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

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.