Everyday Conversion Therapy

Conversion therapy is a nasty euphemism used to denote a form of torture that involves trying to ‘cure’ LGBTQ+ people of their LGBTQ+ness, be it changing their sexual orientation or suppressing their gender identity. It’s violent, abusive and practised widely around the world, including in the UK, and as far as I’m concerned should be criminalised and declared a human rights abuse. The cultural conversation often focuses on particular instances of conversion therapy as practiced by an institution (e.g. the church) during a specific course (e.g. a summer camp, evening classes). These institutions and courses are designed to cure people, and are run by people who believe that being LGBTQ+ is an illness. I would add that conversion therapy isn’t limited to these places. In fact, the very experience of being queer within a cisheteropatriarchal society is like being subjected to constant conversion therapy.

From my own experience of being queer people have regularly tried to cure me. “Are you sure?” people have asked of my sexuality. “What about dating a woman?” “Why do gay people always have to rub it in our faces?” “Children shouldn’t hear about these sorts of things.” What all these phrases have in common is a desire to change me – whether it’s for me to be less gay or not to be gay at all. I use the word gay here, rather than queer, because many of my oppressors still refer to me as gay, even though I ask them to identify me as queer – yet another way in which they erase my identity. “You’ve chosen a difficult path” is another classic, and often used to justify not bothering to understand me better or support me. Another ol’ chestnut is being told to not tell people I’m in a relationship with a man, “it might cause gossip” was one justification recently given. I was also told not to tell a 5-year-old that my then-boyfriend was my boyfriend (even though years later I found out the 5-year-old had worked it out). “I don’t have a problem that you’re gay” is another, as if me saying to a female friend that “I don’t have a problem that you’re a woman” is somehow acceptable (it isn’t). “You’re just Robert to me,” sounds supportive but, again, erases my identity and lets the speaker off the hook of actually having to learn anything about it or offer me support. “Being gay should just be normal” is one that sounds nice but often means, “I wish gay people would be less openly gay and talk about it less.” Other experiences include being told my non-binary identity is as valid as Father Christmas and that the non-binary identity is a last case resort for the vulnerable. I was even accused of “experimenting” on a child by giving them a birthday card with a fairy on. Hearing these sorts of things has been such a regular experience of mine that I’ve grown a particular form of thick skin to deal with it. A thick skin designed to protect me from the ignorance and prejudice of others.

But no skin is thick enough to protect my soul and for over thirty years I have endured these demeaning, abusive and invalidating comments. My soul has suffered the consequences and each comment has been a drop of acid rain. What’s more, the very act of putting up with it has been so normalised in my life that I consider it normal. Of course this person will say ignorant things, of course I can’t expect love and support for my queerness, of course they “don’t mean it”, of course it “doesn’t come from a bad place” etc. Straight and cis people have gone out of their way to emotionally abuse me and then justify their emotional abuse. While their efforts at conversion failed on the fundamental level of changing me – I’m queerer than I’ve ever been; they succeeded in brainwashing me into thinking that I didn’t deserve better – that I am actually worthy of love and respect for my queer and non-binary identities, not in spite of them. All along my abuse was normalised and my needs fundamentally neglected. But there’s nothing normal about abuse or neglect. Yet it is interwoven into the way so many cisgendered and heterosexual people treat queer people. To date, I have survived these constant experiences of conversion therapy and whatever people do or don’t say, I will not change.

Transphobia, Part 7: Moral Panic

A moral panic is a “feeling of fear spread among many people that some evil threatens the well-being of society…It is the process of arousing social concern over an issue – usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media.” (Wikipedia).

A moral panic is a common political tactic used to unite otherwise disparate groups into undermining the equality and rights of a minority and/or oppressed group, such as women, Catholics, gay men, lesbians, socialists, people with HIV/AIDS, Muslims, people of colour, travellers and Jewish people. The groups are targeted by a more powerful group (e.g. men, Protestants, straight people, capitalists, white people), which feels threatened by the prospect of the oppressed group gaining more political power and equality. The oppressors use moral panic to stir up widespread prejudices within a populous to encourage them to act against the oppressed.

In the UK a moral panic is currently being stirred to undermine the rights of trans people. Certain political actors (e.g. politicians, journalists) are capitalising on the large amount of transphobia already present in the country as well as provoking more of it. The key aim of a moral panic is to incite fear, to make the broader population feel threatened by trans people, so they act against them. Many people I know are being caught in this moral panic and being encouraged to act on their transphobia rather than question, explore and change it. Many of these people consider themselves liberal and tolerant but their empathy and compassion is being replaced by prejudice and hostility. The fear mongering and stereotyping is working as trans people are routinely being dehumanised and discriminated against. Here are some ways to discover if you are being caught up in the moral panic.

Threat to the safety of children and women

  • Are you being encouraged to think of trans people as a threat to children? For example, you might read media that associates trans people with paedophilia or calls them predators, or describes trans people as recruiters, i.e. wanting to recruit young people and force them to transition against their will. This is an old tactic in the book of moral panic and just replace trans people with black people or Jews and you realise how abhorrent it is (if you don’t already).
  • Are trans people, especially trans women, being presented as a threat to cis women? For example, that they want to enter female spaces so they can assault and rape women.
  • Are trans identities being ignored and trans women being presented as ‘men in dresses’ to further bolster the idea that they are dangerous and threatening to women?

A threat to feminism and women’s rights

  • Are women’s rights being presented as incompatible with trans rights, especially the rights of trans women? For example, women’s rights might be presented as a zero sum game, meaning that any effort to support trans women’s rights undermines the rights of cis women – of course, the term ‘cis’ won’t be used (it may well be ridiculed instead) because the proponents of this view don’t believe in trans identities and, therefore, don’t believe in cis identities either.
  • Are efforts to increase inclusion – e.g. recognising that many non-binary and trans men menstruate – being presented as an effort to undermine women’s rights?
  • The above is an example of scaremongering. Another one would be presenting dystopic scenarios, for example, that trans people are wilfully ignoring the rights of women and may even want to erase the category of women entirely. Here, hyperbole and escalation are being used to make you afraid of trans people.

Medical transition as mutilation and dangerous

  • Are you learning of medical transition through examples of medical malpractice, i.e. the times when doctors have harmed patients? If so, it’s likely these instances of medical malpractice are being presented as proof that surgical transition is dangerous and extreme, often described as mutilation rather than surgery. By not focussing on the majority of successful instances of surgical transition, which have transformed people’s lives for the better, you are being encouraged to associate surgery with pain, suffering and even torture, so you are prejudiced against it.
  • Against this backdrop of medical malpractice and mutilation are you being made to believe that the safety of young people is threatened by surgery and transgender identities? Again, the focus is pulled away from all the trans people who want and need surgery, many of whom are young people.
  • Are you being made to believe that young people are being forced to medically transition? For example, that counselling and other forms of care and education don’t form part of the process of transition.
  • Are you being made to believe that being transgender requires medical surgery, when actually it doesn’t?
  • Are you learning of transgender lives through examples of medical detransition – when someone has stopped or reversed a medical gender transition? Are these examples being used to discredit the broader identity of transgender – thereby dehumanising trans people more generally as well as appropriating that individual’s experience of detransition for transphobic ends?

The ‘trans orthodoxy’

  • Do you regularly see phrases such as ‘trans orthodoxy’, ‘trans agenda’, ‘trans ideology’ and ‘trans dogma’, as if all transgender people form part of a powerful political unit or group rather than an oppressed minority made up of many, many individual people who lack political power as a collective? How would you feel if you read of the ‘Jewish agenda’ or the ‘black agenda’?
  • Are trans people being associated with fascism – e.g. called Nazis for ‘demanding’ equality and calling out transphobia; or referred to as part of the Rainbow Reich? Associating trans people with fascism is designed to make them sound extremist and dangerous.
  • Are examples of harmful behaviour (e.g. someone tweeting a death threat to J. K. Rowling) being used to further essentialise trans people and present them as dangerous? To be clear, I stand against the issuing of death threats but, here, they are being used as a tool in a political effort to undermine trans rights, rather than as a call for more nuanced and empathetic discussions around equality.
  • Are instances of transphobia being downplayed and rejected as transphobic by cisgender people? A bit like a white person telling a black person they haven’t experienced racism when they just have.
  • Are instances of a transphobe being called out on their transphobia being represented as an attack on the transphobic person? A bit like a sexist man getting angry he has been called sexist. This is a distracting tactic used to make people ignore the transphobia and focus their ire back on the person being discriminated against.

Stereotyping and dehumanising

  • Are trans stereotypes being used to further dehumanise trans people?
  • For example, trans women with features often typically associated with masculinity are often dehumanised and stereotyped. We may be encouraged to laugh at them and think of them as ridiculous, threatening and/or disgusting.
  • Another form of stereotyping concerns ‘snowflakes’ and ‘generation woke’, i.e. presenting people who want trans liberation as overly-sensitive, unreasonable and/or threatening, in a bid to undermine their demands/requests for trans equality.
  • Or perhaps efforts to make trans people lives safer and happier are being ridiculed – e.g. mocking people’s pronouns; mocking other forms of gender identity such as genderqueer and non-binary. Or they are being held up as unreasonable and unsafe – e.g. deriding medical practitioner’s efforts to use more inclusive language as bowing down to ‘trans orthodoxy’.
  • The aim of this stereotyping is to dehumanise trans people – to make them appear less than human – which makes it easier for others to act against them.

Your identity

  • Is your gender and/or biology being weaponised to make you less sympathetic to trans people? For example, you might be made to imagine your genitals being ‘mutilated’ to make you less supportive of medical surgery.
  • Or perhaps because you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, you are encouraged to imagine anything else as invalid.
  • Or someone being trans is presented as a threat to your own gender. For example, the existence of trans women somehow being a threat to cis women and an effort to undermine the category of womanhood.
  • Or someone being non-binary is presented as a ‘loss’ to your gender. For example, a non-binary person who was designated female at birth might be presented as a loss to women and somehow responsible for further undermining women’s rights.
  • This narrative of loss is a pervasive one and often used against people of minority genders (e.g. trans and non-binary). Look out for the phrase “it’s such a shame”, for example, “it’s such a shame that X is non-binary now” – this invalidates their gender and incorrectly assumes that the gender they were assigned at birth is their ‘true’ gender.
  • I’ve also heard this used in the context of protecting young people. For example, “I’m worried that young women seeing ‘older women’ come out as non-binary will feel that’s their only option.” This both invalidates the non-binary person’s gender and makes it seem that not being cisgender is somehow a bad thing turned to out of desperation and unhappiness.

As the moral panic sets in so transphobic prejudice and hostility increase, as does indifference to the suffering and lived experiences of trans people. You might be experiencing this. For example, do you baulk at the idea of gender inclusive toilets because you think trans women are dangerous men in dresses? Or do you think medical surgery shouldn’t be allowed for transgender people because you think of it as mutilation? Or you think transgender people shouldn’t be allowed to self-identify? Or that trans people receiving counselling and therapy is the equivalent of undergoing conversion therapy (a type of torture that is still legal in the US and UK, as well as many other places)? All of these views undermine trans equality and in having/expressing them you are part of the process of making society more hostile to trans people. You encourage transphobia. This makes it easier for transphobic politicians to enact transphobic changes to the law because there will be more support for them. It also makes it easier for violent transphobes to attack and/or kill transgender people. You might decry violence but societies in which transphobia is more widespread have higher anti-trans crime rates. Meanwhile, widespread indifference and hostility makes it harder for trans people to access the support services they need. This endangers their well-being and mental health and results in higher homelessness and suicide rates. You might not want trans people to be made homeless or to take their own lives but your transphobia contributes to a process that makes these things happen.

There is a causal chain that connects all transphobic beliefs to the violence experienced by trans people, which includes verbal abuse, physical assault, corrective rape, murder, mental health decline, suicide, homelessness, economic instability, unemployment and unhappiness. Prejudice facilitates the suffering of others. Ignorance and indifference exacerbate it.

The antidote to moral panic and its consequences is to inform ourselves, empathise and take political action to enshrine trans rights and equality. Look to trans people and learn about their experiences and stories. Read up on what it means to be transgender (rather than assuming what you read in that one article written by a cis person is true). Acknowledge your prejudices – we all have them and that’s (sadly) just a fact of being alive today; challenge your prejudices by exploring their origins and learning new information; change them by becoming a trans ally rather than a transphobe. A moral panic depends on fear and fear depends on ignorance. The more we learn the less afraid we have to be and the harder it will be to manipulate us. To summarise, transgender people are not the problem, transphobia is the problem. A moral panic cannot take hold in a society free from ignorance and prejudice. We can and must create that society.

 

Trans flag

Transphobia, Part 6 – ‘Gender Critical Feminism’

A lot of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (aka TERFs) do not like being called TERFs and consider it a slur, even though it accurately describes their anti-trans (aka transphobic) views and beliefs. However, rather than question whether they should be organising to undermine trans rights and equality they often come up with new language that sounds a little ‘softer’ and makes their transphobia seem a little more palatable. So we get the term ‘gender critical feminist’ instead. In this post I will explore a few of the ‘arguments’ ‘gender critical feminists’ put forward for undermining trans rights and equality. Much of this is a summary of the video by ace Youtuber, ContraPoints – do have a watch (below), she’s much funnier than I am!

First things first, all feminism is gender critical – gender norms and conventions are analysed, as are power dynamics between different genders. Meanwhile, different forms of feminism have different goals – e.g. some might want to eliminate gender while others wish for an increased range of gender categories. But none of this is transphobic and trying to sneak transphobic views in under the umbrella of being ‘gender critical’ is disingenuous and deeply harmful (much like how racists rebrand racism as ‘race realism’ as ContraPoints observes). These transphobic views are usually based on a binary, biological and essentialist understanding of gender – i.e. that there are two genders, male and female, which are determined by the chromosomes and reproductive organs we have.

Thus, ‘gender critical feminists’ view trans people through this binary and reductive lens. So, for many ‘GFCs’ trans women are actually men in women’s clothes worthy of criticism. These criticisms include wearing clothing that’s ‘too feminine’, thereby perpetuating patriarchal standards of femininity; or appearing too ‘masculine’ and thus failing to meet the rights standards of femininity. Trans women can’t win either way and find themselves on the receiving end of prejudice disguised as a critique of patriarchy. The simple truth is that no one has the right to police how someone else appears and/or dresses. Trans people deserve the right to self-expression just like everyone else and liberating any group of oppressed peoples liberates us all.

‘Gender critical feminists’ use terms such a ‘trans ideologues’ and ‘trans orthodoxy’ to imply their is a homogenous group of trans people trying to make everyone trans or threatening children or just waiting to get into women’s toilets to commit acts of violence against cis women. Thereby, an association grows between these deceptively simple terms such as ‘trans dogma’ and the broader stereotypes that are used to dehumanise and harm trans people. Remember when J. K. Rowling criticised the use of the term ‘people who menstruate’ in an article on Devex and said the word should be women. However, Rowling’s comments ignored trans men and non-binary people. So, an attempt to use more inclusive terminology was tarnished as an effort to repress cis women and was connected with this broader anti-trans narrative that trans people, especially trans women, are a threat to other women. However, no trans-inclusive feminism would expect a cis woman to stop calling herself a woman and the article even spoke of the “girls, women, and gender non-binary persons [who] menstruate”. Rowling’s implication that women were being erased was actually an act of transphobic scaremongering. Regardless of whether one strives for a world without gender or one of gender abundance, feminism entails the championing of all women and this, of course, includes cis women. The existence of trans people is not an assault on cis people. Trans identities are not a threat – the threat remains the huge amount of violence perpetrated in the name of patriarchy.

ContraPoints focuses on other ways that ‘gender critical feminists’ weaponise issues around male privilege, reproductive oppression, gender stereotypes and gender metaphysics to further entrench their transphobia. Ultimately, she notes that all transphobia stems from the same place – visceral disgust. This isn’t rational even though it’s ‘rationalised’ in all sorts of horrible ways. Just like homophobes are disgusted by the sight of two men kissing, for example, so transphobes are disgusted by the existence of trans women. Likewise, they may well be disgusted by the sight of a trans man or even angry that he’s ‘betrayed’ his ‘true’ gender, i.e. female. I would add that transphobia (and queerphobia in general) also stems from fear, e.g. a fear of cis men misapplied to trans women who are inaccurately seen as men; or even the fear of oneself (many straight men fear they may be somewhat attracted to other men and take this fear out on gay, bi and queer men). It’s a sad old story and the endless abuse of this disgust and fear is setting human rights back decades and causing untold harm to trans people around the world, as well as bolstering support for far more extremist and terrifying worldviews.

I realise in describing people as TERFs over and over again, as I have done in this post, it may seem like I am dehumanising them and reducing them to their prejudice. However, just as with the terms racist, sexist, homophobe and transphobe, I think it’s important to have terminology which makes visible people’s prejudices, so they can be held to account for them. I also think it’s important to resist and criticise efforts to rebrand prejudice to pass it off as something more acceptable. When it comes to TERFs and ‘gender critical feminists’ the end result is still the on-going verbal, legal and physical assault of trans people. And even if a TERF might decry the use of physical violence their views facilitate it. A further irony is that TERFs will decry the use of the term TERF as an offensive slur while continuing to misgender trans people and refusing to acknowledge their existence and humanity. Prejudice is the real problem here, not the term being used to describe someone’s prejudice. Imagine if someone said they were ‘race critical’ or ‘Judaism critical’ or ‘women critical’ – we would immediately know we’re dealing with prejudice and bigotry. The same is true for this transphobic brand of ‘gender critical feminism’.

Just To Clarify, It Is Your Fault

Spoilers for It’s A Sin

There is a beautiful moment at the end of It’s A Sin, Russell T. Davies’ new series exploring the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when Jill Baxter confronts Valerie Tozer, mother of her best friend Ritchie, who died the day before from AIDS. As well as not telling Jill when it happened, Valerie also made it impossible for her to see Ritchie and say goodbye. In response, Jill tells Valerie that it’s all her fault – the lack of support Ritchie had around his sexuality throughout his life, the shame he lived with about his sexuality, how that shame kept him sleeping with other men and passing on the virus. “Actually it is your fault, Mrs Tozer. All of this is your fault.”

I agree.

I shall not specify who the you of this blog post is because I hope you know if you’re the sort of person who does not champion and support the LGBTQ+ community and makes our lives harder be it through ignorance, indifference, antipathy, prejudice, bigotry and/or violence. Whether you are the sort of person who espouses transphobic views or shames men who have anal sex. Whether you think non-binary people are simply confused about their gender or that bisexual people don’t exist. Whether you think queer people deserve to burn in hell or are welcome in your congregation so long as they tone it down. For these things and more you form part of a long legacy of queerphobia that has killed thousands and thousands and thousands of LGBTQ+ people.

The suicide statistics. The self-loathing. The homelessness. The depression. Loneliness. Anxiety. Fear. Shame. Trauma. Isolation. Self-harm. It is your fault. You make us hate ourselves or you simply ignore us so we think we are invisible and worthless. You tokenise and stereotype us. You feign largesse by letting a few of the ‘not so bad’ ones have a seat at your table. You take pride that there aren’t any gays in your family. You silence transgender voices with your transphobia. You still say bad stuff’s gay. You steal our stories and tell them badly. You turn the homophobia of the 1980s into the transphobia of today. You say we are a threat to children.  You make the quest for Queertopia next to impossible by decimating, over and over again, the efforts we LGBTQ+ people make to build community. Some of you don’t. Some of you are beautiful & brilliant and I couldn’t live without you but this post isn’t for you.

I don’t want to exchange the shame you give for more shame. I don’t want you to feel worthless and miserable but I want you to stop killing us, literally and metaphorically. I need you to take responsibility for your actions and inactions and I need you to learn. It’s too late – for so many – but there is still time. It’s too late – fascism is alive and well – but there is still time. Take the blame, then turn it into something better. Make this blog post redundant. You can start by watching It’s A Sin.

The Culture Wars: This Snowflake Will Not Fall

Wikipedia says that a culture war “is a cultural conflict between social groups and the struggle for dominance of their values, beliefs, and practices. It commonly refers to topics on which there is general societal disagreement and polarization in societal values is seen.” One such culture war taking place is that between Generation Woke and the Anti-PC Brigade. On one side are the unreasonable Millennials and Gen-Zers who demand trigger warnings and don’t like homophobic slurs in their Christmas songs. On the other are the fusty defenders of common sense who’ll regularly be heard saying that political correctness has gone mad and defending their right to say or sing faggot. But the trouble with labelling this conflict a culture war is the implication that both sides are meeting on a level playing field.

But there’s nothing level about the battlefield of the culture war. A prominent example from 2020 would be J.K. Rowling’s transphobic comments. What could have necessitated an important discussion on transphobia and the amount of hostility transgender people experience on a daily basis instead became a battle between those defending Rowling’s right to make transphobic comments and those on the receiving end of that transphobia. Likewise, the option to listen to the Fairy Tale of New York without having to hear the homophobic slur faggot became a battle between those defending the right to use the slur (often straight people who never professed to be LGBTQ+ allies) and those who have been on the receiving end of that slur for decades, such as myself. The conversation was predictably diverted from the discussion of homophobia and how it affects people to one decrying over-sensitivity and Planet Woke. Think also of Black Lives Matter and how the Conservative party was so quick to label them as “political”, as noted in a great gal-dem article: “we have seen [the Tories] try to frame anti-racism as a partisan issue; a calculated move intended to divide the population and distract from the reality that structural injustice exists in all facets of life – including at both ends of the political spectrum.” It’s that sleight of hand again, distracting us from the deeper, systemic issues and making us think it’s just that lot making unreasonable demands.

Those standing up against transphobia, homophobia and racism are stereotyped as the “woke brigade”. We’re called overly sensitive and ridiculed for it. But I think that’s just it – it’s not that we’re overly sensitive it’s that we’re sensitive. We aren’t divorced from our feelings and have the ability to translate them into empathetic acts of resistance and solidarity. Meanwhile, our detractors hate this because not only are their various privileges being threatened – namely the “privilege” to be transphobic, homophobic and racist and, boy, do people hate it when they get called out – but in demonstrating compassion the so-called snowflakes are revealing a faculty that their oppressors struggle to access. As well as prejudiced, oppressors are also traumatised, but rather than seek support and healing, they weaponise their pain and project it at others – those they have been taught to hate and who they think are a threat. The irony is that while these oppressors are so quick to decry and ridicule the sensitivities of those they oppress they are themselves hugely sensitive and just as quick to act defensively if they perceive they are being threatened. But a gay man asking for less homophobia isn’t actually a threat – he’s just someone who wants a bit more peace in the world, for everyone (even his oppressors!). Sadly though, the oppressors do not see this and, deeply ashamed of their own feelings and many, many aspects of their own identities (founded on a bunch of misperceptions, stereotypes and contradictions), they take it out on those around them. And they’ve been doing it for a long, long time.

What the culture war narrative does so successfully is distract us from a far larger war waged for centuries, on many fronts, against women, people of colour, indigenous people, queer people, transgender people, disabled people, neurodivergent people, people of oppressed religions, to name but a few. This war has long been fought by colonisers, fascists, misogynists, and queerphobes, amongst others. The history of this war is a violent legacy of genocide, colonisation, displacement, torture, abuse and terror. The culture war narrative elides this greater truth and trivialises larger pleas for justice and peace. And I call bullshit. I am proud to be a snowflake – to be sensitive to injustices, ones I experience and ones others experience. Nor am I ashamed of the multiplicity of feelings in my heart, vital for allowing me to listen, empathise, act and learn from my mistakes. So even though it’s (nearly) Christmas, this snowflake will not fall.

Transphobia, Part 4 – Cisgender Privilege

Instead of taking the time to learn about what it is and means to be transgender, many people fall back on prejudiced and/or under-informed thinking. Rather than listen to trans people they shout them down. Rather than defend trans people against transphobia they defend the people making the transphobic comments. Rather than acknowledge that their own views might be transphobic they double down on the same transphobic views. There are many reasons for this including people’s refusal to accept that transgender people exist. A further reason is that the existence of transgender people may challenge the views and beliefs we have around our own gender, not least that we may be cisgender – a term for people whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth.

Many people recoil at the thought of being cisgender and ridicule the concept entirely when actually it is very simple to understand and also very common. Loads of people are cisgender and that’s totally ok! The cisgender identity does not undermine someone’s existence, it simply acknowledges that their gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. Simple. It also makes clear that a person is not transgender and, therefore, does not have to experience the sort of violence and prejudice a transgender person experiences because they are transgender – including verbal abuse, economic disadvantages, ridicule in much cultural media, physical assault and murder. That’s not to say a cisgender person will not suffer from these experiences but it will not be because they are transgender. Nor does it imply that cisgender people have an easy life full of luxury (privilege here doesn’t mean riches), it just means they are not transgender and won’t be faced with the issues transgender people face for being transgender.

However, all of the above depends on our ability to acknowledge that transgender people exist and, therefore, so do cisgender people. A comparison might be white people denying that they are afforded certain privileges because they are white rather than black or brown. Or that black or brown people don’t exist. Another comparison could be men refusing to acknowledge male privilege. Or refusing to acknowledge the existence of women (they might instead see women as objects or lesser forms of men). If any of these possible views strike you as ridiculous, please know that it is just as ridiculous to not believe in transgender people and to deny cisgender privilege. For more information on cisgender privilege take a look at this useful website. To be continued…

Transphobia, Part 3 – A Broader Conception of Gender

Broadening our understandings of gender will allow us to be better trans allies and, thus, lessen the amount of transphobia there is in the world (of which there is so much). However, many of us do not do this and view the world through a binary lens – that the only genders that exist are male and female and these genders are synonymous with assigned biological sex. This view may be able to incorporate, to an extent, people who are perceived to transition from one binary gender/sex to another but this can still prove difficult to understand/accept, not to mention the existence of other genders. This view is the root of a lot of transphobia and one I used to hold.

Returning to my first post on transphobia, I described my 19 year-old self holding transphobic views towards a gender-nonconforming person who I assumed to be a man dressing up as a woman. I took certain physical characteristics and assumed this meant the person was male and made particular assumptions about the gender of the clothing they wore. I see it differently now. Firstly, an item of clothing cannot have a gender. It can, however, be generally worn by a particular gender (e.g. like how trousers used to be mainly worn by men) but this still doesn’t mean I can make any assumptions about a person’s gender based on their clothes. Remember, also, that the reasons certain items of clothing are associated with a particular gender often have to do with societal expectations, norms and/or prejudices (e.g. that women shouldn’t wear trousers). Furthermore, I cannot assume someone’s gender based on their physical appearance. Instead, I could ask someone for their pronouns and/or talk to them about their gender identity, if it felt appropriate to do so. Otherwise, I could just refrain from making assumptions and wait until I acquire further information or, perhaps, just not know those details about that person.

Another example would be my experience of being a cisgender male – i.e. being gendered in the same way as my birth sex was assigned (based on my genitalia). For a long time I believed that to be a man one must have testicles and a penis and be able to produce sperm. Now, my view has changed – I do not believe having certain genitalia and the ability to produce motile gametes are the hallmarks of the male gender. My view of the category of man includes people who have vaginas and can give birth, e.g. people who might call themselves trans men. I will not police the category of man, instead, I will welcome my trans brothers. Many, many people struggle with ideas such as these and the question remains the same – can we broaden our understandings of gender to embrace greater diversity or will we hold on to our current beliefs? As someone who identifies partly as genderqueer and who is also a trans ally I, of course, seek to enlarge my understanding and hope you will do so as well. It can seem confusing and difficult but I think going on this journey of learning is totally worth it and will lessen violence and increase love – my central aim (one many people are opposed to or claim to support until they double down on their prejudices). To be continued…

As an important caveat – many of the explanations and definitions I offer are not universally shared, which is a reminder of how important it is to not make assumptions and to spend time trying to understand other people’s beliefs and worldviews.

Trans, Transgender, Flag, Pride

Transphobia, Part 2 – What Does Transgender Mean?

For a long time I assumed if someone was transgender it meant they used to identify as either male or female and now they identified as the opposite gender. I believed this because I assumed gender to be a binary – either male or female. Add to this my belief that the prefix trans- only meant across, i.e. a transgender person crosses from one gender to another. However, a deeper dive into the etymological origins of the prefix reveals that as well as across, through and on the other side of, it can also mean beyond. Add to this the realisation that gender is not a binary and there are many genders beyond female and male. And finally, an actual definition of the adjective transgender: denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.

All along transgender had a broader definition than I originally knew – while it definitely encapsulates those who transition from one gender to another, e.g. male-to-female, it also includes people who do not identify as either male or female, including non-binary, genderqueer, and neutrois. So trans can be seen as an umbrella term covering a wide range of gender identities, including one of my own. This is easily forgotten when we assume all that exists is the gender binary. Furthermore, deeper into the etymology and we come to the Proto-Indo-European (super old language) *tra-, a variant of the root *tere-, meaning cross over, pass through, overcome. As well as the idea of movement there is also the idea of overcoming, which (accidentally or not) relates to the huge challenge of being a transgender person in today’s world. Such prejudice and violence must be overcome so transgender folks can simply survive, let alone live the flourishing and brilliant lives they deserve.

2020 is asking a lot of us and one of the things I think it asks is that we broaden our conceptions of gender (and biological sex for that matter). I can’t see a way forward without this. Failing to understand the nuances and abundances of gender means we fail all the folks whose sense of personal identity and gender do not correspond with their birth sex, of whom there are millions, myself included. By informing ourselves and changing our behaviours accordingly we will be able to remove some of the many challenges that trans people are forced to overcome on a daily basis. To be continued…

transgender flags

Hogwarts School of Gender Abundance

I was born into a world of gender scarcity and binary. The doctor saw a penis between my legs and sorted me into male. If I’d had a vagina it would have been female. That was it, apparently. This decision to gender me as male fundamentally changed my life and the expectations people had for me and meant I was sent to all-boys’ schools from the age of eight. Ten years later and I arrived at university with a bunch of unresolved anger issues, an inability to process my feelings, shame around even having feelings and a legacy of bullying/being bullied. Given the nature of my schooling (private in the south of England) I was also encouraged to be racist, sexist, and classist, amongst other things. It wasn’t until my first trip to Embercombe, at the age of 25, that I was asked to express my emotions in a vulnerable and open manner. It was really hard. That was when I realised just how thick the armour of day/boarding school really was. An armour that I put in place to protect me from the system I was being schooled through, which ultimately became a straightjacket and hindered my emotional growth and ability to form functional relationships (both platonic and romantic). It was also during my mid-twenties that queerness, for me, became something embodied as well as intellectual. When I looked beyond my gonads, my assumed Y chromosome and my particular hormonal balance, I didn’t find a man (a Slytherin!), I just found me, Robert. At heart I believe myself to be genderqueer even though I still present as cis-male in most of my day-to-day life. It is only in certain spaces, where I feel safe, do I say I use the pronouns they/them as well as he/him. I am not as vocal about this as I could be and, in part, this is me cashing in on my privilege, it’s also protection from the endless ignorance and prejudice I encounter from people I know (not that they would necessarily consider themselves ignorant or prejudiced). It’s been a long old journey, sometimes heart-crushingly lonely, other times euphorically connected, and it isn’t ending it. I am absolutely committed to building Queertopia, rainbow brick by rainbow brick.

But things would have been so different if I’d gone to Hogwarts School of Gender Abundance…

Here there are not just two houses, male or female, in fact, there aren’t any houses at all, not because identities don’t exist but because we are all united in allowing one another to express our myriad identities. We make space for that, so much space. There’s the whole LGBTQQIAAPP2S community and more besides. There are transgender women, non-binary folx, genderqueer kidz, cisgender men and a whole rainbow panoply of fantastic people. We don’t get sorted into boys-are-blue, girls-are-pink, but if a boy likes blue and a girl likes pink then that’s absolutely wonderful. Meanwhile, all of us get to do DIY and cooking and all of us are shown how to process and share our emotions. Being strong, compassionate, kind, brave, fun, caring and adventurous are traits we all get to enjoy (without being forced to!) because we know that these traits are human traits and not limited to particular genders. We also recognise the fluidity and flux inherent in identity and create space for change and exploration, throughout our lives, yup, right up until the end. At this Hogwarts the repressive binary of a gender scarce world has been transcended as we revel in gender abundance, respecting and encouraging all our myriad identities. There’s so much less bullying here than there was at my private schools because here life’s about collaboration and building something wonderful together. Sure, we compete in the odd Quidditch match but factionalism beyond the pitch is not encouraged and there’s no stupid house cup because everyone wins at Hogwarts School of Gender Abundance. The irony is that at my all-boys’ schools I was trained to win and for so long in my life I feared being a ‘loser’. It was shameful. Until a number of breakdowns and identity crises taught me just how much I had really lost by trying so desperately to win. If anything, my prize was alienation from my own soul (a word I use to refer to the entirety of one’s unique, embodied self). Finding it again transcends the very concept of victory (and it feels fab!).

If you’d like to build Queertopia with me or know anyone that might, please do get in touch, hello@robertholtom.co.uk

Stranger In The Village by James Baldwin

Stranger in the Village is James Baldwin’s final essay in his collection Notes of a Native Son published in 1955 when he was 31. The essay details his time in a small Swiss village around four hours from Milan. It soon became clear that many, if not all, the white villagers had never met a black man before. Their reactions ranged from fascination to suspicion and he describes how some of the children would try to touch his skin and hair. He found the behaviour shocking and writes that while “there was certainly no element of intentional unkindness, there was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder.” Unlike his experiences of racism in the US that sought to dehumanise him through violence and debasement, the racism of the Swiss villagers dehumanised him through ignorance.

Their ignorance stemmed from their ability to live their lives totally unaware of black people as real people and of the legacies of European colonialism. Yet it was precisely from Europe that colonialists and empire builders went forth, inflicting genocide, slavery and conquest over so many of the world’s countries. Baldwin notes that inherent to this colonisation was the idea of white supremacy, “that white men are the creators of civilisations…and are therefore civilisation’s guardians and defenders.” Crucial to Baldwin’s essay is the reminder (or lesson) that white supremacy is a European idea.

I was never taught this lesson, in fact, I was schooled in white supremacy. I grew up in an almost exclusively white village, went to almost exclusively white private schools and studied at a predominantly white university (Oxford). Throughout my life I have been taught racism: in the colonial propaganda that passed as history, the privilege to never have to think of the colour of my skin and the prejudice I was encouraged to show towards people with darker skin. I was told the world was my oyster. As Baldwin wrote of the Swiss villagers, “these people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it.” I have never been made to feel like a stranger because I am a child of empire. I have inherited white supremacy and, as I re-educate myself, so I learn of the history of European colonialism, upon which so much of the ‘modern’ world was founded. Whether we learn our lessons or not is one of the crucial questions facing white people. Whether we choose to defend the legacies of oppression and its statues, or whether we stand with Black people and make space for the healing of traumas inflicted by white supremacy. Fortunately, as statues fall, syllabi are changed, police are defunded, we know that change is possible. Here’s to a world in which no one is a stranger.

This post only deals with a fraction of Baldwin’s essay and I recommend you read it for yourself along with his other great works.