my high-school prom looking like a princess – and the sheer arbitrary cruelty of the fact that I wasn’t born female – all become too much to bear, and I collapse; to paraphrase Emily Dickinson: a plank in reason breaks, and I plunge down and down and down. When you monitor your relationship with what you want (and with what you cannot have) with an intensity you cannot help when you are prone to depressive episodes, then you know when you haven’t had a very good week: I have been tearful, paralysed by anxiety, unable to communicate the help I need, and – most shamefully – incapable of both giving and receiving compassion from the people who care about me the most. This month, meanwhile, The Guardian newspaper has published statistics relating to the rise in the number of people being referred to gender identity clinics in the UK. At first glance, these figures seem startling, but I am unconvinced by the claim that they are due to a burgeoning willingness by Britons to celebrate difference and embrace gender diversity. I think the number of people seeking help to cope with issues relating to gender identity is collateral damage from a society that celebrates polarised views of what it means to be male or female. I think contemporary constructions of hyper-sexualised femininity – and of a powerful, alpha-male version of masculinity – are responsible for many people’s experience of an unfulfillable yearning to cross the boundary between the sexes. I think this situation has served as a perfect incubator for disillusionment, dissatisfaction and depression, and, because it is society that perpetuates these gender caricatures, we must all share responsibility for the people they damage.
In his book ‘The Noonday Demon’ (Vintage, 2002), Andrew Solomon says depression is the mechanism of despair:
“When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself.”
In his chapter on breakdowns, Solomon describes the minutes experienced through the lens of depression as being like dog years: depression incapacitates the sufferer; it leaves them frozen – usually in bed – and unable to move, eat, speak, or complete simple daily routines, like showering. Above all, Solomon observes, depression is preposterous: episodes can occur when your life appears otherwise under control – or even when projects you have undertaken are enjoying a measure of success. Depression is not irrational, however, and it certainly doesn’t entail an impairment of judgement. On the contrary, depression puts you “in touch with the real terribleness of your life”:
“When you are depressed, the past and future are absorbed entirely by the present moment, as in the world of a three-year-old. You cannot remember a time when you felt better, at least not clearly; and you certainly cannot imagine a future time when you will feel better. Being upset, even profoundly upset, is a temporal experience, while depression is atemporal. Breakdowns leave you with no point of view.”
There is a sinister logic to a depressive collapse. A breakdown is both the cause and consequence of an attempt to confront the nastiest aspects of your life; of a struggle to understand and master the very things with the power to destroy you. It can be tempting to romanticise depression by believing that that you, and only you, undergo such periods of terrible suffering. The notion that depression is a nameless monster, which looms out of the shadows of your subconscious when you least expect it, is a spurious one: as I have become more adept at recognising the triggers of my own depressive episodes, I have realised that my bouts of abject wretchedness have a specific cause, and that, in the context of my life as a transgender person, they make perfect sense.
I don’t pretend to that my problems are greater or more distressing than any that other people have, and I have listened patiently to futile attempts to console me out of depressive episodes that urge me to be thankful I don’t have a terminal illness; I’m not in a wheelchair; I wasn’t abused as a child; I am fit and healthy; I have had a good education; I run my own business and have a (reasonably) steady income; I am socially adroit; I am able to manage the everyday affairs of my life (like paying bills and maintaining friendships) easily and efficiently; I’m resilient and resourceful; I’ve travelled quite a bit; and there are people who love me. The reason these well-intentioned efforts to shame me out of melancholia are so meaningless, however, is that I know all that. Moreover: I’m smart, charming, and beguiling enough to achieve pretty much whatever I set my mind to. The root of my depression is that there is one thing which, no matter how hard I work or how optimistic I try to be, I will ultimately remain totally powerless to obtain. I was not born a girl. I can dress like one; grow my hair; voice-coach myself to a chalky approximation of how a girl talks; learn to walk, talk and sit like a girl; undergo whatever cosmetic procedures are within my means to appear more superficially girl-like; but – and even to type this is painful – I cannot ever truly be the beautiful, sexy woman I wish I was.
Facing up to the ridiculous futility of my yearning would be, you would think, the first step towards accepting my physical limitations, shrugging off depression, and moving on. Why can’t I just embrace the things I am good at, and dismiss as a pipe-dream the one thing I can never be? The reason I can’t wave the desire away and channel my energy into something else is simple: I can never escape the living, breathing reminders of who I want to be; I can’t avoid women. When I’m feeling particularly vulnerable, the sight or memory of an attractive woman provokes a chillingly physical nervous response – a miniature seizure, of sorts; an involuntary shudder, a tightening of the jaw, a pressure behind my eyes, an itch under my scalp, and a moment a few seconds later when I realise I’ve been pressing my fingernails so hard into the palms of my hands that I’ve left small, crescent-moon shaped bruises there. All the hallmarks, in other words, of a minor panic attack.
And these panic attacks are not only triggered by skinny models in lingerie. I’m not a complete idiot: the synthetic constructions of beauty in advertisements, magazines, on television and in pornography are actually easier to deal with than reality, because I know that artificial constructions of femininity are precisely that – artificial. It is attractiveness in the flesh that I am occasionally completely unable to handle, and there are dozens of women who – because their hair was styled just as I want mine, or because the cut of their dress hung just right on their feminine hips, or because their neck was long and smooth, or because their shoulders were slight, or because they’ve never had to shave their chin, or because they had a trim waist, or because their swimming-costume met in a neat V-shape between their thighs – have inadvertently condemned me to days of bleak depression, curled like a knot in darkness, sobbing for air as if I was drowning.
More recently, the remit of my depressive episodes has expanded, and I now find myself – on top of my more tangible frustration – lamenting a childhood and adolescence I will never be able to experience. This stirring of an extra little soupçon of sadness into the mix of general desolation is, no doubt, due to the achievement of my fortieth birthday. Not only must I contend with being a woman without having first undergone the apprenticeship of having been a girl: now, when I wear a My Little Pony tee-shirt (assuming I can find one that fits me), I look neither cute nor ironic; I just look like a bit of a pervert. More than having missed out on learning how to braid my own hair, or of having friends who could teach me how to put on make-up, I’ve missed out on the rites of passage of the ingénue, and on glorying in public approbation as a debutante: the moments when teams of family and friends help you look beautiful for your prom, pretty you up for your first date, dress you like a film-star for your sixteenth birthday, and ensure you appear stunning at your university graduation. I hid from these landmark events of my formative years because I couldn’t cope with the feelings of disappointment and envy associated with them. I was married for a while, too, and I spent the day of the ceremony wishing I was the one who looked like a queen.
Along with a god I don’t really believe in, every woman who has ever lived, and the shoe manufacturers who decree that the sizes of their women’s range should only go up to 41, I increasingly find myself blaming my parents for the girlhood I never had. Parents – particularly those in the United States – who recognise that their children’s unhappiness may be due to a form of gender dysphoria, and who enable them to explore the world of the boy or girl they want to be, are often subjected to harsh and sustained criticism. Gender nonconformity is just a phase, their detractors say: so-called transgender children are just experimenting, and can’t possibly make informed decisions about whether they ‘feel’ like a boy or a girl. She’s a tomboy! Not all boys like to play with guns or kick a football around! From that perspective, to impose transition on a child isn’t just irresponsible and misguided; it is tantamount to child abuse.
But I envy those children. My mother remembers me spending painful hours in floods of tears, telling her that I thought I was ugly, but her response always began and ended with a hug, a warm glass of milk, and the hope that I would feel better after a night’s sleep. I was never brave enough to tell them that I wanted to be Princess Leia, but I wish my parents had had the whit, the bravery and the imagination to dig more deeply into the reasons for my fits of misery, and it seems to me an act of gross negligence that they didn’t step in to help me defeat my demons long, long before I was old enough to regret that they hadn’t. When they finally wrung an explanation for my depression out of me years later, they didn’t attempt to repair the damage their neglect had done. Instead, they swore me to secrecy. When I experience a breakdown now, I know that one of the reasons I weep is for the hours I wasted daydreaming of an alternative – female – version of me, and on years of self-imposed isolation and profound sartorial disappointment.
Using data obtained via a freedom of information request, an article in The Guardian newspaper this week reported that, over the last decade, the number of people being referred by their GP to the gender identity clinic at Charing Cross Hospital in London has quadrupled. At the same time, the Exeter GIC (which opened in 2006) has seen a twenty-fold increase in referrals. The number of referrals to the Leeds clinic (which opened its doors in 2009) has tripled. The GIC in Sheffield had eight referrals in 1998, but 301 in 2015. At the gender identity clinic that opened in Nottingham in 2008, referrals have risen by a factor of 28. The Tavistock centre, which specialises in care for transgender children and teenagers, has been experiencing increases of around 50% a year since 2010 – and demand for its services has doubled since 2015.
The received wisdom about this sudden and meteoric increase in the numbers of UK citizens seeking medical and psychiatric help for issues relating to their gender identity is that society has become more accepting of gender nonconformity. As the public becomes more tolerant of difference, and as transgender people become more visible in the media and in popular culture, the argument goes, there is less reason for those who aren’t satisfied with the gender role dished out to them arbitrarily at birth to remain in the closet.
This line of reasoning has a small flaw, however, which is that it assumes that referrals to UK gender identity clinics, and the numbers of people who are coming-out as transgender in Britain, are synonymous. Improvements in the United Kingdom’s capacity for tolerance (regardless of whether that should be a source of pride) do not explain why more and more people are identifying with a gender not determined by their chromosomal sex, so it is a fallacy to claim that increased national magnanimity is behind the rise in referrals to the country’s GICs. On the contrary: referral to the Charing Cross clinic is an indication that something is deeply wrong with a transgender patient; it is a sign that they not coping with the feelings of depression and defeat associated with their gender identity, not proof that they are ready to kick up their heels and celebrate the man or woman they’ve always wanted to be – and it certainly does not constitute evidence of a drift towards more laissez-faire attitudes to gender identity. Submitting to medical or psychiatric help entails a willingness to pathologise one’s gender identity. Acquiescing to the interminable waiting-times and institutionalised condescension of the GIC is an act of desperation – the last resort of the powerless; of someone who fears they might be going mad, and has nowhere else to turn.
Trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF) is not a political or philosophical doctrine as such, and it is certainly not a label feminist thinkers would use to self-identify. Rather, it is a loose, post hoc category into which a number of articles, speeches and espousals by feminist writers and activists can be placed; a way of describing particular arguments against the right of transwomen to access every sphere of biological, cisgender-female life. For example, the academic Julie Bindel (who is also co-founder of the English law-reform group, Justice for Women), asserted in a 2004 Guardian article that is was perfectly right and proper that a Vancouver transwoman should be barred from training as a rape counsellor. Bindel’s argument was that a male-to-female transsexual could never fully understand rape from a woman’s perspective, no matter how well-intentioned they were:
“The arrogance is staggering: having not experienced life as a ‘woman’ until middle age, Nixon assumed ‘she’ would be suitable to counsel women who have chosen to access a service that offers support from women who have suffered similar experiences, not from a man in a dress! …I don’t have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man.”
TERF is a pigeonhole for statements which seem to discriminate against transgender people by asserting that feminists have not struggled for decades against the stereotyped enactment of gender roles (“fuck-me shoes and birds’-nest hair for the boys; beards, muscles and tattoos for the girls”, in Bindel’s words), in order for transsexuals to ruin their hard work by attempting to reassert a conception of womanhood that is the product of a male, heterosexual hegemony. This brand of feminist thought is exclusionary in the sense that it does not consider the transgender voice a valid contribution to feminist discourse and debate: because male-to-female transsexuals embody masculine views of what it means to be a woman, they can only perpetuate traditional and oppressive views of what a woman should look like, and the role they should play in society. The TERF perspective further argues that it is artificial and reductive to lump transgender people into the same demographic group as gay men and homosexual women. LGBT has become too messy and contradictory a construct to have political teeth, the TERF argument goes: by attempting to shoulder their way into the shadow of the rainbow flag of gay-activism, transsexuals are undermining the work of changing society’s preconceptions of what it means to be male or female, gay or straight.
In August 2011, meanwhile, Maryland Lawyer, Cathy Brennan, wrote an open letter to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to challenge the conceptualisations of gender used by the UN on rulings on discrimination. Brennan’s contention was that “this legislation incorporates stereotypical ideas of ‘what is female’ into law”, and she sought specifically to oppose UN rulings against the exclusion of transgender women from “female-only space… such as female-only clubs, public restrooms, [and] public showers”, on the grounds that “females require sex-segregated facilities for a number of reasons, chief among them the documented frequency of male sexual violence against females”.
As well as granting open access to women’s changing rooms to marauding bands of transsexual rapists, Brennan was concerned that the definition (or, rather, absence of a tangible definition) of ‘gender identity’ in UN legislation in this area served to entrench sexist ideas more deeply into law of what constitutes male and female. Where notions of gender identity are predicated on the values of self-identification, Brennan maintained, transsexual stereotypes of what constitutes womanhood are permitted to influence how womanhood is constituted by society generally. In other words, women need to be legally free from the obligation to conform to the brand of femininity embodied by fetish transvestites tottering around in fishnets and stiletto-heels:
“Archaic stereotypes are directly responsible for the denial of female credibility and intellectual authority, in addition to causing the historical marginalisation of females, lower social status vis-à-vis males, and lack of power to engage equally with males. Even where law has evolved to formally prohibit sex-stereotyping, women continue to suffer from the lingering effects of sexist ideologies of female inferiority. So although we support every individual’s right to express their ‘gender identity’, it is absolutely critical that law not confuse ‘feminine expression’ with female reproductive capacity of female genital presentation. We believe that ‘gender identity’ laws that codify the notion that there are traits, manners of expression, or modes of appearance that are inconsistent or consistent with one’s biological sex violates United Nations conventions seeking to eradicate sex stereotyping.”
In a nutshell, the stance of trans-exclusionary radical feminists is that women who seek to become men are motivated by the desire to feel powerful in a world which is politically disposed towards favouring men (in terms of social influence, economic gain, career progression, and so on); whilst male-to-female transsexuals are motivated by nothing more sophisticated than sex – by the desire to recast themselves as sexual beings, according their own fetishized ideas of what constitutes ‘sexiness’.
Is my transition motivated by sex? Of course it is! What else could it be motivated by? I live in a social and cultural milieu populated by more than its fair share of sexy, beautiful women. There are, of course, plenty of men who are also sexy and beautiful, but I cannot help that my desire is to be beautiful and sexy in a way that is typically reserved for females – and, yes, that does mean that I aspire to a version of femininity that is idiosyncratic to me. I have not formed my ideal of beauty in a vacuum, however: I have constructed it from the clay provided by the world around me, which includes the images of women I see in magazines and on television, and via the doctored un-reality of advertising, as well in the flesh-and-blood, actual living-breathing women I see every day as I go about the business of urban life. I am not so naïve that I swallow the superficial (and, for most cisgender women, unattainable) version of femininity peddled to me to sell lipstick and yoghurt. I recognise the misogyny inherent in the starvation required to model clothing or dance ballet, and I’m not stupid enough to think that every woman I see is completely at ease with her own body – everyone feels some degree of pressure to look a certain way, maintain a particular weight, or try and arrest the physical signs of aging. The version of womanhood I aspire to isn’t solely founded on the synthetic and the unobtainable: I want people to look at me and think, God, she’s fit, in the same way people turn and look at umpteen real-life women in the street every day, and all I ask is to have the same anxieties about myself as a biological woman. I promise to work as hard as they do to maintain the body I want! I try not to add the massive head start women have on me to my list of things to obsess over when I’m depressed, but I did not set out on my transgender journey thinking that anyone ever feels completely satisfied with how they look. I do not assume I’ll one day be able to stop working and say to myself, There: I’ve done it; I now consider myself gorgeous. Transition is the way I have elected to take concrete steps towards my ambitions. More importantly, it is the active means via which I can remind myself that I am doing all I can: I do not see transition as an ends itself, but as a lifelong therapeutic process. Being able to remind myself of that provides a tiny spark of comfort during my darkest hours of despair.
I cannot be the only person who feels this way; it is inconceivable that no-one but me suffers crippling depression because they wish they could find themselves beautiful. If I were alone, the number of referrals to the UK’s gender identity clinics would not have risen so meteorically over the last ten years. The important issue, of course, is whether my reasons should be considered sordid, and, if they should, whether that invalidates the legitimacy of my wish that society adjust in order to accept me as one its female members.
Let me put it like this. Changing gender is an attempt to scratch a maddening itch. If trans-exclusionary radical feminism is right – and transsexuality is the product of a sexual drive or a desire to feel powerful – then that sexuality and that form of power is a product of the world in which I live. I want to change gender because I long to occupy a social role – and feel a particular way about myself – that would otherwise be denied me. I cannot, for example, work as a teacher if I wish to live as a practising transvestite. In order to be permitted to enter a school looking how, and wearing what, I want, I have to declare myself transgender. Only by executing a number of administrative duties – such as changing my name – can I wear a dress and still go about my daily business with legal protection from discrimination. It is necessary, if you like, to stake a formal claim to being transgender in order to gain even a modicum of public permission to dress how I want and still have a chance of being taken seriously.
Gender roles are a product of the societies in which they are enacted. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ are modes of behaviour codified and institutionalised – and accepted as the norm – in the contexts in which they occur. I live in a society that isn’t merely hyper-sexualised, but which has polarised its idealised images of masculine and feminine attractiveness. The metrosexual, androgynous culture of the nineties – which blurred the lines between the genders, and saw make-up and handbags for men on sale in high-street stores – has all but evaporated. In its place, women are increasingly expected to look and behave one way, and men are expected to look and behave in another. All I want, through no fault of my own, is a taste of the former. I am simply unlucky that the biological sex I was assigned at birth, and the upbringing I had, mean that I have to work that bit harder to get it than the large portion of the population who were born women.
From this perspective, my depressive breakdowns result from the norms of feminine beauty to which I cannot help but be exposed. That exposure has eroded my quality of life, and prompted me to seek a radical solution to my pain. Society, in short, has made me want to be a woman. That makes me society’s responsibility, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that society tell me I am wrong to ask for its blessing in getting what I want.
We like to imagine that we can compartmentalise the tricky process of coming-out as transgender. By dividing our social and professional lives into convenient, neatly demarcated areas, we reason, we can manage the way we break the news of our transition – and the reactions of the people whom we tell – without overwhelming ourselves with change. (We pretend that we are responsible for this compartmentalisation, but we’re not. It’s just that our lives tend to be organised that way anyway.) I started by telling my closest friends, and I was lucky in that most of them had already pretty much worked things out for themselves. As my most sympathetic audience, breaking the news first to my friends permitted me to test the water of social acceptance in the least painful way possible. (And if it had changed the way they felt about me for the worst, then they were never really my friends, were they?) After that, I didn’t so much tell people what I was doing to transform my life, as confront them with the reality of it. By simply presenting the new me to the world, I allowed the people I came into contact with to behave naturally – to reject, accept, or remain indifferent to, me as was their wont. It proved an effective way to spring clean my social life, and to reduce the length of my Christmas card list. I like to think I managed the whole process rather well, right up to the point of discussing my transition with my immediate family. That’s when the imagination and resilience I had hitherto shown deserted me, and I fear, in particular, that I may have done irreparable damage to my relationship with my brother.
If my family had been more like the ones I’ve seen in American movies, when my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 2010, he would have summoned me to his study and offered me a cigar. After lighting it for me from a flint mounted in a lump of granite from his desk, he would have taken a couple of puffs of his own cigar and collapsed into a nerve-jangling coughing-fit. When that had subsided, he would have begun pacing to and fro in front of an oil painting of my great-great-great-great ancestor, and told me what a huge responsibility I would soon have to take on as the eldest heir to the Robinson dynasty. At the end of his speech, he would have pressed the family signet-ring into the palm of my hand and embraced me warmly. I would have known he was crying, but, when we straightened and parted, his expression would have betrayed nothing other than stoicism and quiet dignity.
But our family was not like one of those in an American movie. Instead, as my father got more and more poorly, I watched him struggle to maintain a sense of control over his ever-shrinking world. First, he stockpiled sets of screws and gradated sprocket-sets in order to be able to resume the odd-jobs he’d put off until he felt well enough again. Then, the room in which he was increasingly confined had to be just so, with every creature comfort in its proper place. Next, he required certain items arranging within easy reach around his bed, and he spent one heartbreaking afternoon painstakingly enlarging the diagram on the lid of a box of Family Choice biscuits, so he could locate the variety of biscuit he fancied with maximum efficiency. After that… Well, there was no after that.
I did my grieving when I learned of my father’s diagnosis: the actual end came as something of a relief. In the months after his death, I have to confess to experiencing bereavement in the abstract. That is: I missed my dad, but not in any concrete, practical sense. We’d never spent a great deal of social time together; he never took me fishing or introduced me to his friends down the pub (not that he ever really did either); and, whenever I called home and my father answered, the conversation was always very brief, and proceeded very rapidly to him saying, “I’ll put your mother on.” I was never going to miss spending time with him when he was gone, because I’d never really done so while he was alive: the only thing I was denied by his death was the symbolic presence of a father figure, not an old pal I adored hanging out with.
Looking back, it seems obvious that the distance between my father and I was due in large part to the unspoken knowledge we shared that I was not happy in my own skin. A year or two after graduating from university, I had made a clumsy attempt to tell my parents that I liked wearing women’s clothes (which, at the time, was as much of the truth as I knew), but their response had not been the laissez-faire, live-and-let-live demonstration of unconditional support I had been hoping for. They understood the irreconcilable biological cruelty of my predicament, they said, but would prefer never to speak of it again. Furthermore, they implored, I must never let my brother gain any inkling of my transvestite leanings.
If I hadn’t been so shell-shocked by this rejection, there might have been a confrontation. Instead, I underwent an abrupt process of disconnection from home. My parents’ embargo on any future discussion about my gender identity proved an extremely effective way of severing the apron strings, and I was suddenly free of the emotional anchor to home that, it turned out, had prevented me from setting off by myself on an intercontinental adventure. For the next decade and a half thereafter, whenever I visited my family, I did so in role as the untroubled cisgender son or brother. They never saw me dressed up, and we never talked about it. My parents knew anecdotally that I was continuing to dress as I liked whenever I could, but, by refusing to discuss it, they could at least pretend it wasn’t happening, and convince themselves that they had no cause for social embarrassment.
When my father died in 2012, I think I was set free for a second time; exonerated, on this occasion, from my promise to keep my sartorial leanings a secret. From my perspective, bereavement served as a release – the irrevocable termination of an unspoken contract that had taken an enormous emotional toll on one of its chief signatories. Of course I was saddened by his death; of course I thought it tragic that my mother would be left without him; of course I found his terrified descent into invalidity harrowing; but, when he was gone, I gained far more than I lost, because I gained the ability to be myself all the time, without needing to put on a costume whenever I saw him.
Within a year after his death, I had come-out to my friends, changed the details on my passport and driver’s licence, and was laying the foundations necessary for me to be able to attend work full-time in female role: sitting down with my mother was one of last pieces of the compartmentalised jigsaw of coming-out still to be put into place. It wasn’t easy; I put it off several times; and, ultimately, I needed someone to hold my hand while I did it. Once she’d had time to process the information, my mother confessed to feeling guilty; berated herself for letting me down by not being more supportive when I had needed it most; and, inevitably, had questions (mostly about my childhood cross-dressing) that she seemed to think she should ask, based on the testimonials she’d read about transgender people in some of the doctor’s waiting-room type periodicals to which she subscribed. Her primary concern, however, was to make two further requests of me – one which I don’t think I can fulfil; the other that I already haven’t. First (and morbidly), she made me promise that, when it was time to stage her funeral, I would attend in the guise of the son she had given birth to rather than as the woman I had become. Second, she asked if I would be the one to tell my brother of my transition.
I vacillated for almost sixth months over how and when to invite my brother into what was, by now, a very badly kept secret. Eventually, however, whilst on holiday with him and his girlfriend, my mother told him for me. It was the least she could have done, I suppose, and I was grateful she’d spared us a humiliating encounter that could well have ended in physical violence.
Using my mother as an intermediary, my brother’s first response was to ask if he could see some photographs of me, post-change. I can only speculate over the reasons for this, but I suspect he was motivated by a desire to prepare for our meeting by finding out what sort of physical reality would confront him, so that, in turn, he could evaluate the extent to which I ‘passed’, and decide whether he had the stomach to see me in public. My brother’s priority was to establish how mortified he would be if the two of us were seen together by someone he knew. Clearly, he was not about to follow in my transgender footsteps – there was to be no Wachowski moment for us.
Was I willing to submit to being vetted by my brother before I saw him again? Not in a million years. This was in October, 2014, and I haven’t seen him face-to-face since. I am left wondering, however, why it is that the bonding my brother and I did in the days preceding our father’s funeral has been so thoroughly undone by my refusal to conform to society’s arbitrary gender distinctions. Why were my parents incapable even of discussing my dissatisfaction with the sartorial limitations placed upon me via a combination of chromosomes, and the lower-middleclass social mores under which I grew up? Why can’t my brother see over his kneejerk prejudice and anxieties regarding what other people might think, in the interests of preserving the unity of our ever-shrinking family unit?
I imagine that some people find the very notion of interaction with transsexuals embarrassing in a way which they are helpless to control – on a level that is subconscious to the point of being visceral – and I think my brother is one of them. This embarrassment is the consequence of the preconceptions people form about transgender people as a result of their exposure to two unfortunate transgender stereotypes. It doesn’t help the well-adjusted majority if the transsexuals who dominate the media (and, therefore, popular consciousness) are grotesque pantomime dames with paunches and terrible posture, stooping awkwardly in their twinsets and pearls; adenoidal attention-seekers in crop-tops and bad wigs, clogging up the sofas of daytime talk-shows; or preening quasi-pornstars padded with silicone and collagen, and posing for selfies every five minutes. To many people, the line between being transgender and devoting oneself to the enactment of an all-consuming sexual fetish is a grey and flimsy one, and it is undeniably disconcerting to be in the company of someone you suspect is motivated solely by the desire to show off and be noticed.
The other reason my brother isn’t ready to renew the uneasy sibling relationship we once had is that he feels as if he has been lied to: everything he assumed he knew about me has been turned on its head, and it appears as if I have been keeping a very big secret from him for a very long time. Thought of in this way, his sense of betrayal seems perfectly comprehensible, and he can be forgiven for feeling as if – when it comes to something as momentous as gender transition – I should have told him ages ago. The fact that he has been presented with a fait accompli (rather than having the opportunity to grow into the idea gradually), must seem to him as something of an insult. If I trusted and respected him – if, in other words, the fact that we were brothers meant anything to me – I would have involved him years ago, and confided in him at the point when I first suspected I wasn’t like other boys. During my bleakest periods, I might even have sought his advice. By not doing this, I denied him the opportunity of doing what a good brother should – of being there to support and protect a member of his family when they needed his help the most.
The paradox is that, from my perspective, the old me was the lie; but from my brother’s point of view, the new me is. I don’t have the heart to tell him that our parents made me promise almost two decades ago not to tell him. It would be vindictive and unnecessary to blame my mother for my brother’s ignorance in that way, especially as, since my father died, she has done everything she can to make up for failing the younger me, despite the unease it continues to cause her (and I currently owe at least 50% of my boob-job to her).
I couldn’t be close to my father because I could never be wholly myself with him. Whenever we were together, we always shared the room with a large and ugly elephant: namely, that I had agreed to lie by omission to him about something that turned out to be too important to ignore. I don’t have to pretend to be happy anymore, and – although it is appalling to have to admit it – I am more content having the memory of the man than I ever could have been with the man himself. It would be a tragedy, however, if the same turned out to be true of my connection to my brother, because I don’t want to waste another relationship by making it conditional upon the censorship of an important facet of my personality and worldview, and by insisting upon making a taboo subject of my identity.
If you’ve decided it’s finally time to stop struggling to squeeze yourself each morning into the wrongly shaped social and sartorial space; if you’ve plucked up the courage at last to take your inner man or woman out into the world to find out what sort friends he or she can make; if, once and for all, you’ve chosen to stop pretending and become the boy or girl you knew you were always meant to be; if all you’re lacking in order to achieve all of these things is a smidgeon of empathetic encouragement, then you’ve come to the right place! Here, then, is my simple, step-by-step guide to coming out of the transgender closet. Armed with this exclusive manual (along with thirty-odd years of vacillation, a stultifying set of middle-class sensibilities, and a tendency to over-intellectualise what should really be a decision of the heart), your transformation from Barry to Barbara – or from Germaine to Jeremy – is only an effortless twenty-three-and-a-half steps away…
Step One Realise at quite a young age (probably at around six or seven) that girls seem to have nicer clothes, shoes and hairstyles than you do. Begin to notice the way girls are generally granted greater freedom to express tenderness, gentleness and sensitivity than boys are (this is the 1980s, after all), and start to wonder what you have to do in order for authority figures like teachers and parents not to chastise you for expressing emotions like that. As your childhood passes, you may also ponder why it is that being rubbish at competitive sport carries such punitive social sanction, and compensate for an unstated (but somehow taken-for-granted) prohibition on owning a Barbie by starting a comprehensive collection of Star Wars figures.
Step TwoAcknowledge the nascent stirrings of wanting to be someone else by occasionally trying on items from your mother’s wardrobe. It is best to wait until you are alone in the house to do this, and to become so adroit at replacing things exactly as you found them that, even decades later, your mother is genuinely surprised when you tell her that’s what you used to do. Realise that you dream about being a girl, but believe that this happened far less frequently than it actually did.
Step ThreeIf you cannot contrive permissible reasons for dropping into drag (such as attending a fancy-dress party or playing a practical joke), you will often find yourself all dressed up with nowhere to go. As you enter your teens, therefore, be sure to sexualise women’s clothes. Channel all your desires to wear delicate fabrics, flowing dresses, tight skirts, lacy underwear, make-up and stilettoes into onanistic activities that serve as a form of emotional release and self-justification. The desires you are feeling will make no sense at all unless you pigeonhole them – erroneously – as the consequence of a disturbed libido.
Step FourAt this delicate stage of your emotional development, of course, you will be tap-dancing through a Freudian minefield if you haven’t graduated from borrowing your mother’s clothes to making some purchases of lady-garments of your own. Using what you earn from a Saturday job selling fruit and vegetables on a market stall in the centre of your hometown (and taking advantage of the late-eighties’ boom in stores selling clothes at what amounts to pocket-money prices), buy yourself a basic little black dress, a pleated mini-skirt, a faux-angora sweater, a pair of pink trainers, a set of ladies’ underwear, a double-pack of white polyester work blouses, some kitten-heels, and a brace of cheap cosmetics. Hide these so carefully that not even a team of trained forensic archaeologists could find them, and put them on (but never all at once) whenever the opportunity presents itself (i.e. when you have the house to yourself, which, one joyous and fateful summer, turns out to be for an entire fortnight).
Step Five Be a mawkish and socially awkward teenager. Want – but completely fail to find – a girlfriend, and avoid dressy communal gatherings like parties and your school prom. Pretend that this aversion to collective merrymaking is a result of your natural shyness and a preference for your own company, but know secretly that it’s really because you can’t stand to be around people in elegant gowns and beautiful frocks (clothes, in other words, that you really want to be wearing yourself as someone holds the door of a limousine open for you, and takes your arm and leads you through the double-doors of the ballroom, and takes your coat and buys you a drink as your peers stare at you with a mixture of adoration and envy).
Step Six Have no sense of male fashion at all. Treat clothes-shopping as a chore; take a utilitarian view of every garment you acquire, and purchase them with a careless briskness that almost (but not quite) prevents you from thinking about the clothes you really want; wear each pair of shoes you buy to the point of destruction; and, even as a sixteen year-old, dress like Bob Hope about to play a round of golf.
Step Seven Surprise everyone (including yourself) by enjoying a fairly successful university career. Make a handful of good and lasting friendships. Act, stage revues, and perform stand-up comedy. Run the university newspaper and be elected to the students’ union. Discover a talent for academia and graduate at the top of your class. Be astonished to realise that there are enough people who fancy you to make it worthwhile investing in a small wardrobe of fashionable men’s clothes. Lose your virginity and get engaged. Above all, bury your anxieties about gender as deep as they will go. Convince yourself that you are a transvestite and contrive the occasional excuse to drag up in public (you are on the stage, after all); wear women’s clothes often in the privacy of your room and grow your hair, but never explicitly confess to anyone that the longing you feel isn’t really about being shocking or trying to be different. In short, learn to play a character – a charming, erudite, witty, intelligent, popular character, but a character nonetheless. Don’t let anyone ever see you cry about it, and, if they do, pretend you’re crying about something else. (Vulnerable will turn out to be another quality you learn to let other people find irresistible about you…)
Step Eight Leave your university sweetheart for a woman you meet doing amateur dramatics during a brief period living back with your parents the year you graduate. This woman is a little bit older than you, and manages a branch of a fairly well-known high-street bank. She is independent, solvent, and seems so grown up compared to the callow undergraduates you’re used to, that, when she invites you to move in with her, you say yes in a heartbeat. Because this woman seems so worldly – and because she does amateur dramatics (where everyone is larger-than-life and welcomes those of all sexual persuasions and peccadilloes) – tell her that you like to wear women’s clothing. (Don’t tell her straight away, of course. First, spend two months crying yourself to sleep and jealously eyeing the pencil skirts and heels she wears for work. Finally, at the end of the summer holidays, let her come home from the bank to find you curled foetal on your bed wearing the purple velvet dress she had bought for herself last weekend.)
Step Nine Move back in with your parents.
Step Ten After spending over a decade waiting to tell someone you love that you want to wear their clothes, learn the hard way that most women simply don’t fancy men when they look like women, and that most women want to look sexy for their man – not dress-down to stop him turning green with envy. Naïve though it seems in retrospect, you will probably have spent the blackest periods of your youth consoling yourself that – when you are an adult and surrounded by loved-ones – you will be able to dress how you want and no-one will bat an eyelid. You will have embraced this belief with a conviction akin to a religious principle; assuming you will mature in an environment that encourages you to be the person you want to be; knowing with the same certainty as you know the sun will rise tomorrow that you will be accepted for who you are. To discover now that this beautiful dream of a transgender utopia was a self-deluding myth all along will be very heard to bear.
Step Eleven In light of your misplaced trust in the fundamental magnanimity of the world, clumsily tell your parents the real reason why your relationship with the grown-up bank manager from Llandudno didn’t work out. Don’t tell them straight away, of course: let them draw the truth out of you slowly and painfully, like a rusty blade from a wound. Be so shell-shocked when they react to your news as if you’ve just sprayed them with a pungent gut-full of hot sick, that you agree never to speak of it with them again. In a bewildered daze of betrayal, accede to their request to keep your sartorial tendencies a secret from the rest of the family. Limp on in a state of numb emotional shock for a month or two, but then apply for – and get – a teaching post in a private school in a village about eight miles west of Nairobi.
Step Twelve Provided you can cope with periods of debilitating depression, the twin strategies of periodically running away to another country and ensuring you are constantly extremely busy (with, for example, amateur dramatics and part-time postgraduate study), should enable you to keep your sense of unfilled transgender longing more-or-less at bay for several years. Bear in mind, however, that these distractions are precisely that – distractions – and the true source of your nagging dissatisfaction with the world (i.e. your wish to have been born someone else) will always catch up with you in the end.
Step Thirteen As if to exact a kind of twisted revenge on the bank manager from Llandudno (who, you can’t help but feel, abandoned you when you were at your lowest ebb), treat all women appallingly. Moreover, adopt relationships with wholly inappropriate women as projects: make getting them to fall in love with you – only to drop them without warning like a steaming bag of used nappies – a source of personal amusement and gratification. (If you can find any, women with religious beliefs totally incompatible with your own agnosticism work best for this.) Occasionally tell one of these women a version of the truth about yourself, but only when you will not be hurt by their sudden refusal to see you or answer your calls.
Step Fourteen Give psychotherapy a go, but have very low expectations of the outcome: psychotherapists are a poor substitute for good friends. Spend a brief period taking anti-depressant medication. This medication works by knocking the extremes off your emotional repertoire. Think of it as like peering out at the world through a letter-box: you can still see the middle-part of everything, but can no longer see what’s going on at the peripheries. Emotionally, you will function in a sort of anaesthesia. You won’t enjoy any extremes of joy, excitement or enthusiasm, but you won’t experience any lows of disappointment, heart-break or boredom, either.
Step Fifteen Stop taking anti-depressant drugs when you realise you can no longer string complex sentences together. Your verbal wit and erudition, remember, are important components of your ego and self-image, and without the gift of the gab, you fear becoming a shadow of your former self. Decide that occasionally collapsing in tears on the bathroom floor is a reasonable trade for the potential to get really giddy and carried away sometimes.
Step Sixteen Following another decade of alternately fleeing across continents and distracting yourself with ludicrously ambitious projects (such as an unsuccessful marriage), finally meet someone who does not run screaming for the hills when you tell them you hate your own body and the social space it occupies. Allow this person to nurture the female part of your personality, and to teach you the rudiments of what clothes suit you and which don’t. Although it may seem incredible, trust this person to find you as attractive as they say they do, and, when they pick you up off the bathroom floor for the fifth Sunday in a row, to guide you as you make a plan to start living full-time in your preferred gender role.
Step Seventeen Now that you can finally start wearing the clothes you’ve always wanted to, discover a heretofore unrealised capacity for taking pride in your own appearance. Watch what you eat and start to lose weight. Be disciplined in your ability to stick to a schedule of exercise. Enrol for pilates classes to improve your posture, and practise walking in heels without appearing like a new-born foal. Have a skin-care regime, and invest in professional hair-removal. For the first time in your life, dare to enjoy shopping for clothes. Never forget, however, that you have not become someone’s project – they are helping you like this because they genuinely fancy you in women’s clothes; whatever you do, never, never take their tutelage so much for granted that there is no room in the relationship for anyone other than you.
Step Eighteen Ask your GP to refer you to the Gender Identity Clinic in Hammersmith. For most people, funding their own gender-reassignment surgery is prohibitively expensive. If you think you may eventually seek surgery but are unlikely to inherit a fortune from a rich, hitherto unknown uncle in Argentina – nor unless you are planning a hugely successful diamond heist – Hammersmith hospital is the only route available to you in the UK that you won’t have to pay for yourself. The waiting list for an appointment at the clinic is eye-wateringly long, however (somewhere in the region of twelve months for the first appointment, with anything up to two years before your first psychiatric assessment), so if you are sure of the road you are about to embark upon, do yourself a favour and go private as well.
Step Nineteen To jump through the necessary hoops to obtain a prescription for feminising hormones, submit to the scrutiny of another psychotherapist. Be sure to give the appearance of suffering because of your gender dysphoria, but don’t over-do it: you need to strike a balance between seeming to have the potential to lapse into depressive episodes, and otherwise being emotionally stoic enough to overcome societal opposition to your preferred gender role. If you come across as too fragile (or, indeed, as a candidate for taking a machine gun into a multiplex cinema), you will be diagnosed as depressive rather than gender dysphoric, and treated for that instead.
Step Twenty Plan to tell the people around you – and who will be affected by your decision – of your transition from Matthew to Abigail (to pick two names completely at random) in simple stages. To achieve this, it may be helpful to compartmentalise the different areas of your social and professional life. This will enable you to plan the most appropriate way to manage the process of ‘coming out’ with each group. Think of this as a series of mentoring sessions: perverse as it may sound, the people you tell of your desire to transition will require your help to adjust to the new you. Be prepared to encounter a broad spectrum of reactions, from absolute indifference to out-and-out hostility, via a hearty helping of discomfort and embarrassment, and baffling rejection. Indifference is best (these are your true friends), but if anyone puts their hand on your shoulder and says, “I just want you to know, I don’t have a problem with it,” punch them in the face, for they are hypocrites.
Step Twenty-One Far be it from me to tell you which metaphor to choose when describing your gender transition, but unless you are absolutely convinced that you are setting free the woman (or man) who has always lived inside you, think of your transformation as a process of carving out a social space for yourself that is more congruent with your self-image. Accordingly, there is a great deal you can do in order to help the people around you see you – and treat you – more like the woman (or man) you want to be. Wear clothes that suit you; either via diet and exercise, complex undergarments, minor surgery, or a combination of all three, work hard to maintain the physical shape you want; learn to walk and sit like a woman (or a man); and spend some time with a voice coach. By doing these things, you are not being vain or self-indulgent: rather, you are negotiating how the world sees you, and the easier you make it for people to perceive you as female (or male), the more readily you will be accepted and normalised into your new gender role.
Step Twenty-One-and-a-Half Beware, however, of falling into the trap called ‘spend more money to become a better transvestite’, for it can lead to personal bankruptcy. Having spent years closeted away, the temptation to have an almighty splurge on clothes and shoes and cosmetics and surgery and hairdressing and depilation and deportment classes can be very strong, but there is an entire parasitic industry devoted to helping men become more convincing women (and vice versa) that has no compunction whatsoever about separating insecure transsexuals from their dwindling supplies of cash. Budget accordingly. You will inevitably spend more than you did on sartorial essentials in your previous gender role, but think about how much – per month – a genetic man or woman would ordinarily spend on their appearance, and try to stick to a limit.
Step Twenty-Two Be nice to the gatekeepers of key waystations on your transgender journey. No matter how patronised a doctor’s receptionist makes you feel; nor how spectacularly a psychotherapist may waste your time; nor how foolish an endocrinologist makes you appear; nor how blithely a plastic surgeon parts you from your money; nor how insignificantly you are treated by the bureaucrats of your national and local governments; bear in mind that these people hold your future happiness in their hands, and to upset them will achieve nothing other than to further delay the realisation of your ambitions. Save your Foucauldian outrage for a more sympathetic audience: none of your encounters with clinicians and administrators will be meetings of equals. Do not take it for granted that everyone believes that your body is your own to do with as you please. Remember that you live in a country where you aren’t even allowed to decide for yourself when and where you can smoke a cigarette, so do not assume that you are considered capable of choosing for yourself what you put in, stick on, cut off, and turn inside out on your own body. Lots of people will prophesy doom for any actions you wish to take. They are paid to do this, and some actually believe it is their moral duty to tell you what you can and cannot do with the only thing in the world that can rightfully be said to belong to you – that is, the meat hanging off your bones. When you are told which hoops you must jump through next in order to bring you a few steps closer to what you want, smile and nod, and promise to heed the instructions of the doctors, clinicians, pharmacists, surgeons, solicitors and therapists with the power to grant your wishes.
Step Twenty-Three You may find yourself reflecting on the sacrifices you have had to make in order to seize the right to do what you want with your life. From time-to-time, you may wonder what would have happened if you’d just kept your mouth shut: you probably wouldn’t have needed to exchange depression for unemployment, for instance; self-deceit for social isolation, and public acceptance for a good measure of unsolicited abuse. Occasionally take time to wonder whether all the hassle is worth it, and always decide that it is.
Barry Humphries is the fictional creation of Australian writer, comedian and male-impersonator, ‘Dame’ Edna Everage. Everage was born in Melbourne in 1934, and started her show-business career appearing in plays and comedy sketches. The character of Barry Humphries was created for the 1955 revue, ‘Return Fare’, and Humphries was such a hit that Everage was soon playing him at comedy clubs and making guest-appearances as Humphries on Australian television. In the 1960s, Humphries was introduced to London audiences during Everage’s act at The Establishment club, and to American audiences in an off-Broadway show in the 1970s. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Everage’s alter-ego was a staple of British television, and she continues to perform as Barry Humphries on stage and screen in America and England. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph this month, Everage entered the debate on the right of transgender women to identify as female. Asked what she thought about fellow Australian Germaine Greer’s assertion on the BBC’s Newsnight programme (October 2015) that male-to-female transsexuals are not women – and never can be – Everage is reported to have said, “I agree with Germaine! You’re a mutilated man, that’s all. Self-mutilation, what’s all this carry on? Caitlyn Jenner – what a publicity-seeking ratbag. It’s all given the stamp – not of respectability, but authenticity or something.” Everage’s comments begin to make some sense in relation to a tendency in contemporary popular culture to assume that transgender is a phenomenon to be celebrated, and that Caitlyn Jenner is somehow courageous and heroic in her preparedness to talk about her transgender experiences for money. I want to argue, however, that transgender is not an institution that needs ‘celebrating’, and that transgender people do not need to be treated by the media with the same sort of deference – and in the same hyperbolic terms – as war veterans and cancer survivors. Instead, the greatest courtesy transgender people could be paid would be to be allowed, simply, to be different, and to be able to navigate twenty-first century social, political and economic life without having barriers of ignorance thrown up in our way.
Barry Humphries’ comments about Caitlyn Jenner seem to be a storm-in-a-teacup backlash against the apparent ubiquity of transgender people in popular culture. It is perhaps unfortunate for Humphries and Germaine Greer that Caitlyn Jenner’s award as one of Glamour magazine’s ‘Women of the Year’ coincides with the season in which Eddie Redmayne is nominated for a brace of film prizes (including an Oscar) for his portrayal of Art Deco-era transsexual Lili Elbe in ‘The Danish Girl’, the Amazon Studios TV series ‘Transparent’ has made such a favourable impression on critics, and Laverne Cox has been on the cover of Time beside the headline ‘The Transgender Tipping Point’. These three people have received such a disproportionate amount of media attention that anyone who is even a little bit transphobic can be forgiven for fearing that a transgender takeover of public life is only an application of lip-gloss away. Humphries and Greer can relax, however. Fortunately for them, the legacy of Jenner, Redmayne and Cox will be that a transgender person only has the right to a place in the public’s collective affection if they are either pretty or glamorous, or both – attributes which are, by their very nature, superficial and fleeting. Can you remember the name of the Portuguese male-to-female transsexual who won Endemol UK’s ‘Big Brother’ programme in 2004? How about the name of the transgender Wachowski sibling, who was at least half-responsible for ‘The Matrix’ trilogy; or the New York actor, nightclub singer and activist, who, between 1951 and 1953, became one of the first high-profile Americans to undergo gender reassignment surgery and be prescribed feminising hormones?
No? And those are just three examples of transsexuals who can, by any mainstream definition, be described as attractive. Heaven help transsexuals on whom the media does not bestow the gift of being considered sexy. Boxing promoter Frank Maloney became Kellie Maloney in August 2014; American soldier-turned-Wikileaks-snitch, Bradley Manning, announced her transition to Chelsea exactly a year earlier. Both of them were briefly all over the news, but then, as quickly as they were pulled into the spotlight, they were discarded by the media machine, and, at the time, neither Barry Humphries nor Germaine Greer sought to make hysterical predictions of a trans-apocalypse. Just as Nadia Almada, Lana Wachowski and Christine Jorgensen have passed out of our celebrity-consciousness, so will Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner and Lili Elbe (who has, let’s face it, remained more or less anonymous for the last 85 years).
The current media visibility of a handful of transgender women – which is conditional upon them being deemed beautiful by cultural consensus – is not something engineered by the transgender community. It is the media’s hunger for something a little bit out-of-the-ordinary that has made a celebrity out of Caitlyn Jenner. Jenner’s agent has exploited this and turned it into dollars, but that cannot, by any process of extraction, be regarded as the fault of transgender people generally. The silent transgendered majority are not courting publicity, and they aren’t marching on government buildings demanding to be celebrated. Humphries’ and Greer’s shared outrage shouldn’t be directed at trans-culture, therefore, but at a popular press obsessed with fame for fame’s sake, and at a media which deifies the shallow and exults the inconsequential (and to which, ironically, Humphries and Greer owe their continued livelihoods).
I didn’t transition because I wanted to be celebrated: I did it because to not to made me horribly depressed. I would lose days to a debilitating misery; curled foetal in a corner and sobbing for air as if I was drowning. On many evenings, I would cry myself to sleep, but then have dreams haunted by a sense of unfulfilled longing to become someone else – someone female. I don’t know why I didn’t want to be a man anymore (although I have many theories), but I do know that it made me thoroughly and desperately unhappy not to able to look how I wanted, dress how I wanted, and occupy the space in the world that I wanted.
I was fortunate enough to meet someone who recognised these crippling bouts of melancholy for what they probably were – nervous exhaustion from the emotional energy I expended ignoring my reflection in the mirror and forcing myself to put on a shirt-and-tie for work every Monday morning. She was the one who dragged me to a GP to begin the process of full-time transition, and I will never be able to adequately show her how grateful I am that she was brave enough to make the decision I was too shattered to make for myself.
There is no avoiding the plain fact, however, that taking the step of living full-time in female role has necessitated enormous sacrifice; by transitioning, I have lost a great deal. Most conspicuously, I appear to have committed career suicide: whilst I was once on the way to becoming head-teacher of my own school, I now have to content myself with scraps of supply-teaching work in schools too desperate to object to the presence of a transgender woman in their classrooms. I have lost friends (who, I now see, didn’t meet the main criteria for being friends after all – that of unconditional support), and, two years on, there are still some members of my small family who haven’t quite yet wrapped their heads around who I am becoming.
I was also dropped from the amateur dramatics group with whom I had enjoyed five years of fame and glory playing leading comic roles to increasingly exclusive audiences in versions of operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan. I started attending rehearsals in female role half-way through my last production with them, and, as soon as they got the chance, the committee bumped me from the top of the bill to the back row of the chorus quicker than you can say “A British tar is a soaring soul”. This silly and trivial fall from grace shouldn’t bother me, but I had thought that, of all social environments, amateur dramatics ought to be one of the most tolerant and all-embracing. Theatricals is, when all said and done, a haven for a wide spectrum of attention-seekers, eccentrics, neurotics, show-offs, control-freaks, nerds, has-beens, pedants, hysterics, frustrated actors, frustrated singers, frustrated dancers, overt (and undecided) homosexuals, day-dreamers, wannabes, egotists, narcissists, the pathologically talentless, and people on the lookout for an extra-marital affair. Surely, I assumed, there was a place amongst that lot for a transgender woman brave enough to step out of the closet?
Apparently not, and it hurt to realise that that west London Gilbert and Sullivan society was just as prissy, conservative and inward-looking as the larger organisations from which I had already been excluded. The artificial bubble of amateur dramatics turned out to be a microcosm of the rejection and alienation I was experiencing elsewhere in the world, and I was learning the hard way that it is okay to be different, provided you’re different in a way that is easily comprehensible and socially sanctioned.
If anything about my transgender journey should be celebrated, it is my ability to continue to strive towards what I want despite the considerable weight of institutionalised opposition stacked against me. (And it is a never-ending journey: an ultimately unattainable ambition of who I want to be; like Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, “all experience is an arch wherethro’/ Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades/ For ever and for ever when I move.”)
At certain key junctures, society has appointed gatekeepers who I must persuade to grant me licence to pass onto the next phase of my journey; chillingly, it is on the opinion of these individuals and committees that certain aspects of my future depend. Furthermore, the list of gatekeepers I have in mind is a long and a daunting one: from the school managers with the power to end my career, to the doctors I need to refer me for gender-identity counselling; from the Home Office officials who need convincing to allow me to put an F in the appropriate box on my passport so that I can wear what I want wherever I want, to the psychiatrists who must be persuaded to sanction my request to take feminising hormones or undergo cosmetic surgery; from the cousin who insists on buying me boxer-shorts for Christmas, to the friend who has the power of veto over whether I attend her daughter’s christening in my new gender role; from the governments that legislate on the entitlement of transgender people to the recognition they desire, to light-entertainers who stir up discrimination by accusing me of self-mutilation.
The title of this blog entry comes from the inside-sleeve of Pulp’s 1995 album, ‘Different Class’. It is a neat summary of how I currently feel about my place in the world. I don’t want ‘celebrating’: I just want to be able to navigate my way through life without the institutions on which I depend for my health, wealth and well-being erecting cruel and unnecessary obstacles to my right to live a fulfilling life and make a meaningful contribution to society.
In October 2015, writer, academic, cultural-commentator and intellectual provocatrix Germaine Greer was due to give a lecture at Cardiff University entitled ‘Women and Power: Lessons of the 20th Century’. When over eight hundred students at the university signed a petition accusing Greer of espousing transphobic views and demanding that her appearance be cancelled, however, Greer withdrew of her own accord, saying in an interview for BBC’s Newsnight, “I’m getting a bit old for all this… I don’t want to go down there and be screamed at and have things thrown at me. Bugger it.” Greer’s views on transgender women are not new, however. She wrote a short article for The Guardian newspaper in 2009 describing male-to-female transsexuals as “some kind of ghastly parody”, but has breathed new life into the debate with similar statements last month about Caitlyn Jenner (who, Greer suggests, “wanted the limelight that the other, female, members of the family were enjoying”). It is easy to demonise Greer for advocating such unfashionable views (that transgenderism is a “delusion”, for example), and tempting to feel that some sort of justice has been served by her own college at Cambridge University – Newnham – voting not to award her an honorary doctorate this year, but Greer’s comments should not be so readily dismissed. Polarised positions like Greer’s shed interesting light on the debate about exactly what it means to be transgender; how we would should define it; and what our aims are when we seek to change our gender role. In this posting, then, I attempt to reach my own understanding of what it means to be transgender, and argue that, from a certain point of view, Germaine Greer’s views about the transgender community are not entirely wrong.
In 2009, Germaine Greer wrote an article for The Guardian newspaper about the controversy surrounding South African athlete Caster Semenya, who was rewarded for her superhuman performance in the women’s 800m at the athletics World Championships that year by being subjected to a lengthy and humiliating investigation into how female she really was. Greer argued that Semenya was the victim of medical ineptitude from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that bordered on misogyny, and in her article she observed that Semenya’s treatment would cause outrage if it occurred in any other aspect of civilian life, including in the way society is conditioned to treat male-to-female transsexuals:
“Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women’s names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn’t polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man’s delusion that he is female.”
Simply changing the way you dress and the pronouns you use about yourself, Greer argues, doth not a woman make. Consideration of the essence woman, furthermore, cannot ignore the biology of ovulation, menstruation or the menopause, and no surgical procedure for gender transition can ever transplant a working uterus or simulate periods. Not satisfied with that damning assessment of transsexuality, Greer then challenges the two social tenets of changing your gender: namely, that you are a woman (a) if you think you are, and (b) if other people think you are. “Unfortunately,” Greer writes, “(b) cannot be made to follow from (a).”
Germaine Greer’s comments seem designed to upset. On a bad day, when you’re worried about how convincingly you pass as female, or when you’re feeling shapeless and blokeish, you would be forgiven for wishing she’d just keep her opinions to herself, but Greer’s views cannot be divorced from her political philosophy and the moral context in which she espouses them. Germaine Greer is a feminist: by definition, her life’s work is concerned with the ongoing struggle for political, economic, spiritual, cultural, social and personal equality for women; for women to achieve equity with men’s opportunities for education and employment; for women to gain political and social recognition that is equal to that of men; for women’s accomplishments to be to be recognised with the same acclaim as those of men; and for this to be achieved by women who still remain true to the spirit of womanhood – not by women who become parodies of men, or adopt masculine traits in order to succeed in a world defined by men. (Feminists, therefore, must also seek to redefine the world so that men aren’t calling all the shots, and so achievement is not defined according to masculine norms and assumptions.)
From a feminist perspective, a male-to-female transsexual who asserts their right to be thought of as a woman is, by doing so, contributing to the oppression of women. Not content with dominating professional, political and cultural life, a man who then demands to be treated as female is trespassing on women’s turf; hijacking the privileges and pleasures of womanhood at the same time as benefiting from the social advantages of (once) being a man. Should men be allowed to dominate women to such an extent that, with a little bit surgery and a new wardrobe, they can even claim to be women? To add insult to injury, from Greer’s perspective, male-to-female transsexuals usually don’t even look, sound, or behave like women; they are, to use the phrase employed in an unpublished Observer article in 2013 by middle-class, middle-England mouthpiece Julie Burchill, “a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.”
In October 2015, students at Cardiff University submitted a petition arguing that Greer should be barred from delivering a lecture there on the grounds that she holds “misogynistic views towards transwomen”. With characteristic wisdom, Greer cancelled her lecture, saying that she was not confident she would be able to enter into reasoned debate with opponents of her views, and that her appearance in Cardiff would almost certainly degenerate into heckling, being shouted down, and, in all likelihood, threats to her physical safety. While this storm in a teacup raged, Greer was interviewed by Kirsty Wark for BBC2’s Newsnight programme. During this interview, Greer was asked for her opinion on the probability that Caitlyn Jenner would receive an award from Glamour magazine as one of 2015’s ‘Women of the Year’. Greer’s response to Jenner’s accolade was, predictably, incredulous, and she questioned the legitimacy of describing Jenner’s transition as ‘brave’. The decision to change one’s gender does demand an enormous amount of courage (as anyone who has tried it knows), but the presence of an entourage paid to be supportive must have helped cushion the blow for Jenner considerably. The decision to transition, additionally, cannot be said to be more brave (or likely to attract more criticism and abuse) than sticking your head above the parapet on behalf of any other minority group, as Greer pointed out to Kirsty Wark on Newsnight: “It is simply not true that intersexual people suffer in a way that other people don’t suffer… Try being an old woman”.
Then there is the likelihood that the eagerness of popular culture to take Caitlyn Jenner to its bosom depends, to a great extent, on Jenner’s glamorous, red-carpet strolling, bare-all, lavishly expensive version of womanhood. If Jenner had not spent the best part of $200,000 on surgery in order to fit the Hollywood ideal of what a woman should look like, would she be being lauded as loudly as she is in gaudy, celebrity-obsessed publications like Glamour magazine? With this in mind, how much of a role can toilet-paper-for-the-eyes like E! Network’s ‘I am Cait’ really play in educating the viewing public into a greater understanding of transgender people? ‘I am Cait’ can no more claim to be teaching people about transgender than it can claim to be enlightening them on what it’s like to be vastly wealthy, completely obsessed with your appearance and public image, and inexplicably famous.
Caitlyn Jenner has no more in common with me than the people who shop at the same supermarket as I do. Just because both of us have made the (courageous) decision to change our gender does not make us comrades, colleagues, soul-mates or similars. And because the version of femininity Jenner promotes is so far removed from most women’s everyday experience of struggling for equal pay and equal representation – at the same time as creating and maintaining a family – Jenner cannot be said to be a shibboleth of the ‘normal’ woman either. In fact, Jenner’s pop-cultural status means that she is contributing to a view of women not as artistic, scientific, political or social pioneers, but as decorative clothes-hangers, sex-objects and eye-candy. You don’t need to be Germaine Greer to believe that that is a retrograde step for the feminist cause.
In October 2015, the Dutch version of the TV series ‘America’s Next Top Model’ (called, predictably, ‘Holland’s Next Top Model’) crowned the franchise’s first transgender winner: 20 year-old Loiza Lameras. This ‘event’ was hailed by commentators on this sort of thing as a victory both for the transgender community (who can now pass themselves off almost flawlessly as beautiful women), and for the magnanimity of TV producers and the general public (who can now accept transgender people as one of their own). But why celebrate a victory by anyone in a contest that is, by definition, a shallow display of skin-deep beauty? Forums of competitive sex-appeal are quintessentially misogynous; Miss World pageants are tawdry, outdated, end-of-the-pier shows sponsored by phallo-ratchiks like Donald Trump – who is someone you wouldn’t let your daughter go on a date with, let alone entrust with defining what it means to be beautiful or, indeed, female.*
If Greer is simply stating that fashion shows and beauty pageants are sexist; if it is her view that everyone who participates – including transgender people – is complicit in the perpetuation of that sexism; if she holds that transsexuals’ problems are no greater or smaller than those of any other social group; if she believes that male-to-female transsexuals in the public eye are compounding the perception that women need to be young, skinny and beautiful in order to find acceptance; then she is absolutely right.
However: Germaine Greer’s definition of womanhood seems predicated on characteristics determined by biological sex. What she ignores in her allegations that transsexuals are deluded in thinking that cosmetics and surgery are all that are required to change from one sex to another – and in her stubborn refusal to use the pronouns transgender people choose for themselves – is that gender is not the same as sex. While sex is chromosomally determined, gender is traditionally held to be culturally constructed. When a transgender person chooses ‘he’ or ‘she’ as the way they would like other people to refer to them, they are not staking a claim to a particular biological sex, but to a preferred gender role. In her book ‘Gender Trouble’ (Routledge, 1990), furthermore, Judith Butler argues that gender cannot be taken as a binary distinction between male and female. In Butler’s view, gender is a social performance, but not one given according to a script that represents a predetermined gender identity: the performance is all there is; there are no concrete truths concerning what it means to be male or female hiding behind it. Gender is, therefore, what we make it via our enactment of it, and if the performance of gender is not an expression of universal laws, then it must be an act that results in the constitution of gender itself.
Where does that leave me and my attempts to understand what being transgender means for me? I do not, for instance, hold with the idea that there is, and always has been, a woman inside me, and, in order to let her out, I have to modify my body and my wardrobe accordingly. I have no more idea what it means to be – or feel like – a woman than I have to be (or feel like) a man. I cannot begin to differentiate between thinking like a woman and thinking like a man, and so it seems ridiculous for me to claim to be a woman trapped inside a man’s body. I agree with Germaine Greer that the media’s coverage of Caitlyn Jenner contributes to – rather than goes some way towards alleviating – sexism in those sections of the media and popular culture obsessed with fashion, body image and physical beauty. I do not sanction Greer’s semantic refusal to grant people the right to self-identify in the way that is best for them by selecting their own gender-specific pronouns, but I do find myself seduced by Judith Butler’s argument that gender is a social performance that leads to its own creation. I would not deny that sexism is a deep-rooted and invidious social issue, but I do not think the balance can be redressed by taking swipes at transsexuals.
I was not born a biological woman, and I know that I never will be completely satisfied with my own body. But I also know that that is true of anyone who would like to lose a little weight, have bigger boobs or smaller boobs; wishes their nose was straighter; uses moisturisers to try and arrest the physical rigours of age; goes to the gym; or who has straight hair permed and curly hair relaxed. No-one is ever one hundred percent happy with the way that they look, and transgender people cannot claim to suffer more than most in that regard. What I can do, however, is exercise some control over the way people treat me. If I want the world to treat me less like a man and more like a woman, then there are things I can do to help lend authenticity to my performance. I can dress in a way that suits me, undertake voice coaching to feminise the way that I speak, acquire the appearance of breasts, and behave in a way that matches my preferred gender role. I can, in short, help other people perceive me as more female than male by mediating how the world responds to the face I present to it. And that, for now, is the closest I can come to defining my own version of being transgender: I can’t expect people to understand (or care about) how male or female I feel inside, but I can have a direct impact on how female is the social space created for me; and I can go on being good at the things I’m good at, loving the people who matter to me, and liking the things I do, in order to ensure that my chosen gender isn’t the only thing about me that people notice.