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

Man Down

What if to man up, us men actually had to man down? What if we had to step outside the heavily guarded and barbed wire bordered fortress of manness and take a look at the sites beyond the walls? So far, so vague? Well, let’s start with some definitions. Manness (which is actually a word!) means “the distinctive or differential characteristics of man.” Meanwhile, man has many definitions including a catchall for the entire human race (eye roll) and someone who expresses their brave, courageous manhood. But the one I’m interested in is “adult human male”, which brings me to the definition of male. This means both a male person: man or boy (seems the definitions are getting quite circular) and, crucially, “an individual of the sex that is typically capable of producing small, usually motile gametes (such as sperm or spermatozoa) which fertilize the eggs of a female.” OK! Being a man means being able to make sperm, got it!

It turns out the secret that us men are guarding at the heart of our manly fortresses is a splodge of small motile gametes. The definition doesn’t even have anything to say about willies and balls (but they’re implied), it’s just sperm. Naturally, it follows that a man, capable of issuing fertile ejaculate, should be virile, like his sperm, and strong, because I’m guessing those little gametes are tough? Given this, a man should not emote or display his feelings in public. He should appear tough at all times. He should play manly sports like rugby and football and get manly jobs like building and banking. He should be heterosexual, marry a woman, buy a house and have children, while being the breadwinner and letting his wife undertake the emotional labour for the entire family because folks with sperm don’t do emotions, am I right? He should put sentries at every corner of his castle and blast anyone who questions his manliness. That gay guy who’s just so darn camp: blast him. That woman who calls him weak: blast her. That trans man who calls into question his whole identity: blast ’em. That photograph of a hot male model on the tube: aahh, internal blast. Those feelings of sadness within: another internal blast. Those tears at night: internal blast! And so on and so on until this so-called man snaps.

An article in GQ written by Matt Haig states that 84 British men take their lives every week. It’s a shocking figure but it’s thanks to folks like Haig that male suicide is actually being talked about more. He goes on to say that “we need to change and broaden the idea of being a man.” He lists a few ideas including talking more about and not stigmatising mental health, and undoing the alpha male archetype of manliness. And what if he went further and questioned the very nature of man himself – this organism capable of producing motile spermatoza? What if we just knocked the walls down and let men be people, people capable of all sorts – compassion, strength, love, same-sex attraction, anger, football, creativity, kindness, ballet, sadness, loneliness, anxiety and beyond. What if being a man had nothing to do with sperm or gonads, something which trans men are reminding us of on a regular basis. What if to man up us men actually had to man down? Because a lot of cis men are going down and while there are so many factors to consider I think one of them is the fortress of manness – an empty, lonely sort of place that so often crushes the soul. To clarify, I’m not saying men need to stop being men if they don’t want to – it’s their identity after all – but I do think the man-conditioned is a being so often worth unconditioning.

Some People Are Trans. Celebrate It.

I’ve just filled out the government’s online consultation form regarding the Gender Recognition Act. The reality is saddening but the reform could be inspirational. At heart it’s about the right to one’s identity and the power of self-determination. So many of us get to take our identities for granted. We are assigned male or female at birth and that’s that but for trans, intersex and non-binary folks this is still a struggle that often entails discrimination, humiliation and isolation. We can change this and the epic LGBT+ charity Stonewall has a page on their website which guides you through answering some of the most important questions on the consultation. The deadline is soon, 19th October, and the process only takes about ten minutes.

I learned some pretty shocking things while filling out the form. For a trans person to have their gender legally recognised they have to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate. Not only is this process long and costly it also requires a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Yup. Being trans is regarded as a mental illness. But what of the many people who are trans and not suffering from gender dysphoria – how on earth do they have their true identity legally recognised? And what about intersex folk who were assigned the wrong gender at birth and want to change this in law? There’s also the requirement for a trans person to provide evidence of living in their ‘acquired gender’ for two years. What sort of evidence might this entail – wearing enough blue or pink, preferring rugby or cooking, being loud or quiet? And who on earth gets to decide if there is sufficient evidence?¬†We’re talking about people’s identities and their right to self-determination within and without the eyes of the law. It’s as simple and fundamental as that, which is why the intrusive and dehumanising process we currently have in place for applying for a GRC needs to change.

Filling out the form was an educational and empowering process, I feel I’m contributing to the potential for positive change in this country. It got me thinking as well. What if we just stopped assigning gender at birth? What if children are raised as children and there is an opt-in process for gender, with parental/guardian/carer consent prior to the age of 16 and then self-determination from 16+? What if we stopped obsessively gendering children from such a young age and pushing them down pink or blue paths, submission or aggression, compassion or callousness? What if we educated children to be good people – to treat one another with love and respect, to try the things they’re interested in and to never assault or harm? And while we’re doing this of course we can recognise the importance of gonads, hormones and the effect puberty has on different bodies, and maybe the key thing here is to talk about it and to stop shying away from conversations about sex, gender, sexuality, attraction, consent, romance and love. The GRA consultation is about stepping up for trans, intersex and non-binary folks and it’s also an opportunity for everyone else to explore their own genders and identities, emerging from the process with a stronger and more nuanced understanding of themselves. The times are changing and there really is a future in which we all win. Or maybe just a future in which identity and self-determination are no longer competitions rife with discrimination and prejudice but a chance for all of us to be ourselves brilliantly. And here’s the Stonewall link again (it only takes ten minutes!).

The Trouble With Trans People, Is Cis People

The BBC’s recent documentary Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? makes one thing abundantly clear – that the BBC does not know best when it comes to how trans kids should live their lives. Before I go on I want you to pause and reflect on how much you know about the experience of being transgender. Nope. Don’t read on, take a moment. I’ll put a paragraph break here to facilitate that process…

Ok, before you get irritated with me for being patronising that exercise was intended more for the people who know very little. Because I’ve had far too many conversations with people who are largely ignorant of trans experiences yet often attempt to speak for and over them. I believe the BBC’s documentary adds to this problem, which is why I want to challenge it. Yup, in essence, it’s another post in which I call bullshit.

“Here’s one of the things that’s lovely about being transgender, we mess with everyone’s theories of gender,” says Hershall Russell, a psychotherapist and activist, with a huge smile on his face. And it’s true. It was only in 2014 that I realised I was cisgendered: that I had always identified with the gender I was assigned at birth. I had never spent particularly long exploring my gender for myself and had always accepted that because a doctor assigned me male at birth, because they saw a penis between my legs, then I must be male. It’s 2017 now and I no longer consider myself cisgender and without going into the details the point I am making is that I have now taken the time to explore my gender for myself. This is something many of us will not do as we remain cisgendered and unquestioningly slot into the readymade binary of masculine and feminine that mainstream society offers us. Of course, as Russell says, everything gets messed with as soon as we realise it’s far less simple than the binary would have us believe and no one makes this more abundantly clear than transgender folk.

So, it’s tough to watch a BBC documentary in which much air time is given to Ken Zucker who, yes, was allegedly the world expert on gender dysphoria as the voiceover keeps reminding us but also an advocate of gender-reparative therapy, which encourages gender non-conforming kids to stop behaving in non-conforming manners. To put it bluntly (and somewhat crudely) this might involve stopping a boy from playing with Barbies or a girl wearing camo (and, once upon a time, may have involved electroshock therapy). There are a few problems here. Firstly, these are issues of gender expression and not gender identity, which the majority of trans activists would acknowledge are different, and don’t necessarily have anything to do with the experience of being transgender. Secondly, this is clearly a value-laden process that encourages/forces kids to conform so they can ‘fit-in’ because Zucker and the like think that will make them happier. However, the documentary gets even lighter on nuance at this point and given the lack of trans education available to the general public, can anyone really be expected to form a balanced opinion when the documentary isn’t even focussing on what’s in the title?

We need better documentaries than this and one reason for that is because I am bored of having the same conversations with ignorant cis folk. We have access to google, Ecosia and wikipedia – please use them. Everyone’s experience of gender is different including every transgender person – it is not up to anyone to make crass, reductive statements on behalf of anyone else. If you just can’t imagine what it might be like to be a different gender to the one you were assigned at birth, or if the thought of sex reassignment therapy ‘weirds’ you out, or if you do think we should all conform to the genders we were assigned at birth, then you’ve got lots of work to do. But I am afraid watching the latest BBC documentary isn’t going to be much help. The best place to start would be seeking out the lived experiences of trans folk by watching interviews or reading blogs. Begin to figure out how to empathise with lives that might be very different to your own and when it comes to gender, why not explore your own rather than dictating to others how they should explore and experience theirs. You could also watch the ace TV series Transparent.