The Symmetrical Face

Between August 2003 and October 2004, I wasted an awful lot of my spare time writing a novel entitled ‘The Symmetrical Face’.  It was, I thought then, a clever and entertaining exploration of how the life of a young, professional, heterosexual man could go wholly down the toilet if he mishandled the process of coming out as a transvestite (which, at the time, was how I thought it most accurate to describe myself), told in elegant prose, and with a Wodehousian gift for balancing epigrammatic sub-clauses with well-placed semicolons.  The end result was a little over 100,000 riveting, ground-breaking, tragi-comic words, which I would never have bothered finishing at all if the woman I was living with at the time (and on whom the character of Camilla was largely based) hadn’t read an early draft of the first three chapters and expressed a degree of horror regarding the social and professional consequences for her of it ever being published.  Her faith in the likelihood of an agent being impressed by my manuscript inspired me, ironically enough, to return to the story a few years later and finish it.  Sadly, however, her fears were unfounded, and, by the beginning of 2005, I had nothing to show for ‘The Symmetrical Face’ but a fistful of polite but unequivocal rejection letters.  Like every aspiring artist with a fragile ego, my response was to shove the disks containing my chapters in a drawer and forget about them.  Recently, though, I have found myself drawn back to the story: as matters transgender become increasingly common in the media and entertainment, as well as in social and political life, I find myself wondering whether there might be more of an appetite for my book now, and whether I ought to try sending a few thousand words of it to a handful of literary agents again.  It needs tidying up and trimming down, of course: the first draft, for example, contains far too many obscure references to the life of Frida Kahlo, and describes Rolf Harris in terms that seem wholly inappropriate in light of new information about his sexual conduct.  In order to spur myself on, therefore, I have rewritten the first chapter, and present it here with a request for feedback that I hope doesn’t come across as too needy.  At the risk of sounding like an internet attention whore, I would love to know whether anyone is interested in reading more.  If I do receive encouragement, I will start editing and redrafting the subsequent chapters, and serialise the whole story here.  If not…  Well, I shall probably delete this post and pretend the conversation never happened.  Be brutal, darling; be brutal.

 symmetrical-face

Chapter One

When Camilla and I moved into The Lighthouse, I knew I would forever remember this as the most special time in our relationship.  When I was very young, I saw a film that, with the exception of the opening sequence, I can barely remember.  I can’t recall the plot, any of the characters, or even the film’s title.  All I can recollect is the way it opened with a lightning quick tour of all the inlets and cliff-faces of Britain’s coastline.  In grainy black and white, the camera thundered around the fjords of Mallaig and Cromarty; galloped over the deserted mudflats of Cromer and Lowestoft; skipped through the docks at Folkestone and Weymouth; weaved between the cliffs and rocky outcrops of Gower and Bardsey; and skimmed over the beaches of Blackpool and Morecambe.  This listing, lurching journey ended as abruptly as it had begun: at the foot of a lighthouse on a promontory washed by the turbulent, grey Irish Sea.  The images in this short film, whipping headily past the eye, haunted me throughout childhood, so when Camilla announced that her bank had acquired the property known as The Lighthouse, I knew before I’d even seen it that I would be infatuated and enchanted by the place.

Which I was.  The Lighthouse stood strong and tall at the end of a causeway projecting a short way out to sea from the mainland.  It was striped red and white like a candy cane in an American cartoon.  The day we drove up to see it was one drenched in glorious sunshine, and the sea around the rocks and caves was blue and still.  The hexagons of glass at the apex of the lighthouse scintillated like burnished silver in the brilliant, clear azure sky.  The estate agent’s tour was wholly superfluous: there was no way we were ever going to ignore the opportunity to live somewhere as uniquely idyllic as this, irrespective of how much work we would have to do on the structure ourselves.  Camilla had recently been promoted by the bank for which she worked.  Her new job carried many perks, including a generous sum of money to assist with the cost of relocating.  We would have to find a substantial amount from somewhere ourselves, we realised, but we were certain it would be worth it: The Lighthouse was like somewhere from a dream.

A newer, automated, more dependable lighthouse had been constructed a small distance further along the coast.  As a result, the old one had been converted and had its beacon decommissioned, but all the antiquated equipment was still locked away in the glasshouse on the roof.  At the base of the structure was a gravel drive fringed on two sides by lines of sturdy sycamore trees.  On the inland face, a flight of five concrete steps led to the small front door that opened into a tiny vestibule and a wooden staircase that turned a right angle onto the first floor.  Here, where the building was thickest, was a sitting room that Camilla filled with cushions and rugs and drapes.  Another staircase led up to the kitchen and the dining room, with its black and white checked floor tiles.  From here, as the lighthouse tapered towards a narrow point, a tight, wrought-iron spiral staircase led up to the study and the guest bedroom.  More steps then twisted up to the master bedroom with its gorgeous windows in every wall.  On the fifth floor was another small sitting room.  On the day I moved out, this room still contained the boxes of stuff we’d never got around to unpacking.  The bathroom was on this floor as well.  That room was a palace of ferns and mirrors and candles, with an Olympic swimming pool-sized bathtub where Camilla and I drank champagne and swallowed oysters we pretended we’d caught ourselves and built the daydream castles of our future.  A ceiling hatch opened into an airlock that in turn permitted access to the iron gantry that haloed the beacon house.  From here, an open staircase circled down to the ground, clinging to the steep slope of the outside walls before meeting the ground on the side that overlooked the ocean.  It was over an hour’s drive to the nearest small town, but there was a wooden jetty for a rowing boat; a wholesome breeze; the endless panorama of the ocean to the west; gently undulating countryside rolling away to the east; the perpetual music of the water slapping against the shore; an obscene mortgage to pay; but we didn’t care if we never saw another human being ever again.

Like the first day of the summer holidays after your first year at school, this was a time of infinite and exciting potentiality.  We had an eternity of days and years ahead of us, and a mutually unexplored ocean to navigate and explore together.  In this continent, we were so strong we could deflect bullets, and we found one another so fascinating and sexually alluring we would never tire of one another’s company.  This, I was convinced, was the beginning of our conjoined life.  We would weather whatever the world hurled at us together, sharing every inch of ourselves and every moment of our existences.  It would be perfect.  We would be perfect.  Camilla was perfect.  I loved her wholly and totally, with, in reverse order of proximity to the ground, my head and my heart and my libido.  On our first morning in The Lighthouse, as we stood in the ground floor lobby with our books, clothes and belongings spilling out of tea-chests and trunks around us, there was a wonderful and magical sense of standing at the threshold of an undiscovered country.  That glorious feeling of beginning-ness grew and intensified as we gradually started finding the perfect places for our possessions – as, indeed, we lined our nest.

In the principal months of our inhabitation of The Lighthouse, I discovered – to my infinite delight – that I was nowhere near as hopeless at housekeeping and DIY as everyone (including myself) had feared I might be.  I soon became adept at putting on door handles upside down, and hanging wallpaper with Polyfilla.  In no time at all, I could build flat-packed furniture in less than eight days, and I quickly had grand and ambitious plans to nail down a bit of carpet on the first floor landing and move the television into the attic bedroom.

These were the glory days, fully two years before David’s fatal illness.  At that time, I was so highly regarded at work that I was granted a munificent six-month secondment from my teaching post at the college, during which I was supposed to be conducting research for my PhD and getting set up for the rest of my life.  My career at St. Catherine’s was to be so long and prosperous, evidently, that the Principal wanted my domestic circumstances firmly established.  Initially, I filled this time with home repairs and preparations for the thesis I never get round to writing.  At home, Camilla managed our finances, and I took care of the important things, like tuning in the video and tidying the cupboard under the stairs.  I astounded myself by becoming a reasonable cook, and worked on improving my personal best for ironing shirts (a record which eventually plateaued at twenty minutes per shirt).  I claimed my new enthusiasm for practical household matters was postmodern and detached, but secretly, I adored every moment of it.  I started watching television programmes where teams of camp fops wrecked one another’s houses by turning their living-rooms into mediæval banqueting halls and Turkish bordellos.  Suddenly, I knew what a throw was when used as a noun; the difference between a sconce and wainscoting ceased to elude me; and I could confidently point out which colour was mauve – even if it was side-by-side with taupe.  I began to form opinions on upholstery, and always kept a colour chart by the bed in case I got any nocturnal urges.  I could hold my own in discussions over stencilling, and positively pore over the IKEA catalogue when Camilla was watching.  For the first time in my life, I was rubbing shoulders was plasterers, carpet fitters and feng-shui experts.  I became highly skilled at rubbing my hands and frowning at monumental home improvement tasks, sucking knowingly on my teeth with my head cocked on one side, chortling, “It’ll cost you, love,” in a Cockney accent.  I acquired a multiplying collection of tools in a durable plastic carry-case – some of which I even knew the function of.  I could tell the difference between a Philips-head screwdriver and whatever the other kind is called.  I owned a rich variety of different styles of nail, including some with crinkly edges, which a friend of Camilla’s later informed me – doubtless due to his years of do-it-yourself experience –  were called screws.

Grunting and sweating, I levered the kitchen door off its hinges and manhandled it onto the gravel outside to strip the paint off it with a lethal mixture of KY Jelly and hydrochloric acid.  Using a drill I’d borrowed, I fixed shelves to walls at daring and avant-garde angles, and put up tiles in abstract and daring patterns.  I didn’t use the drill to put up the tiles, of course: I used a non-adhesive form of gritty toothpaste, but only after using a special implement to smash them into a thousand pieces.  (Well, actually, I did briefly flirt with the idea of using the drill to put the tiles up, but had to stop when Camilla observed that I didn’t have a fucking clue what I was doing.  We argued about that, and I was forced to concede that she was fully justified in calling me a clueless bastard.)

Under such pressure, it was hardly surprising that we argued long and loud and often, although I did always ensure that I put the toilet seat down.  I did realise at this time, however, that men possess a counter offensive in the toilet seat lowering debate, which is that women rarely replace the shower-head at a level appropriate for males of average height.  Thanks to Camilla, most of my early showers in the Lighthouse began with an invigorating nipple massage.  I found arguing about trivial matters to be cleansing for the soul.  A wholesome rant about something that wasn’t important left me fatigued but warmly refreshed; going absolutely mental can be beneficial for one’s circulation and respiration.  But the best bit about arguments was always making up afterwards.  Sometimes, I think I initiated disagreements because I was subtly addicted to the fizzy, emotional rush of being subsequently forgiven, as well as the reward of an energetic session of conciliatory love-making.  In fact, I enjoyed these bouts of recently reunited screwing so much, I would end arguments as quickly as they had escalated to screaming pitch by accepting sole responsibility for whatever had caused them in the first place.  (“No, no, don’t worry about it.  It doesn’t matter; I’m just being childish.  You can buy me a birthday present next year.”)

After six months in The Lighthouse, we were proud of the eyrie we had moulded around ourselves.  We fell out periodically, but it didn’t matter.  Perversely, I got a kick out of the stomach-turning, white-knuckle roller-coaster ride of our relationship: every couple experiences peaks as well as troughs, and I vainly believed ours to be the unavoidable consequence of packing two such charismatic personalities into finite space.  I adored Camilla, and she gave the impression she was rather fond of me, too.  When she entered a room, I never ceased to buzz with a mixture of pride, excitement and adolescent embarrassment.  Thinking back now, on a good day, I would offer ten fundamental reasons why I would have lain down and died for her when we first moved into The Lighthouse…

One: I loved the fact that she had been the one to ask me on our first date.  Camilla had enrolled for the evening classes in psychology I was teaching at the college.  She had left school at sixteen, and returned as an adult to sit a couple of A-levels so that she could apply to university.  Two weeks before she sat the final examination, she had suggested we go for a drink after class.  Unromantically, my response was, “I’m sorry: I’ve just sneezed on my hand.”  She gave me a paper tissue, and despite my appearing so singularly ungallant and unsophisticated, she thought I was worth getting to know better.  Under my tutelage (or so I liked to think), she achieved quite a respectable grade, but her promotion and us finding the Lighthouse became a more attractive prospect for her than attempting to subsist in student penury.

Two: I loved the way she asked me in Spanish to kiss her.  She always accompanied this request with a smouldering, Latin-American glance that happily bridged the divide between coquettish and passionate, and I found it impossible to resist.  For a long time, I only had her word for it that kiss me was what she was saying.  She might have been telling to stick my head up a badger’s bum for all I knew, but the onomatopoeic pout of words was so lyrical and lilting, I would have kissed her anyway.  She used to tell me to fuck off in Spanish as well, but it always sounded so strange and exotic, she could’ve murdered me in a foreign language and I wouldn’t have minded.

Three: I loved it that we seemed born to sleep together.  I don’t mean this sexually: I mean it in the dreamy, eyes closed, lost in the arms of Morpheus sense.  Our sleeping forms jig-sawed with perfect compatibility.  We could even share a single bed without any irritable discomfort.  As if agoraphobic, we required only the very centre of the mattress, where we slept like child siblings in a fairy story: Camilla’s back nestled against my chest; my arm draped protectively and possessively over her hip.  Soon after dozing off, our breathing would synchronise, and we would awake next morning simultaneously, without a trace of clammy, night-time perspiration.  There were no fights over the duvet, and in the morning we would invariably be lying in the same tessellated letter V formation in which we had turned out the light.  I was very fond of listening to Camilla fall asleep.  The delicate crisp of her lips parting; her hand in mine slackening but not letting go; and the regular pant of her breathing becoming fractionally more shallow.  This sounds slushy, I know, but the little involuntary muscle spasms of her sleeping limbs made my heart melt.

Four: I loved how she hooked her hair behind her ear when it fell across her face.  This gesture was alluring, I think, because of its quintessential femininity.  If she were poised over our dining table, papers and documents spread around her, Camilla would sweep her hand over her face in a thoughtless, liquid movement to tidy stray wisps of hair behind her ears.  In the cartoon Pocahontas, there is a scene in which Captain Smith is making his way down a pier over steaming green water towards the titular heroine, who waits in a small, bobbing wooden boat.  As he gets closer, she gathers her long, black hair into her hand and scoops it over her shoulder.  She looks delightful, and this is a cartoon, for goodness’ sake, so what I am talking about?  Pocahontas would never leave her tribe for me, and I know it.

Five: I loved the fact that, when I talked, she listened.  She listened to my opinions and attitudes; she listened to my ideas and my feelings; she listened to my drunken reaffirmations; she listened to what I had to say about art and politics, and tried to remember what I’d said.  Whilst she was listening, she showed that she respected and cared about what I had to say, even though some of the things I told her must have been extraordinarily difficult to hear.  As a teacher, naturally I thought I was interesting, but Camilla’s wide-eyed attentiveness made me believe I could ramble until peace and democracy were restored to the western world.  It was the occasions when she refused to listen to me that most graphically demonstrated I had seriously erred, but I couldn’t help loving the signals she gave me by denying me the oxygen of publicity.  If I were ever excessively patronising, insulting, unreasonable or outrageous, Camilla would warn me to mend my ways with a wall of silence.  I learned from her that, sometimes, knowing when to put your fingers in your ears can be just as important as listening.

Six: Camilla remains one of the only people I’ve met prepared to stick her finger up my bottom.  It’s difficult not to love someone for that.  I’ve read that, if men do possess a G-spot, it’s located up their arses, where the flesh of the anus can be pressed against the pubic bone.  My enthusiasm for this form of intercourse started when Camilla was exploring that region during a bath together.  I had manoeuvred my hips experimentally so that she really had no choice.  (“Do you like that?” she had asked.  I’d asked her whether she was comfortable with it, to which she’d replied, “If you like it, then I like doing it for you.  Provided I don’t end up with anything unpleasant beneath my fingernails.”)  To the uninitiated, it’s an odd sensation that can be moderately painful, but welcomely intrusive and filling.  I’m not an ambassador for anal intercourse, though.  It clearly isn’t for everyone, and, apart from anything else, the number of women prepared to bugger their boyfriends is quite small.  It isn’t an easy subject to broach, either, and a person prepared to poke their finger in another’s fundament must never, under any circumstances, be asked to make breakfast in the morning.  Camilla, however, was willing to perform this most intimate of acts.  At least, if she wasn’t, she was very good at pretending she was.  It wasn’t something I demanded every time we popped between the sheets, of course – an individual very much needs to be in the mood for easing objects up their behinds.  Selfishly, I have to admit I wouldn’t be keen to root my finger into Camilla’s rectum: here is a case when it categorically is better to receive than it is to give.

Seven: I loved her ability to teach me about myself.  Until I’d met her, I’d tended to base my self-image on how I was perceived by others.  Without praise and approval, I was nothing; if I was alone and fell over in a forest and there as no-one there to hear it, I would make no sound.  I wanted my students to find my classes riveting, laugh at my jokes, and approve of my dress sense.   I thought that a hermit’s existence must be truly awful, for we are defined by our presence in the lives of others.  Many years previously, David won a writing competition with a short story in which he described a lone figure drifting unnoticed in the spaces between other people’s lives.  This character was a hoarder of knick-knacks and bric-a-brac, which he travelled to flea markets and car boot sales to acquire.  One evening, he’s riding the bus back to his dingy flat.  He’s sitting at the back, gazing sightlessly out of the window into the gloaming, when he realises something peculiar about his reflection in the glass.  What’s peculiar is that he doesn’t have a reflection.  It’s gone.  Without contact with other human beings to nourish and feed it, the essence of himself has evaporated.  He has become nothing.  Camilla showed me, however, that my sense of identity was not dependent on the recognition of others.  She refused to over-indulge me, and demonstrated that the way you behave towards your significant other is much more important than anything you could say to them.  She didn’t spoil me, but she was always there to say well done if I’d succeeded, or tell me I’d fucked up if I needed it.  Through Camilla, I saw that the unquestioning loyalty and respect of another human being is something you have to earn and work hard to preserve.  Love is not easily won, and is never sustained by sycophancy or empty promises.  Whenever I felt unsure of the way I was conducting my life, I only needed to ask myself whether Camilla loved me.  If the answer was, all things considered, yes, then I knew I remained a decent human being.  That knowledge generated a sense of well-being that came from beautifully from within.

Eight: I loved her smile.  It was a million dollar, Hollywood, light-up-a-room smile.  She had a smile bright enough to read at night by.  She had the rare gift (which I have never had) of being able to throw on a smile even when she felt terrible.  When I’m pissed off I can’t hide it, but Camilla could mask her true feelings with a wholly radiant, beaming smile.  There was more to that smile than just making the muscles work, though.  Anyone can grin wide enough to show you their fillings, but no-one can fake that genuine twinkle in the eye like she could.  She had a giggle to match it, too.  The sort of headline-grabbing giggle that cuts through extraneous noise and creates silences, like swearing in church.  When Camilla laughed – I mean, really laughed, from her soul – people turned and stared.  For some reason, she laughed most easily when she was with me, and that made my bosom swell with pride as well.

Nine: I loved the things we had in common.  We shared the same ambitions, conceits, vanities, priorities and passions.  We also shared the same jealousies, insecurities, prides, egocentricities and failings.  Our mutual obduracy led to times of rocky uncertainty, when the only means to achieve compromise was through a team of trained UN negotiators, but it also made us strong.  It made us aim for common goals, and feel mutual satisfaction over things we both felt to be important.  Our relationship even acquired its own slogan.  The first time Camilla tried to dump me, I told her a story about something I witnessed in a city somewhere in Eastern Europe, sitting in a pavement café on a seventeenth century market square.  “The sun beat relentlessly down over the tall, gabled town houses and onto the cobbles,” I explained, “and the capacious goblets of beer I had already drunk had taken me well beyond the point of feeling slightly tipsy.”  We had been arguing, but this made Camilla fall silent.  She stood in the centre of the kitchen, her hands on her hips and her jaw set stubbornly, expecting to be anything other than impressed by my poetic attempt to wheedle my way out of trouble.  Nervously, I continued, “I was watching this boy – he’d have been about two or three years old, and he was charging about the place, having a great time chasing pigeons and waving a great fist full of paper streamers in the air.  He was shrieking and laughing and grinning his little head off.”  Camilla was softening, I could tell.  “Then his mother grabbed him to wipe the trail of snot he’d exuded in his hysterical excitement.  He shuffled his feet and twitched while she did it, gasping to be off again waving his streamers about.  But when she’d finished and the boy was ready to hurtle off again, he couldn’t move.  A look of frustrated confusion crinkled his face.  He tugged at his arm, snuffling with tiny sounds of exertion, but his big sister was standing on his streamers.  He couldn’t wave them: they were anchored to the floor.”  Camilla let her hands fall to her sides, and I knew I’d been forgiven; that I was only moments away from a conciliatory embrace (and, hopefully, a shag too).  “That’s what you’re doing by ignoring me:” I concluded, “you’re standing on my streamers.”  And that was it.  Her heart broke and that became our watchword whenever one of us was in danger of spoiling any joint enterprise with cowardice, laziness or self-interest: you’re standing on my streamers.

Ten: most importantly, I loved the way she made me feel when I was with her.  When we were apart, I always got the uneasy feeling that one of us was in the wrong place.

If this list reads like the lyrics to a soppy love song, that’s because that’s how I felt. When we first arrived at The Lighthouse, our life was exactly like a soppy love song.  Each morning, in the beginning, I awoke with an unreal sense of how amazingly fortunate I was.  I would peel myself from our sleeping chevron embrace and skip down the wrought-iron spiral staircases to make breakfast, singing Disney tunes and grinning from ear-to-ear.  Camilla didn’t mind that I could be wimpy sometimes.  She didn’t mind that I wasn’t the sort of boyfriend she could watch playing rugby on a Saturday morning, nor that I didn’t have a square, rugged jaw-line.  She found my phobia of birds trapped indoors endearing rather than infuriating, and was very forgiving of my ignorance of car mechanics and electrical repairs.  She respected me because I wasn’t troubled by my uselessness with these things.  My self-esteem didn’t suffer under the knowledge that I was far from a trophy boyfriend.  She loved me for who I was, and it was totally reciprocal.  I was alarmed, therefore, when, at the start of our second month in the Lighthouse, she sought my opinion on cosmetic surgery.  “I’m thinking of having my tits done,” she said.

We were decorating the small, circular hallway.  I was teetering recklessly at the top of a stepladder, tentatively dabbing brush-fuls of emulsion at the ceiling of the stairwell.  Camilla was sitting on the base of the ladder to hold it steady.  She took her breasts in her hands and jiggled them illustratively.

“You want to have your boobs insured?” I asked.

“No, you idiot: enhanced.”  She looked at me.  “Wouldn’t you prefer it if I had a cleavage you could lose yourself in?”

I pondered her chest for a moment.  I liked it precisely the way it was, and told her so as I stretched out my paintbrush.  The ladder wobbled dangerously.  “I’m extremely fond of your breasts.  They’re your breasts.  I love you, ergo, I love your breasts.”  I looked down at her from my perch.  She was gazing up at me, her breasts still cupped in her hands.

“But if they were just a size or two bigger, you’d have more to play with, so to speak.  Imagine: a décolletage like Niagara Falls, all of your very own!”

“Are you winding me up?”

“No!  Big boobs are the fin de siècle status symbol.  Women can twist men around their lipsticks if they push a big chest in their face.  Men don’t prefer blondes: they prefer big jugs.  The bank is a male dominated environment.  Most of these men are so animal and basic that even a tiny bit of feminine guile is enough to manipulate them.”

“By feminine guile, do you mean big tits?”

“Well… yes!”

“But what if one of these Neanderthal dullard males tries to take more than you’re offering?” I said, sitting on the top rung, the paintbrush dangling between my knees.  “I acknowledge that any man short-sighted enough to allow a woman to walk all over him because he thinks he has even the smallest chance of sleeping with her deserves all he gets, but there are risks inherent to that kind of sexual politicking.  For starters, what if a man attempts to get his mucky paws on you?  What if he tries to cop a feel?  You assume your victim is stupid.  What if he is so dull, he doesn’t realise that to take the sex he isn’t actually being offered is wrong?”

Camilla bristled with wounded pride.  “I can look after myself,” she said.

I know that.  But if you’re going to use sexuality as a weapon, you have to be prepared for unpleasant consequences.  I hesitate to say it, but if the ensuing sexual harassment case went to court, I would hate for the judge to rule you’d been asking for it.”  (I drew inverted commas in the air with my free hand.)  “If you won’t take my word for it, read Camille Paglia.  Her book’s upstairs.”  I rose to my feet gingerly and mustered the courage to dab the paintbrush into another corner.  “I’ll tell you what,” I said, “you have your breasts enhanced, and I’ll have my buttocks shaped.  Or lifted to make a headrest.”

“You’re laughing at me,” Camilla said, “and you have an archaic attitude towards plastic surgery.  Breast enlargement is a simple operation that’s relatively inexpensive – and it’s reversible.  It won’t be long before minor cosmetic procedures are no more complicated or time consuming than having a tattoo or buying shoes.  You’re making a big deal of it because you assume the surgery is still dangerously in the Dark Ages.  Silicone implants don’t really explode on aeroplanes.”

“I don’t want you to have a boob job.  If you started shoving silicone pouches in them, they wouldn’t be yours anymore; they’d become the property of some surgeon who thinks he’s an artist.  I fell in love with those breasts: don’t you dare alter them in any way!”  I felt inexplicably paranoid.  Irrationally, I was afraid that, if Camilla undertook to have her body altered, she would want a similarly enhanced boyfriend to match.  On a day-to-day basis, I was quite lazy about my appearance, if not actually downright scruffy.  I wondered whether Camilla was issuing me with a warning of some kind: Smarten yourself up a bit, or else!  Stupidly, I added, “Besides, I like your flabby thighs and conical tits.”  I did all the cooking for fortnight to apologise for that parting shot.

Our first year in The Lighthouse was a happy one, and, by Christmas, we had completed enough of the decoration for Camilla to invite her family to stay.  The September before that, Camilla returned to work, and I had the house to myself during the daytime.  I worked hard on preparations for my thesis.  I intended it to be an examination of the social function of teenaged girl’s magazines.  I wanted to prove that exposure to these rags, with their advice on dating, personal cleanliness, and general growing up, gave girls a head start over boys that was distinct from essential biological maturation.  I bought more copies of Seventeen, Mizz and Sugar than is really healthy for an adult male.  I searched in vain for a boys’ equivalent that hadn’t been relegated to the gay lifestyle sections of newsagents.  Upon my return to the college after the Christmas holidays, I was to be serving as head of the social sciences department, and hoped that having something published would add invaluably to my academic kudos.  Camilla willingly read every word I wrote, and her feedback was enthusiastic and instructive.  By the time I returned to work, however, the thesis remained unfinished, and – although it was never actually forgotten – it fell shamefully into neglect.

Camilla and I enjoyed a period of wonderful honeymoon.  We sat in the window seat of the lounge watching the waves together.  We danced salsa in the living room together.  We dressed for dinners we had cooked together.  We went for long walks across the cliffs together.  We went down to the beach and made sandcastles together.  We talked and laughed and cried and fought together.  We enjoyed gymnastic, balletic sex together.  At a fund-raising jumble sale for David’s thespian cronies, we bought a set of tarot cards.  I wrapped a shawl around my head and kept the instruction booklet concealed in my lap. We had thick, drippy church candles staining the wood of our dining table and I lied about the rosy future the deck failed to foretell for us.

For her birthday, I gave Camilla an easel and oil paints.  She had always boasted about how good she had been at art at school, and she began painting, hesitantly and inexpertly at first, but with increasing alacrity.  Her favourite place to paint was on the white-painted balcony at the top of The Lighthouse.  The occasional canvases she produced began as seascapes, but evolved into fantasy scenes thick with allegory for fertility and childbirth, where fish copulated in the air above the waves, and drifts of kelp and bladderwrack squirted milky fluids from phallic protuberances.  When the weather was bad, she set her easel up beside the freestanding mirror in the bedroom and painted amateurish self-portraits with claustrophobically foreshortened perspective.  Most of these, mercifully for the art establishment, ended up being thrown in the bin.

Like all good things, however, these magical days did not last forever.  Camilla learned things about me she was unable to bear.  She tried hard to stand by me, but ultimately it proved too much for her.  At the time, I hated her for her disloyalty, but now I understand I was asking for more than any woman could realistically give their boyfriend.  Now, what I remember of our joyful times are mostly images: catching one another’s eye across the crowded room at our housewarming party; touring Spain the summer after David’s death; the dress she wore for her graduation from my psychology class.  I remember the way she fell to the floor and cried with her hands pressed into her face when she came home from work and found me curled foetal on our bed wearing it.

 

Still reading?  Thank you for sticking with this self-pitying, solipsistic nonsense to the end.  If curiosity gets the better of you, I have a number of short stories available to read at https://portalwriters.wordpress.com/ – none of which are about trannies or gender-benders.

The God from the Machine – Why Being Transgender is Incompatible with Religion

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.

Frame Kathoey
The Kathoey of Thailand – much more likely to be found amongst the cast of a stag-night anecdote than working behind a desk in a bank or for a department of the civil service

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.

Frame Moses
The Old Testament Prophet, Moses, makes the finishing touches to yet another chapter of his hilariously ironic, darkly comic satire, the Book of Deuteronomy

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.

(See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/sep/26/iran.gender.)

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.

Frame Niqab
The Niqab – taking the fun out of transvestism since 600 AD

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:

  1. An expectation that transgender groups be separated, segregated, and operate in the margins of mainstream social, economic and political life.
  2. 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.
  3. A disapproval of body modification, from which follows the belief that gender transition invites suffering on the individual undertaking it.
  4. A conviction that gender nonconformity is an aberration, and that transgender people require treatment and cure.
  5. 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.)

Religion Table

 

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 know why there has been a massive increase in the number of people seeking help to change their gender.

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.

Frame Cinderella
Why, oh why, can’t I? – Not everybody gets to be a princess

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.

Frame Graph
Nothing to be proud of – The Guardian newspaper’s guide to referrals to Gender Identity Clinics in the UK (July 2016), for people who need coloured lines to help them appreciate the rising and falling of things

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’.

Frame Awakening
“That’s it!” said Matthew with a squeal of delight, rising to his feet in wonder at his epiphany. “The solution to my fundamental dissatisfaction with my self-image and place in society: I need to become a woman!”

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.

 

Bibliography

The statistics relating to the rise in referrals to UK gender identity clinics, as they were reported by The Guardian in July 2016, can be studied here…https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jul/10/transgender-clinic-waiting-times-patient-numbers-soar-gender-identity-services

Julie Bindel’s 2004 trans-exclusionary Guardian article, ‘Gender Benders, Beware’, can be read here…          https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/jan/31/gender.weekend7

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

A Visit to Foucault’s Clinic – The West London GIC at Charing Cross Hospital

The West London Gender Identity Clinic at Charing Cross Hospital became part of the National Health Service in 1973, after being founded in 1966 as an informal referral service for transgender people in need of medical support.  There are now eight centres in the UK specialising in gender identity services, but Charing Cross GIC is by far the biggest.  It receives around 1,500 referrals a year from GPs (half of the UK total) – a figure which has been doubling, roughly, every five years.  Its primary function (according to its website) is to co-ordinate the work of surgeons, psychiatrists and endocrinologists in order “to provide holistic care from a biopsychosocial model focusing on the biological/medical, psychological and social aspects of gender”, for people “with issues related to gender, most commonly gender variance associated with gender dysphoria”.

 

Much of the work of the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic seems to be geared towards redeeming its terrible reputation.  This reputation is not undeserved, and the clinic itself must accept full responsibility for having earned it.  In 1979, the BBC screened a three-part documentary series entitled ‘A Change of Sex’, which followed transwoman Julia Grant in her quest for gender-reassignment surgery.  In the scenes filmed during Grant’s appointments at the GIC, the psychiatrist assigned to her (John Randell – who died two years after the programme aired) displays an arrogance, condescension and megalomania so horrifying that it is difficult not to believe he is a character-actor, created to demonise all psychotherapists, and to portray the GIC as an uncaring edifice of chillingly Orwellian proportions.

(During Julia Grant’s consultations, Randell delivers a series of schoolmarmish proclamations, with an intonation that rises incredulously at the end of his sentences.  Among his supercilious edicts are the following gems: “It may be that you’re identifying with certain stereotypes of the female gender role, but that doesn’t make you a woman”; and “I’m not prepared to consider any other approach until you’ve done one year as a female… and if you don’t like that, well, then you must find another doctor”; but my personal favourite, when Grant confesses to undergoing breast-augmentation surgery without Randell’s approval, has to be, “I must confess, I take exception to your doing that…  It’s a medical matter: it isn’t a personal choice.  I like to be informed.  You see, once again you’re overstepping the mark, and I don’t like it – not one bit.”)

My first visit to the Charing Cross clinic occurred in June, 2014, when, following referral by my GP, I was invited to a pre-preliminary ante-introductory promotional taster/welcome session.  It was a harmless enough experience: a presentation via PowerPoint, essentially, describing the work of the GIC, the background of its staff, the numbers of patients it saw every year, and a warning (which, because it is included in all their correspondence, I would soon learn by heart) of what would happen if anyone failed to attend their appointments.

After the presentation, the forty-odd people in attendance were invited to share any concerns or questions we might have…  And that is when the mood in the room turned ugly.  I realised that some patients feel quite strongly that they have an axe to grind against the clinic.  The dominant motif of their concerns was the delay in attention they had experienced (consultations scheduled for dates so far in the future that patients couldn’t be sure if they should arrive by taxi or hover-car; appointments cancelled by the clinic without rhyme nor reason, when the patient has already gone to significant trouble to rearrange their own lives around a clandestine trip to London), but it was also evident that many patients felt the primary function of the clinic was to give them psycho-social hoops to jump through before they could complete their transition.

It wasn’t just the theme of patients’ questions that saddened me, however.  It was obvious from the anger in many voices that people had been damaged by aspects of their treatment by clinicians at the GIC.  The shakiness I could hear in their questions – the evident fear that they might burst into tears before they had articulated their frustrations – was a symptom of their dehumanisation as a result of their subjection to what Michel Foucault calls the ‘medical gaze’.  The concept of the medical gaze is developed and placed in its socio-historical context in Foucault’s 1963 book, ‘The Birth of the Clinic’, and it symbolises the separation by clinical professionals of their patients’ bodies from their patients’ identities.  This separation is not merely a medical convenience to facilitate the efficient treatment of disease, Foucault argues, but a product of political forces that form the broader context within which medical practice takes place: the discourse with which disease is discussed and diagnosed is just as much concerned with maintaining hegemonic relationships between the powerful (that is, the educated doctor) and the powerless (the uneducated patient) as it is in other social institutions, such as schools, parliament, prisons, the economy and the church.  In the case of medicine, the balance of power is preserved by ensuring that only medical professionals have access to the decision-making processes of their clinic, and by excluding patients from the discursive practices (and their associated jargon) in which those decisions are made.  The patient is thus reduced to little more than the subject of diagnosis and treatment – the cadaver over which decisions are made – rather than an influential voice in those decisions: medicine (which, in the case of the GIC, would mean access to counselling and voice coaching, the prescription of hormones, and the allocation of surgical resources) is something which is thus done to the patient; not done with them.

The practical upshot of this sociological theorising is that, by presenting myself at the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic, I am participating in a discourse in which I am not an equal partner.  If British society determines that gender nonconformity is a deviation from the norm – and that it is a pathologised condition requiring treatment – then the behaviour of specialists at the GIC towards me is, ipso facto, going to reflect that.  Keeping me waiting and ill-informed; condescending to me; assuming I am incapable of deciding for myself what is best for me; withholding access to medicines and surgical procedures until I have fulfilled certain conditions (such as meeting with a psychotherapist); and generally acting as the gatekeepers to my future…  These are all symptoms of a political climate in which I am marginalised, disenfranchised, and made to feel unworthy of the tiny slice of NHS funding I want.

Frame Foucault
Ceci n’est pas une clinique: ‘The Birth of the Clinic’ by Michel Foucault (also available in English)

I had my first appointment with a doctor at the GIC in October, 2014 – eighteen months after my referral by a GP – which meant I’d had plenty of time to study criticisms levelled against the clinic on social media, and to read the clinic’s response to them.  Frustration with the GIC falls into two broad categories, and, accordingly, its rebuttals and ‘myth-busting’ attempts do, too.

Most conspicuously, patients (and potential patients) at Charing Cross complain of agonising delays in being seen, and then of interminable waits for clinical decisions to be made about them.  Appointments made months in advance can be cancelled by the GIC at very short notice, and then (most aggravating of all, it seems) without any reason being given, apart from an airy platitude about how schedules are subject to change.  When cancellations occur, I learned, patients often blame themselves, and fear that they are being discharged by the clinic because they haven’t satisfied all the criteria that have been imposed upon them.  (No such criteria exist in a form that is shared with patients, of course, but when one has turned to the GIC as a last recourse, it must be hard not to be paranoid.)  In its literature, the GIC addresses this criticism only by acknowledging that waiting-times need to improve, but it does not outline how its staff might bring this about.  A delay in attention from the GIC may not seem earth-shattering to anyone who is not frantic for help with issues relating to their gender identity, but it would be a mistake to underestimate how desperate for support some patients are.  If you have been reduced to a state of crippling depression by anxiety over your body and your place in society – and the GIC has become a beacon of hope in an otherwise cruel and uncaring sea – a wait of any duration is a wait too long.

The other main criticism of the GIC is that patients feel demeaned and disempowered by the way staff (from the receptionist to the consultant surgeons) behave towards them.  According to its welcome pack, “a number of false beliefs and misconceptions have arisen” about the professional conduct of staff at Charing Cross.  Some of these beliefs “stem from the way the GIC operated in the past”, whilst others are a result of “the approaches of previous clinicians”, but it is a myth, the handbook asserts, that the Gender Identity Clinic is looking for a particular profile when it chooses which patients it will treat.  Accordingly, potential visitors should not assume that they must already be living in their preferred gender role by the time they attend; be hell-bent on reassignment surgery; have no reservations or doubts about the course of treatment they wish to pursue (and, indeed, what sort of man or woman they wish to become); abandon all other forms of help they might have sought (such as attending a private clinic); nor expect deliberately provocative, aggressive or challenging behaviour from clinicians (staff at the clinic do not “play good cop/bad cop”, apparently).

Whilst the literature produced by the GIC may overtly deny or condemn the dismissive and prejudicial behaviour of its specialists in the past, reports about patients’ experiences on social media suggest that a culture of hectoring and condescension continues at the clinic unabated: the only difference is that is has gone underground.  The Foucauldian belief in the primacy of the doctor’s expertise and knowledge, and the worthlessness of the patients’ wishes and experience, exists in a way that is so insidious – so subconsciously endemic – that clinicians cannot help but allow it to govern their behaviour.  The doctors know best.  Thus, patients report being told that failure to change their passport to reflect their preferred gender role displays a lack of commitment to transition.  Patients who cannot demonstrate a rich and varied social life are considered at risk of spending their existence post-transition friendless and isolated, whilst those who do not have the dietary and exercise regime of an Olympic athlete (or who have the temerity to do something as wicked as smoke) are considered to lack the necessary self-discipline for coping with post-surgical care or a lifetime of taking hormonal medication.  Patients who show signs of depression are assumed to have other issues that need resolving by a therapist before their gender identity can be addressed, and patients who have sought treatment at private clinics are thought to be obsessional, or are accused of being disloyal to the expertise of Charing Cross’ own doctors.

The Gender Identity Clinic addresses a third issue that does not emerge as a concern in the discourse of its critics and patients, namely: people who cancel – or fail to turn up to – appointments.  The numbers of people who do not attend appointments is, according to the GIC handbook, “unprecedented”, and one of the factors “which has contributed to our long waiting-list”.  By placing the blame for delays on patients in this way, the GIC abdicates from its own responsibility for the length of time it takes for a referral to be seen.  Furthermore, the clinic’s guidelines offer no apology for delays, preferring, instead, to threaten patients with sanctions for non-attendance: “if you reschedule three appointments, you will be discharged with no return and will have to seek gender care at another UK GIC”.  The Charing Cross clinic is so omnipotent, in other words, that they can even claim ownership of their patients’ time: ‘We reserve the right to mess you around,’ they are saying; ‘to keep you waiting, and reschedule appointments with neither notice nor explanation, but if you try and do the same to us, we will kick you out.’  John Randell would have been proud of his legacy.

(That said, I find the very notion of not attending an appointment at the GIC difficult to fathom.  Why would anyone – after waiting over twelve months to see a specialist there – wimp out at the last minute?  Unless one has a phobia of being mercilessly patronised, there is nothing to wimp out from: everything at the clinic moves at such a snail’s pace that no-one who visits is at any risk of being rushed or pressurised into a decision they don’t want to make.  I can only assume that the people who do not attend either change their minds entirely about transition; cannot bring themselves to tell their loved-ones what they are up to; have taken matters into their own hands by going private; or have suffered such a catastrophic breakdown that they have ceased to be capable of anything constructive.)

Frame GIC
‘You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy’: a warm welcome from the GIC seems assured when one admires the pleasant, inviting aesthetic of its hallowed, street-side portal

My first meeting with a consultant at the GIC was, after months of anticipation, a spectacular anti-climax.  My employment status was the principal concern of the consultant I saw, along with how my friends and family had responded to (and stuck by me following) my transition.  My hobbies and interests came under scrutiny, too, but, when I mentioned having been a leading-light in my local amateur Gilbert and Sullivan society, I was subjected to line of questioning that was stilted and awkward.   On the surface, the psychologist’s questions seemed designed to engage me in small-talk about Victorian operetta (“What’s the name of the opera that followed ‘The Mikado’?  I know it begins with R, but the name has temporarily slipped my mind…”), but I now realise the veracity of my claims about the activities that occupy my spare time was being tested.  (The answer is ‘Ruddigore’, incidentally, and I didn’t need to pretend that I couldn’t remember it, either.)

I tried to enquire what was meant by the word ‘assessment’ as it is used in the language which describes appointments at Charing Cross.  (Patients are invited to two assessments at the GIC, designed to “reach consensus about the best way forward with your care”, “gain a broader perspective on your situation”, and “help us gain a clear idea of how we can help you”.)  Were there certain indicators the psychologist was looking for? I asked; Was it possible for the clinic to reject a patient on the strength of this interview?; and, Is thirty minutes enough to gain a sufficiently rounded picture of someone to inform a decision that will affect the rest of their life?  I would like to say I received satisfactory answers to these questions.  I would like to say that, but it wouldn’t be true.

Yes, I felt belittled; and, yes, I felt my opinions on my transition and the way I had managed it thus far mattered very little to the consultant who met me…  But was my experience as wholly negative as the ones I had read about?  Not really: I felt vaguely demeaned and thoroughly patronised, but that was about as bad as it got.  My second assessment is in November this year (an epic thirty-six months after my first referral), and, I must admit, any sense I once had that attendance at Charing Cross was an essential step on my transgender journey has completely evaporated.  I no longer feel dependent on the clinic, and I’ve realised that there are alternatives (even for people on a budget) to pleading for the imperious say-so of a GIC doctor for approval for surgery, voice coaching, hormone treatment, and all the more complex, less obvious, aspects of changing the way society views my gender.

As I’ve been waiting for my turn at the clinic, I have learned that I am very unclear about what I want the services of the GIC for.  I am no longer sure the clinic can provide me with anything I am not capable to getting for myself: by communicating clearly and honestly with the people whose help I’ve needed to change my social role, and by working hard to ensure I have continued to present a confident and self-assured face to the world, I have succeeded in transforming myself.  I have found that feminising hormones are relatively easy to obtain with a sympathetic GP, and a therapist – no matter how sympathetic – is no replacement for good friends.  Given that voice coaching is ninety-nine percent down to the amount of work one is prepared to do for oneself, YouTube is as good a place to take lessons as any.  Changing my name and my gender on official documents (like my degree certificate, bank account, passport, driver’s licence, and so on) was just a matter of picking my way, patiently and persistently, through a forest of bureaucracy.  For a fee, I could see an independent specialist (like Dr Richard Curtis at the Transhealth gender clinic in Marylebone), and be treated more like an autonomous human being, capable of making up my own mind about what I do to, and put in, my own body.  When it came to work and hobbies, I discovered that, if I behaved as if the world should continue to treat me with dignity and respect, eventually enough people would – and these people would even begin to compensate for the bigotry and laziness of others.  My attitude to surgery, meanwhile, is something I can only resolve for myself.

By reducing my dependency on the services of the Charing Cross clinic, I have disarmed its ability to intimidate, humiliate, frustrate and disappoint me.  With my newly empowered frame of mind, I can attend my second assessment – not as a quivering vassal of the NHS – but as a discerning consumer, driven by curiosity about what the GIC’s specialists can do for me, rather than what I need to do to satisfy them.

The Gender Identity Clinic at Charing Cross has achieved an unassailable place in UK transgender culture as the only significant institution with the moral and medical right to dispense advice, counselling, support and medication for gender nonconforming people.  Through the discourses of its promotional literature and the conduct of its staff, the clinic has established itself as the ultimate arbiter of gender transition in England.  For all its faults, however, Charing Cross stands as an encouraging symbol of the willingness of the British government to spend time and resources supporting its transgender population.  To become a patient there, however, requires one to accept subjugation to the whim of another; readiness to be condescended to in a way one would never accept in other walks of life; and to dig-in for an interminable wait.  Oh: and to accept that no-one at the GIC ever, ever answers the telephone.

 

An introduction to the services offered by the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic can be perused here…                                                                           http://www.wlmht.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/GIC-patient-information-pack-April-2016.pdf

An excerpt from the dark, tragi-comic BBC documentary, ‘A Change of Sex’ (1979), can be viewed here…                                                                               https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aeBwniFDDK4

The Great Escape – How Family Rejection and Bereavement Can Set You Free

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.

Frame Gerry Springer
I used to be a man! – The healthiest families resolve their differences with a therapeutic slanging match; others (like mine) prefer to stew in years of toxic suspicion and resentment

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.

(This reference can be appreciated most fully after a visit to…https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/mar/09/matrix-director-lilly-wachowski-comes-out-as-a-transgender-woman.)

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.

Frame Pantomime Dame
Sometimes, the mental image of what a cherished family member might have become can be far more disturbing than coming face-to-face with the reality

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.

Transvestism on the Radio

Despite practising a form of entertainment wholly unsuited to the medium of wireless, the ventriloquist Peter Brough attracted 15 million listeners to his BBC radio show, ‘Educating Archie’, during its 1950’s heyday.  Every week, audiences tuned in to hear the latest adventures of Archie Andrews – the mannequin of a wisecracking schoolboy, into which, Brough assured us, he was throwing his voice without moving his lips.  At the beginning of March, 2016, BBC Radio 4 reached a second aural landmark by placing another essentially visual phenomenon on the radio: it granted two thirty-minute slots in its late-night schedule to the stand-up comedian (and self-proclaimed “metal-head, amateur occultist, musician” and “vegan heterosexual transvestite”), Andrew O’Neill.  Keen to bolster its claim to be representative of Britain’s increasingly diverse population, and to be providing a voice for its multiplicity of minority groups, the BBC evidently thought that squirrelling away two episodes of ‘Pharmacist Baffler’ at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday evening was the best way to promote tolerance and understanding, and to elevate the profile of the UK’s transgender population.  …But who cares what time ‘Pharmacist Baffler’ was on, or how many minds it cured of prejudice and ignorance!  It was a comedy show, and should be judged, therefore, according to how funny it was, right?

 

Part one of ‘Pharmacist Baffler’ was much better than part two.  The first instalment was fresher, more confessional, and crammed more food-for-thought into its thirty minutes than the sequel, but both episodes suffered from having the sort of well-behaved studio audience whose self-satisfied snickering becomes a barrier to enjoyment.  O’Neill’s audience reminded me of the kind of prim, easily-pleased, middle-class Edinburgh Fringe goer who is so eager to applaud weak punchlines and tolerate mediocre material, that the performer is exonerated from the responsibility of having to win the crowd over and hold their attention – and of having the quality of their material sifted and judged.  Such audiences attend stand-up comedy not to laugh or to be challenged, but to spend an evening agreeing with politically right-on soliloquising, and to cheer vicariously at a bourgeois outrage they can empathise with.

O’Neill is very much preaching to the easily converted, therefore, when he begins episode one by offering a selection of alternative epithets for ‘transvestite’.  He is, he suggests, a ‘pharmacist baffler’; a ‘clothes poof’; a ‘correct toilet double-check instigator’; and a ‘patriarchal birth-right rejecter’, who is, by his very existence, “laying bare the arbitrary nature of our socially constructed gender norms”.  The language of gender is clearly important to O’Neill, which makes his cruelly dismissive treatment of a member of his audience in episode two seem particularly unwarranted.  In order to observe that sexual attraction amongst hetero-males is based on the appearance of femininity – rather than actual biological differences between the sexes – O’Neill invites a spectator to participate in a thought-experiment.  He asks his stooge to choose a sexually alluring celebrity female.  The man in the third row picks on-screen, teen-bait karaoke singer, Anna Kendrick, and is then required to choose who he would rather sleep with: Anna Kendrick if she had a penis, or lugubrious, hang-dog, alcoholic (and deceased) character actor, Michael Elphick, if he had a vagina.  To seal the deal, perplexingly, O’Neill also adds a hypothetical £80 million pay-out by way of an incentive for choosing one or the other.  (Anna Kendrick would be so flattered…)

By way of proof that he is not exclusively attracted to beings who possess the necessary equipment for procreation, O’Neill’s willing participant says his choice of partner for the beast-with-two-backs would be “she-male Kendrick”.  With the impatient splutter of a petulant teenager who thinks his parents don’t understand his recent conversion to vegetarianism, O’Neill mutters, “What an incredibly offensive term,” before patronising his otherwise guileless and well-meaning respondent by telling him he still has a lot to learn.  But can ‘she-male’ really be considered offensive?  I’m not sure any label can be deemed offensive unless it has been used as a tool of oppression; as an instrument of ghettoization and control.  I don’t remember reading about years of violent historical struggle for she-males’ economic and political equality, or of shameful periods of she-male slavery, or of there ever being she-male only seats at the backs of buses.  The worst that can be said about ‘she-male’ is that it’s a bit of an eighties’ moniker – that it’s the sort of word you used to find printed on a masseuse’s calling card in a London telephone box – but an offensive term?  No.

Frame Radio
Resplendent in tartan leggings and a black mini-skirt, and showing-off armfuls of elaborate tattoos, this is how Andrew O’Neill appeared to all twenty-eight members of Radio 4’s late-night audience in March, 2016

O’Neill’s dissection of whether it is the female sex per se who are attractive to heterosexual men, or whether it is the accoutrements of womanhood (long hair, clothes, make-up, and so on) that men find sexually alluring, is a timely one.  On April 4th, 2016, twenty-five year-old New Yorker James Dixon confessed to beating twenty-one year-old transgender woman, Islan Nettles, to death when she told him that she had been born male.  In August, 2013, Dixon and some of his friends had been chatting-up a group of girls on the pavement of a suburban street.  “I asked the one I was talking to if she was a guy,” Dixon admitted, and when Nettles had said yes, Dixon had become possessed by a “blind fury” at having “got fooled by a transgender”.  Dixon had punched Nettles so hard, he had knocked her to the floor, and he had then continued punching her until she had lost consciousness.

The ability to distinguish readily between male and female, O’Neill observes, is a biological necessity; the need to be able to find a mate is hard-wired into human biology to ensure the continuation of the species.  To aid this instinctual, atavistic drive, society has made it even easier to differentiate male from female by dictating that the sexes should dress and present themselves in contrasting ways.  Encountering transgender people, therefore, often proves disorientating, and leaves us uncertain of with whom we should be attempting to propagate the human race.  O’Neill argues that, as a result, transvestites are the targets of a great deal of misdirected homophobia: crossdressing confronts heterosexual men with what they really find desirable about women, and that makes those men angry because they are ill-equipped to process the nuances of attraction transvestism embodies.  Transvestites show that femininity isn’t biological – it’s cultural.  Crossdressing, from this perspective, is thus a political act (intentionally or otherwise): by carving out a comfortable social space for yourself, you force the world around you to confront its assumptions about sexuality and beauty.  Islan Nettles isn’t the only transgender woman ever to have paid a high price for that.

Frame Tease
Asking for it: in the gullible heterosexual male, the evocation of carnal thoughts by trouser-teasing, transvestite honey-traps like this one, can result in feelings of anger and aggression, as well as in uncontrolled eruptions of violence

When O’Neill was describing his childhood bewilderment at wanting to look like a girl, I identified with much of what he said, and I was happy that he allowed the strength of his confession to stand on its own, without trying to shoehorn jokes into the narrative.  At five, he said, he thought there had been some sort of postnatal error; that maybe he’d been born a girl and then somehow surgically altered to have the reproductive equipment of a boy.  With the wisdom of introspection and adulthood, he now realised that this had been his five-year old brain telling him that he would be much happier wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, but it wasn’t until he was in his late teens that he felt able to confide his “urge” (not, as he asserts, “hobby, lifestyle choice or subculture”) to his closest friends.  This moment – and the glorious non-reaction of his father when he first glimpsed Andrew en femme – are cited by O’Neill as the keystones of his self-acceptance, but it was with insightful poignancy that he then summarised the transgender paradox…

For a transvestite, being confronted with the disparity between how you want to look and how you actually look can be heart-breaking.  When you present yourself in public in female role, the reaction you are hoping for is, “She looks hot.”  The reaction you get, on the other hand, is, more often than not, “That bloke’s wearing a dress.”  O’Neill admits to occasionally wishing he had a more feminine face, but maintains that he is at peace with his self-proclaimed inability to pass as female, and so has stopped attempting to.  Hence, he has some pertinent advice for transvestites who seek to be happy in their own skins: accept the limitations of your own personal form, and dress accordingly.

The number of transvestites who look terrible (and, it must be admitted, give the crossdressing community a bad name) is legion.  Most of these, O’Neill argues, are fetish transvestites: men who wear what turns them on, instead of what suits them, based on a perception of femininity that crystallised along with their sexual preferences around the age of five.  Equally likely to provoke raised eyebrows (rather than admiration for their refusal to conform to established gender norms) are what O’Neill refers to as “fancy-dress party only transvestites”.  These are the men who – despite their protestations that they are doing so simply for harmless, hilarious fun – always arrive at costume parties dressed as schoolgirls or French maids, because this is the only outlet for their sartorial predilections that they have so far felt brave enough to exploit.

With exacting precision, O’Neill observes that, when a man cross-dresses, he attracts ridicule.  This is because of the superordinate status to women he has been granted by historic and hegemonic processes in society: when a man wears woman’s clothes, he humiliates himself because he is perceived as having subjugated himself; of having deliberately debased himself by abandoning the trappings of the masculinity that underpins the superiority he has heretofore enjoyed.  The corollary is not true, however.  Women who power-dress (for example) do not invite derision because they are perceived as having put on a uniform more befitting the dominant, masculine role – not of having deliberately stepped out of one.

Frame Jessica Rabbit
Without the necessary self-discipline or serendipitous physiology, the self-image of a male-to-female transsexual may be hopelessly incongruent with what is physically attainable in reality

As if in acknowledgement of the paradox inherent in parading transvestism on the radio, O’Neill begins both episodes of ‘Pharmacist Baffler’ by asking members of his audience to describe what he is wearing.  Volunteers genially oblige, as O’Neill explains that he knows he is lucky – being a performer – to inhabit a social world in which he has greater freedom than most to dress as he pleases.  From his privileged position, he maintains, he has a responsibility to represent transvestites as well-adjusted and non-deviant; as people who are happiest when they wear women’s clothes (and who are not ‘depressed’ or ‘confused’, as it is convenient to assume crossdressers’ proclivities make them).  O’Neill thus has a duty, he asserts, to humanise transvestism.

As part of this process of humanisation, O’Neill uses a conspicuous portion of his sixty minutes of airtime to emphasise his own heterosexuality.  He reminds listeners with unwarranted frequency about how much he “fancies women”; of how his attraction to women was so profound that it led to a desire to emulate them; and of how “the sexuality of transvestism” is the product of “an overdriven heterosexuality”.  Ladies should consider a night with him, he suggests, “if you’re bored of knowing where your clothes are.”  He tells his audience how much he likes “heavy metal and drinking booze”; tells two anecdotes about how being out in public with his wife precludes from him looking gay; and declares that his joy at possessing a functioning penis has made him totally uninterested in seeking sex-change surgery.

O’Neill then rejects the stripe of trans-exclusionary radical feminism that is epitomised by Germaine Greer’s most recent media outbursts – and by the apoplectic proselytising of Maryland lawyer, Cathy Brennan – by dismissing feminists who brand transvestites fetishists and attention-seekers, as “shit feminists”.  The audience cheers, and, tragically, an opportunity to explore a genuinely complex and interesting issue through the medium of comedy is lost, in favour of a bargain-basement laugh from an easily-satisfied audience.

Unfortunately, O’Neill’s pathological need to remind his audience of his own heterosexuality serves not to reinforce his claim to be challenging socially-determined gender norms, but to undermine it.  His defiance of what has – and what has not – been determined as ‘male’ and ‘female’ via historical, institutional and hegemonic processes is purely sartorial.  For O’Neill, gender nonconformity is a question of the right to wear skirts and make-up, not of the freedom to be truly different.  By continually referring to his attraction to women, his bloke-ish inclination towards beer and breasts, and his personal attachment to his genitals, O’Neill is emphasising his fundamental similarity to his audience (and, therefore, to a humdrum stratum of society generally), not to his essential difference from them.  He may choose to dress like a girl, he reminds us, but, other than that, he is the same as everyone else.  That BBC radio chose O’Neill as the voice of English transvestism isn’t merely tokenistic: in its lazy, half-baked, cowardly way, it underlines the belief that crossdressing is an eccentricity, and does nothing to promote the political agenda of subversion – and of embracing an ‘alternative’ worldview – that gender nonconformity can genuinely claim to entail.

O’Neill’s sixty minutes of mainstream broadcasting is the same sort of tragic missed opportunity that occurs in the denouement to David Walliams’ 2008 children’s novel, ‘The Boy in the Dress’.  Walliams’ book follows the transvestial voyage of discovery of its twelve-year old central character, Dennis Sims, and, in its opening chapters, tricked me into thinking that here, at last, was a novel with the potential to break new ground in the education of young, impressionable readers on the feelings and frustrations associated with crossdressing.  However: when Dennis finally plucks up the courage to attend school dressed as ‘Denise’, he blithely overcomes public scorn and derision by proving himself a whizz on the football pitch.  Dennis may like to dress like a girl, in other words, but that does not prevent him from excelling in a socially-sanctioned, stereotypically male endeavour like team sport.   Through aptitude in an activity already loaded with public approval, Dennis is able to win back the approbation of his peers despite his partiality for girls’ clothes.  And the moral of the story is: People will accept you whatever you wear, provided you are good at football; people will overlook any sartorial handicap, provided you are still, essentially, a boy.  (And that’s without me wading into the dubiously amoral swamp of Dennis blackmailing his headmaster over the latter’s own crossdressing habits, or of me unpacking the creepily quasi-erotic relationship between Dennis and the girl who helps him discover his inner-female – the school’s resident teen-siren, Lisa James.)

Frame Boy in the Dress
‘The Boy in the Dress’: as lazy, cowardly and disappointing an exploration of adolescent transvestism as should be expected from bafflingly famous talent-vacuum (and amateur audition-show catamite), David Walliams

O’Neill cites Eddie Izzard as a formative influence.  It was the experience of seeing Izzard perform stand-up, he maintains, that inspired O’Neill to become a comedian.  The problem with Eddie Izzard, though, is that he stopped being funny after his ‘Glorious’ tour in 1997, and now spends most of his time running marathons and performing his Eddie Izzard tribute act in the United States.  Izzard has also reduced his cross-dressing to having perfectly coiffed hair and wearing nail-varnish with well-tailored suits.  If I was being generous, I would admit that Izzard’s stylistic conservatism is an inevitable consequence of his growing old and finding what looks best on him, but nail-varnish with a Saville Row suit might actually be what Izzard means when he describes himself as an ‘executive transvestite’.

The trouble with having a role-model, however, is that Andrew O’Neill isn’t eight years old.  If you aspire to buck trends and blaze-a-trail, you exclude yourself, by definition, from having idols.  If you have a celebrity role-model, you anchor yourself to a set of values that have been pre-determined for you by the status quo, and, consequently, to an established mode of thinking and behaving.  You can’t claim to be doing something new if you declare that your heroes have done it before, and you aren’t courageous or radical if you beg an audience to overlook your unorthodox fashion choices by pleading with them to find you funny.  O’Neill didn’t even have the challenge of winning his studio audience over, and his insistence that – apart from his skirt, lipstick and leggings – he likes booze, birds and boobs just as much as the next man, was not a step towards a greater understanding and acceptance of gender nonconforming people, but a reminder of the institutionalised conditions that continue to be placed on that acceptance.

 

Andrew O’Neill’s website can be visited here…   http://www.andrewoneill.co.uk/index.htm

‘Overt and Unchallenged’ Part III – The Media Must Make up its Mind about Transgender People

The media was one of the institutions identified in the UK government’s 2016 report, ‘Transgender Equality’, as having culpability for perpetuating transphobic prejudice – along with marriage, sport, schools, prisons and healthcare.  The Women and Equalities Select Committee called for greater regulation of the way transgender people are portrayed in the media and on-line; for it to made easier for people to complain when they feel this treatment is biased or distasteful; and for complainants to feel as if the issues they raise are taken seriously.  An overview of the media over the last half-decade, however, reveals a disparity in the way transgender people from different backgrounds are treated and portrayed: whilst ordinary transgender folk are demonised as outcasts and weirdos, transgender celebrities are steeped in adoration and awe.  In this posting, I subject this discrepancy to the further exploration I think it warrants.  Oh – and I also reveal what connects Caitlyn Jenner with the South Dakota Bathroom Bill.

 

The attention paid to transgender people by the media falls into two contradictory categories.  On the one hand, there is a lurid fascination with people’s habits and peccadilloes that manifests itself as a captivated revulsion from the lifestyles of members of the transgender community; an outspoken, taken-for-granted disapproval of the effect someone’s transition has had on the lives of their colleagues, families and friends.  Simultaneously, however, an hysterical, star-struck adoration of transgender celebrities exists side-by-side with this urge towards judgemental puritanism.  Whilst ordinary transgender people are censured and condemned, the popular press can barely satisfy its vicarious addiction to glamour and red-carpet walking sexuality.  At the same time as right-wing commentators are hounding transsexuals away from their families and out of their jobs, gossip columnists maintain a feverish, unsavoury obsession with what Caitlyn Jenner is wearing on the cover of Vanity Fair, or which designer made the frock that Laverne Cox had on at yesterday’s Emmy Awards dinner.  The two types of coverage are utterly incompatible, but both do their own unique brand of damage to media-consumers’ perceptions of – and attitudes towards – the transgender population.

Thirty-two year-old Nathan Upton stepped into the shoes of Lucy Meadows at the end of 2012, and, after the Christmas holidays, returned to the Lancashire primary school where she was a teacher with the approval of the principal and the support of the parents of the children in her class.  Meadows had sacrificed a great deal to become the woman she wanted to be; distancing herself from her parents, acquiring a sizeable financial debt, and estranging herself from her wife and daughter.  That December, Meadows had contacted the Press Complaints Commission over a column about her that had been printed in the Daily Mail newspaper.  The PCC upheld Meadows’ complaint, and the Daily Mail was found guilty of inaccuracy, harassment and breaches of privacy.

The column in question was penned by inane cultural tumour, Richard Littlejohn.  Beneath the headline, He’s Not Only in the Wrong Body; He’s in the Wrong Job, Littlejohn opens munificently by stating, “I don’t… have any problem with sex-change operations being carried out on the NHS”, before proceeding to print a litany of irrelevant and intrusive facts about Lucy Meadows’ family, place of work and gender history, along with a photograph of her sitting beside her wife at their wedding in 2009.  Littlejohn’s next discursive move is to infantilise Meadows – to make her appear ridiculous – by writing (with a crassly conspicuous lack of respect for Meadows’ choice of pronoun), “He started turning up for class wearing pink nail varnish and sparkly headbands.”

Littlejohn’s main beef about Lucy Meadows’ decision to come to work in female role is that the announcement of her transition was made with insufficient fuss and fanfare.  The head-teacher of Meadows’ school chose to break the news quietly in the Christmas newsletter that was sent home to parents; to squirrel it away discreetly amongst the notices of other staff changes at the school.  Evidently, this was not enough for Littlejohn, who buttonholes a hysterical parent in pursuit of proving how “worried and confused” children at the school were by Meadows’ decision:

“ ‘My middle boy thinks that he might wake up with a girl’s brain because he was told that Mr Upton, as he got older, got a girl’s brains.’ ”

For his money-shot, Littlejohn asserts that young children should not be forced to confront any non-typical lifestyle choices, and, accordingly, be shielded from anyone whose gender does not conform to old-fashioned, binary norms.  The climax he works himself up to is the insistence that a transgender teacher “is putting [their] own selfish needs ahead of the well-being of the children [they have] taught”.  According to Littlejohn, Meadows should have moved schools at the same time as making her professional transition – to “disappear quietly” to “the other side of town” where “No-one would have been any the wiser”.  A school, according to Littlejohn, should not “be allowed to elevate its ‘commitment to diversity and equality’ above its duty of care to its pupils”: instead, “It should be protecting pupils from some of the more, er, challenging realities of adult life, not forcing them down their throats.”

Whilst continuing to deny Lucy Meadows even the dignity of using her preferred name, Littlejohn asserts that, whilst Nathan Upton has every right to undergo gender reassignment surgery, “he isn’t entitled to project his personal problems on to impressionable young children.”  At the risk of sounding like a PhD sociologist, I feel obliged to observe that Littlejohn’s apparently innocuous use of the phrase ‘personal problems’ in this closing paragraph is a strategic act of discursive hegemony.  This semantic choice is an attempt to construe events at the small Lancashire school in a negative way in order to persuade his readership to accept Littlejohn’s parochial, narrow-minded version of reality.  In this case, Littlejohn hopes to convince his audience to take it for granted that transgenderism is, ipso facto, a problem, and that it is a common-sense assumption that gender nonconformity has no place in primary schools:

“These are primary school children, for heaven’s sake.  Most of them still believe in Father Christmas.  Let them enjoy their childhood.  They will lose their innocence soon enough.”

Lucy Meadows committed suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning in March, 2013.

The obsequious, almost masturbatory manner in which the press fawn over celebrity transsexuals like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, meanwhile, seems so utterly incongruent with the sneering (but at the same time salacious) moralising that contributed to the death of Lucy Meadows, that it would be difficult to believe they could happen in the same media universe, if the hypocrisy encapsulated in this duality wasn’t so tiresomely predictable.

Frame Caitlyn Jenner
Inspired by a media obsessed with glamorous transgender luminaries, anyone can emulate the celebrity struggles of the pampered millionaire, Caitlyn Jenner

Casual consumers of the fame-obsessed media are encouraged to view Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and a host less-familiar others, as role-models of stoicism and courage in the face of abuse and rejection; of “the way we tackle ignorance” (Huffington Post, June 2014); “raise awareness about the transgender community” (Daily Mail – somewhat disingenuously – July 2015); and of “all of us accepting one another”, especially “the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being true to who they are” (Daily Mail – again – July 2015).  The trouble with offering up celebrities as role-models, however, is that their lifestyles are so far removed from most transgender people’s everyday experience that the lessons they teach us have no transferable value.  When I was being made redundant – shortly after transitioning – from the high school at which I had worked for five years, how much solace was I able to gain by reflecting on the nerves of republican and ex-Olympic athlete, Caitlyn Jenner, as she waited for her TV show, ‘I am Cait’, to air?  And, as I walked away from yet another unsuccessful job interview, what consolation could I glean by contemplating the successful career of the millionaire performer, Laverne Cox?

As I am not eight years old, I am immune to the charms of celebrity role-models.  Because I can discern no meaningful parallels between their lives and my own, the examples of Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox seem remote and irrelevant to me.  When their contribution to the profile of the transgender community amounts to little more than what colour gown they were wearing at a particular Hollywood ball last Friday night, I struggle to find anything we have in common.  Jenner, Cox, et al., may regale interviewers with tales of how they were bullied at school, or how they had to overcome familial disapproval as they were growing up, but if all they subsequently do with their notoriety is encourage glossy magazines to gush over how gorgeous they look, then solidarity and empathy is not what they are promoting.  On the contrary: their media profile fuels envy, vanity, and an unattainable ideal of body image, sexuality, and the obsession of male-to-female transsexuals with ‘passing’.  The effect isn’t an emboldening sense of strength in numbers: it’s a hollow melancholy amongst those who will never be rich or famous enough to be as elegant as a Hollywood superstar.

Anohni (formerly Anthony Hegarty) is an artist, composer, and lead singer of the band Anthony and the Johnsons.  She is only the second transgender person ever to be nominated for an Academy Award (the first was Angela Morley, who was shortlisted for best original score in 1974 and 1978), but, on her website in February, 2016, Anohni announced that she would not be travelling to Los Angeles to attend the ceremony because the Academy had not invited her to perform on the night.

This decision is not as vain as it initially appears.  At first glance, the very fact of Anohni’s nomination seems encouragingly symbolic of Hollywood’s readiness to accept difference and embrace diversity, but in subsequently denying Anohni the opportunity to perform, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is showing that its commitment to diversity is cosmetic, and that it doesn’t have the moral courage to sacrifice commercial considerations in favour of exemplifying social change.  Given that Anohni has earned critical recognition for her hard work and talent (rather than, say, for just wearing a dress and looking pretty), by appearing at the Oscars, she could have played a small but significant part in elevating transgender role-models.  Instead, the Academy sought to use her to make a superficial concession to diversity, before it gave centre stage to more bankable performers:

“The producers seemed to have decided to stage performances only by the singers who were deemed commercially viable. Composer David Lang’s song ‘Simple Song #3’ performed by South Korean soprano Sumi Jo was also omitted. It was degrading to watch the articles in Variety, The Daily Telegraph, Pitchfork, Stereogum, etc., start to appear. Eclipsing earlier notices of congratulations, now the papers were naming me as one of two artists to have been ‘cut’ by the Academy due to ‘time constraints’. In the next sentence it was announced that Dave Grohl, not nominated in any category, had been added to the list of performers.”

As mercenary as ever, the Academy sought to curry further approval by listing the fact that Anohni was transgender in the trivia section of its website. Then, satisfied it had wrung every last drop of exoticism from Anohni in order to enhance the appearance of its own magnanimity and inclusiveness, the Oscars cut her loose. Anohni had been used; “paid to do a little tap-dance” in service of the Academy’s attempt “to try to convince us that they have our best interests at heart by waving flags for identity politics and fake moral issues”.  According to her website, Anohni had got as far as the airport before she “slowly realised that the positive implication of [her] nomination was being retracted”, and turned around and went home, “feeling a sting of shame that reminded me of America’s earliest affirmations of my inadequacy as a transperson.”

Frame Oscars
The Oscars – Where else can a white heterosexual escape the multi-cultural, pan-sexual, gender-fluid vicissitudes of a raw and complex world?

The moral of the promotion of a particular brand of transgenderism by the culture of celebrity is as depressing as it is straightforward: it is okay to be transgender, provided you are rich, beautiful, glamorous, likely to make someone a lot of money, or a combination of all four.  If you’re ordinary, plain, or just trying to make an honest living, at best, the media will ignore you; at worst, they will hound you out of your job and drive you to the brink of suicide.  To declare yourself transgender is to proclaim yourself different.  This may not be terrifying for an actor, model or ex-decathlete whose family has an indefinable and perplexing media presence, but if you depend on everyday social and professional institutions to pay your bills or achieve self-efficacy, then exchanging depression for isolation and rejection can be very, very hard indeed.

Having said all that, however, there is one facet to Caitlyn Jenner’s celebrity status that has earned my grudging respect.  In February 2016, the senates in the US states of Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and, most famously, South Dakota, discussed legislation concerning access to school restrooms, locker-rooms and sports teams.  For reasons that are difficult to fathom, a clutch of regional assemblies has suddenly decided that transgender boys and girls need humiliating over where they get changed and go to the toilet.  The proposed South Dakota Bathroom Bill, to pick an especially baffling example, is accordingly drafted in a language so comically tortuous – so painstakingly convoluted – that, whilst it doesn’t say so explicitly, its only conceivable purpose must be to impose misery on transgender teenagers by compelling them feel even more isolated and alienated than they already do:

“Every restroom, locker room, and shower room located in a public elementary or secondary school that is designated for student use and is accessible by multiple students at the same time shall be designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex.  In addition, any public school student participating in a school sponsored activity off school premises which includes being in a state of undress in the presence of other students shall use those rooms designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex.”

The bill offers an elaborately byzantine definition of biological sex as “the physical condition of being male or female as determined by a person’s chromosomes and anatomy as identified at birth”.  For students for whom HB1008 would constitute a barrier to being able to get changed or go to the toilet at school, principals are required to make “reasonable accommodation” of bathroom facilities for transgender pupils (which “may include a single-occupancy restroom, a unisex restroom, or the controlled use of a restroom, locker room, or shower room that is designated for use by faculty”) on the proviso that this does not cause “undue hardship” to a school district (by which, I assume, is meant ‘does not cost any more money’).

If, in a country that has state legislatures obsessed with imposing binary distinctions on its citizens based on their infant chromosome count or the contents of their diapers – and has senators who call transgender students “twisted” and “unfortunate” – Caitlyn Jenner can seize the right to be called ‘female’, and have herself proclaimed a ‘2015 Woman of the Year’ by Glamour magazine, then, for that, she has my admiration.

 

Bibliography

The report by the UK parliamentary committee, ‘Transgender Equality’ (January 2016), awaits your attention like a jilted lover here…http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmwomeq/390/390.pdf

The news about the suicide of Lucy Meadows as it was published in her local newspaper can be read here… http://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/news/10448625.Tragic_suicide_note_left_by_Accrington_transgender_teacher_Lucy_Meadows/

Whilst the Daily Mail’s readiness to publish it leaves you unsure whether to be depressed or angry, Richard Littlejohn’s toe-curlingly unpleasant, intrusive, and wholly unwarranted column about Lucy Meadows can be studied here…http://web.archive.org/web/20121226073921/http:/www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2251347/Nathan-Uptons-wrong-body–hes-wrong-job.html

Anohni’s explanation of why she did not attend this year’s Academy Award ceremony can be read on her website (under the entry for February 25th, 2016) here…                                             http://www.antonyandthejohnsons.com/news/news.html

Anohni’s Oscar-nominated song, ‘Manta Wray’, can be heard here…                                                                                            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1JiJhWkM9M

You may laugh along with South Dakota’s darkly hilarious HB1008 (the ‘Bathroom Bill’ of 2016) here…                               https://legiscan.com/SD/text/HB1008/id/1340969/South_Dakota-2016-HB1008-Enrolled.pdf