I Loved Hearstopper But…

Big spoilers ahead. Without caveat I loved Heartstopper, the queer teen romance taking Netflix by storm. It centres on gay and out 15-year-old Charlie Spring (played brilliantly by Joe Locke) falling for the could-he-be-gay 16-year-old Nick Nelson (played equally brilliantly by Kit Connor). Turns out Nick’s bi and, eventually, the two finally get their romance. They’ve got epic friends as well and the series offers a true diversity of identities – lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans – and so many races beyond white. There’s also a teacher who wears a Pride Progress badge and offers the sort of sassy support all young queers deserve and there are even some parents who seem pretty okay with having queer kids. The show made me laugh, cry and cheer, I loved it. And while it did make me think of my adolescence and how I would have killed for a series like this, I’m just glad it’s here, now.

Thinking of my youth, when I was a teen I had Big Brother’s Anna Nolan (the gay ex-nun) and Brian Dowling (the gay flight attendant). I loved that show so much, especially as it introduced me to a world of diversity my boarding school lacked. What my boarding school didn’t lack was prejudice, homophobia, toxic masculinity, bi-erasure and bullying. I also didn’t have sympathetic parents or teachers I could turn to for support. I fought those battles alone. I also remember Queer As Folk, which was definitely not the family-friendly sort of show Heartstopper is, and Angels In America, which blew my teenage mind. Gay guys cropped up in Eastenders, Hollyoaks and Dawson’s Creek but something like Heartstopper, which is incredibly PG and lacking in violence and tragedy, just didn’t exist. What’s more, I don’t think a show like HS could have existed in my time. I can just imagine the backlash from the cis & straight majority. A majority hell-bent on educating queerness out of the youth (via Section 28) and stopping us having sex (the age of consent for male homosexuals was equalised with straights in 2000). I shudder at the thought of the hate-filled articles in The Times (just like the transphobic ones being written today) and all the ‘concerned’ parents speaking out on behalf of the ‘safety’ of their children. Furthermore, as a writer I couldn’t even have imagined writing a story like HS back in my teens. Gay-ish characters cropped up in my Soul Calibur and Final Fantasy fan fic but it wouldn’t be until much later that I created my first exclusively queer play, aka The Cluedo Club Killings.

But. Just because Hearstopper exists now and paints a nice (enough) picture of the queer teen experience, it doesn’t mean everything’s ok – far from it. There’s a review by Amanda Whiting in The Independent titled, “Heartstopper’s sunny vision of school queerness is a fantasy – but that’s OK”. Whiting comments on how predominantly great the school is in the show, a place where “a gay highschooler’s romantic experience isn’t significantly more traumatic than the regular highschooler’s romantic experience.” Whiting states that this isn’t realistic as the realities are often far more worse. But I’d argue that the vision of the school in the show is far from sunny – Elle Argent (played by the wondrous Yasmin Finney), a teenage trans woman, had to move to a different school because of transphobic bullying; Charlie is bullied for being gay (even though we only see a bit of this in the show); and the teacher who provides support does so in the privacy of his art classroom and there’s little sense any of the other teachers have anything to say. This isn’t sunny, it’s just less stormy. It’s also worth noting that a few people commented on Whiting’s review saying their experience of school is actually better, which fills my queer heart with joy. This is also why I’m being careful in this post to not generalise my experience of school to other people’s. Meanwhile, people are praising the character of Sarah Nelson, Nick’s Mum, played by the iconic Olivia Colman, for being “the world’s biggest and best ally“, mainly because she isn’t a massive bi-phobe when Nick comes out. But, again, I’ve got notes. For 16 years Sarah has assumed her son is straight until he tells her she’s not. That’s not allyship, that’s bad parenting. He’s the one who has to come out – which is a huge amount of emotional labour to expect of any teen and itself a product of oppression – while she’s done nothing to hack down the closet she and the rest of society built around him. She then makes a quick apology which, as far as I’m concerned, ain’t enough. I know Sarah Nelson is played by Olivia Colman but we can’t forgive her characters everything.

These observations are not criticisms of Hearstopper which I’ve made clear I lurve! They are criticisims of our relentlessly queerphobic society, which has fought against the creation of shows like HS for years (oh, but huge shout out to G.B.F. of 2014). And because queers of all ages have been dying for a show like this (and literally dying at the hands of said queerphobic society) it’s unsurprising we’re over the moon. I know I am. And because queers like me are so used to lowering our expectations and being grateful for whatever minor visibility we get (such as Scar in The Lion King), when we do finally get better representation it can seem like the weather is sunny when it’s actually still overcast. But Heartstopper isn’t trying to present a utopic view of school, instead it celebrates a diversity of queer loves and characters, and it does this perfectly. Five stars from me.

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On the topic of utopias, if we want a truly sunny vision of a school then I want it to be a school without bullying, without enforced toxic masculinity, without transphobia (and with more sports than blooming rugby which I know far too well from all my time at all boys’ school). When we imagine utopias we liberate ourselves and we uncondition our imaginations. We can dream as big as we want to (and then bigger still). And just because we can’t live in our fantasies doesn’t mean they can’t inspire us to make changes, even very small ones, in our own lives. I know, from personal experience, how painful the gap between reality and fantasy can be, especially if you’ve got a strong imagination, but I’m learning that our ideal places such as Queertopia or Heaven or Truham Grammar School for Boys are there to inspire us. These places exist within our hearts and minds, and they exist to liberate them too.

A Person With A Penis

At my local swimming pool there are two changing rooms – male and female. I change in the male changing room. I do this because I am biologically male (not that I’ve ever had a test to confirm I have a Y chromosome) and because for the majority of my life I was identified as male (note, I am differentiating sex and gender). As a kid I was called a boy and from the age of 8 I was sent to all boys’ schools. There I was taught how to be a man, often tough but there was fun to be had as well. I became attached to these identities – boy and man – and it wasn’t until I was 26 that I learnt what the word cisgender meant. Over the years I started to lessen my attachment to the gender identity of male and explored the words trans and non-binary, as well as using they/them pronouns. Now, somewhere into my thirties I identify as all and none of the above. Such a large part of my gender history is male and he remains a huge part of me. He’s the dude that got me here after all, so kudos to him. I am trans because I don’t exclusively identify as the gender I was assigned at birth. I am non-binary because I believe gender is so much more than the binary of male and female. I am also none of these things because I’m just me, Robert. It is this person who takes his clothes off in the changing room and puts their swimming trunks on.

This is my gender journey and it’s unique, as are the experiences of every dude who gets his swimmers on in the changing room. And I want to use this post to make clear that, as far as I’m concerned, all men are welcome in my changing room. And to be even clearer, I’ll use the word mxn with an ‘x’ as I’m not just talking about biologically male people who identify as men. Trans and non-binary men are also welcome. And just because I’m a person with a penis doesn’t mean I expect everyone in the changing room to have a penis. I don’t actually care about their genitalia, I just want them to feel they belong in this changing space. I also don’t find it inherently dehumanising to be referred to as a person with a penis when it’s appropriate, however, this time around, regarding the changing room, having a penis isn’t of interest to me because I know there are men with vaginas and intersex genitalia. All I ask is that people treat each other respectfully.

I also want to be very clear that my changing room isn’t trying to erase men. If there’s someone who was born biologically male and identifies as a guy (like my 18 year-old self did, for example) then he is blooming welcome in the changing room as is a trans dude who has just had top surgery as well as the non-binary guy with breasts and the cis guy with breasts. However, I do recognise that many trans men will have experienced transphobia from cis men, so I’ll try and do my bit as an ally, and ensure the changing room is as safe a place as possible for all the mxn who use it. I’m not sure if any of this can be said of the actual changing room I use given there are no messages or codes of conduct which make clear it’s an inclusive and safer space.

I write this post partly as a response to some of the articles I’ve read by “gender critical” feminists. In one the author wrote that, asides trans women being a threat to women (apparently), she never heard of men having to make space for trans men. I know this isn’t true and here’s my post to prove it. Some GC feminists also deny the existence of gender identity and speak only of biological sex (well, they speak only of male and female biological sex and ignore the others) and in doing so they erase my identity as trans, non-binary and a man. They just want me to be a biological male with a biological penis…and might even want me sent for “conversion therapy” to ensure I man up. Gender critical feminists (aka terfs, aka transphobes) want to exclude me from society whereas all I want to exclude is transphobia (and sexism and racism and inequality etc). I can assure you that even though a lot of cis women are causing me considerable pain I will not weaponise that pain and throw it back at them. Add to that all the pain cis men have caused me whether it was bullying at school, homophobia at university or queerphobia since but, again, I’m not anti-men, I’m anti-abuse. I want a world in which people of all genders and sexes can be safe. All men and mxn, all women and womxn, and all people are welcome in Queertopia.

Notes From A Terf Island

Just when I was going to write a blog post about Liz Truss, the UK Conservative government’s Minister for Women and Equalities, talking about the “ludicrous debates about pronouns”, Putin went and compared Russia being cancelled to J.K. Rowling being cancelled by “fans of so-called gender freedoms”. I mean, I’m a writer and I can’t write this stuff. Not to mention the other week when I flicked on BBC Politics in the afternoon and a group of middle-aged women were discussing the “crisis of well-being in the UK”, rather than be assured by the conversation I asked myself – how long before something transphobic is said? Answer: less than two minutes as a Baroness soon dismissed people’s “promiscuous” use of mental health when, for example, university students claim to experience PTSD in the wake of so-called transphobia. In these three examples my desire for they/them pronouns has been dismissed as “ludicrous”; my fandom of “so-called gender freedoms” has been dismissed by the man responsible for the invasion of Ukraine; and the pain of the experience of transphobia has been dismissed as “promiscuous”.

Over the past few years Britain has become an increasingly transphobic country. A moral panic is very successfully being stirred which paints trans and non-binary folx as dangerous, demanding, deluded and all manner of dehumanising tropes. We’re the enemy within, apparently, and the comments of the likes of Truss and Rowling simply affirm this. The moral panic is working. It’s divide and conquer – divide cis women and trans people, especially trans women, and set them off against each other. I’ve also seen this at play amongst my friends and acquaintances, but more on that another time. But you know me, I call bullshit. As a they/he, trans, non-binary, and a little bit cis, insofar that I do identify with the boy and man I used to be, I want a world for everyone, one full of gender freedoms and gender abundance. But what’s abundantly clear is how few people care about this world of gender abundance, caught up as they are in the moral panic, instead believing that trans liberation is a threat to cis people. I dream of Queertopia but I’ve got to live on terf island. So, as well as critique the issue (because there is so much to critique and I sure love a sassy blog post) I want to focus on how I’m going to survive and, hopefully, thrive in the face of systemic transphobia.

I’ll start by sharing this – that in all 30+ years of my life I have never been so trans, so non-binary, so queer, and just so much of me. I’m done with not being validated by those around me – I’ll validate myself, thanks. I’m done with being routinely dehumanised by mainstream society – I’ll humanise myself. I’m done with being told (in all manner of words and silences) that I am hated – I’ll love myself. It’s me, myself and I (hence the excuse for posting the below video). Not forgetting all the friends who do validate and love me, and all of those learning how to in the face of norms that have taught them the opposite. Not forgetting my therapist and also the wondrous Jeffrey Marsh, trans super guru! It’s tough living on terf island, really tough, but I’m tough too. And I am growing such a power within that one day the dehumanising and hurtful comments from BBC Politics, Rowling and others won’t have to hurt so much. One day.

250 Posts Later & Cancel Culture Ain’t The Problem, Pt 1

Coming up to seven years now since my first post and after everything that’s happened – Brexit, Donald Trump, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, climate change (still), covid-19, George Floyd’s murder, Sarah Everard’s murder, a transphobic moral panic, Putin invading Ukraine – you’d think that some of our critiques would focus on neoliberal capitalism, xenophobia, white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, femicide and transphobia. But no, according to many in the mainstream the problem is actually that thing called ‘cancel culture’. Previously referred to as ‘no-platforming’ and before that ‘political correctness’ (gone mad) as well as ‘rewriting history’, it’s that many-headed monster…yup, people demanding an end to prejudice and hate. Once again, I call bullshit.

No, the problem is not less powerful people speaking out against the violence, physical and/or psychological, of more powerful people. The problem is the more powerful people refusing to relinquish any of their power. Whether it’s white people getting called out for being racist, cis people for being transphobic, men for being sexist, people hate being faced with their prejudice and most of them will deny being prejudiced in the first place. But we already know all this and I, for one, am fed up of those around me (and beyond me) doubling down on their prejudice and ignorance. I’m exhausted from trying to explain gender diversity to my family and justifying why pronouns matter to my cis friends. They throw back the usual – ‘but it’s so important to have an open discussion’, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you’ and ‘I’m fed up of people I don’t know being angry about this on twitter’ – and I’m left right where I started but a little more hurt.

However, so many of these conversations are predicated on someone else’s assumption that I will stay and listen to what they have to say. I’ve done this a lot – listen. I’ve listened from a place of empathy, compassion and patience. But these past few years have killed that patience and I’m tired of people assuming they can say what they want to me because they feel ‘safe’ to express their prejudice at me. I work so hard to create safer spaces and, boy, it hurts when people use that space to hurt me. It becomes clear that they don’t care for my safety and well-being in the way I care for theirs and they often don’t even care for the validity of my existence as a trans & non-binary person. They cancel my very identity (while claiming cancel culture is the problem). And, surprise, surprise, when I challenge them on this they usually get defensive; either doubling down on their prejudice or denying it in the first place. I’m left where I started but much more hurt. But it’s time for change and 250 posts later there’s no time like the present. To be continued…

Why Build Closets When You Can Build Queertopia?

It was International Coming Out day on Monday 11th October and it got me reflecting. For so much of my life coming out was something I had to do for the benefit of other people – i.e. straight and cisgender people. When I told my parents I had a boyfriend the response was one of surprise and bewilderment. They didn’t have a clue what to do and so it fell on my teenage shoulders to carry the burden. When I told my parents I use they/them pronouns the response was one of surprise and bewilderment. They didn’t have a clue what to do and so it fell on my thirty-something shoulders to carry the burden. As you can imagine, I really want a massage.

Whenever heterosexual and cisgender people ask me when I came out the question makes me feel uncomfortable because it’s framed as something I had to do. No one ever asks the question – what did your parents do to champion you as a queer child? For me, coming out was predicated on being in. As a teenager I kept my sexuality hidden for years. I was surrounded by homophobia, both loud and quiet, and with each comment and microaggression so the closet was built around me. As a twenty-something I kept my gender hidden for years. I was surrounded by transphobia, both loud and quiet, and with each comment and microaggression, so the closet was built around me. Despite all this I barged my shoulders against the closet doors and forced them open. But rather than being met with love, solidarity and validation, I was met with surprise, neglect and continued microaggressions. I was still loved, though, and well loved, but it wasn’t a love that could adapt and expand to fit and understand queerness. While my first boyfriend came to stay for Christmas, for example, I was policed on who I could tell. This policing of my sexuality and gender was a regular feature of my twenties as I kept getting shoved back into the closet, “Don’t talk about these things in front of the kids”, “Don’t mention these things on your CV”, “Stop shoving it down our throats.” It’s not elephants, it’s closets all the way down.

As you can imagine, I’m tired of coming out. I’m exhausted by it. These closets were not of my making and all they’ve done is make my life harder. It’s not my job to tell straight people I’m gay and queer, it’s their job to stop assuming I’m straight. It’s not my job to tell cis people I’m non-binary, it’s their job to stop assuming I’m cis. I’m done with coming out for the very people who built the closets in the first place and then forgot I even came out! So, rather than come out those closets I’m going to burn them down. But even as I write this I realise there is a bigger closet than the one I was trapped in and that is the closet of cisheteropatriarchy. It’s a closet in which so many heterosexual and cisgender people are trapped in, even though they do not realise it. Instead, they’re left busily doing the thing they know best – building closets. It’s closets all the way down, after all.

To counter this somewhat bleak post I want to note a few times when coming out has been a joy. When I met one of my long-standing friends at uni and we both had got the same badge at Freshers’ week, it read, Homophobia Is Gay. Looking back, it’s a self-defeating badge which says a lot for the state of things back in 2007 but thanks to that badge my friend and I came out to one another. We then went on to become co-LGBT (I’m not sure if we had the Q on back then) reps for our college and, boy, did we have a lot to fight back then. We also threw some great parties. And just the other day I met someone for tea and we both came out as non-binary and it was a joy. Four hours later and it transpired we had a lot to talk about. It’s these experiences of coming out that I live for, when it’s not a struggle to barge open the closet doors but the closet kinda dissolves as we embrace who we are. After all, why build closets when you can build Queertopia?

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 5 – Feminism

There is a common misconception that the existence of transgender people is a threat to feminism. Much transphobia is levelled at trans women, who are considered to be threats to cis women (not that a transphobic person would call themselves cisgender because they question the existence of transgender people, as outlined in my previous posts). We saw this form of transphobia come up a lot last year, most notably by J.K. Rowling. In response, many people defended the comments made, defensively proclaiming that someone like Rowling isn’t and can’t be transphobic. But. Transphobia is interwoven into the fabric of our society and its norms, and regularly appears in our actions and beliefs. And rather than defend and double down on our prejudices we can acknowledge, challenge and change them.

I believe the origin of this form of transphobia lies in the widespread belief that men are threatening and violent. This view is underpinned by the huge amount of violence perpetrated by men towards women. However, this is a concern regarding cisgender men, not transgender women. But because many people do not believe or fully believe in transgender people, it is assumed that transgender women are actually just men dressing up as women and are, therefore, devious and a threat to other people, especially women and children. This is why they shouldn’t be allowed to use women’s toilets or changing rooms and why something like the Gender Recognition Act (which allows people to legally change their gender) should be questioned – because cisgender men will use it to pretend to be women so they can continue to commit acts of violence. This belief – that transgender women are actually just men – is both inaccurate and prejudiced, as are the resulting beliefs it produces, not to mention the huge amount of pain and suffering these beliefs cause. The truth is that transgender women are women.

Unfortunately, many people do not believe this and continue to dehumanise trans women while scapegoating them for the violence of cisgender men. Furthermore, even if a cis man were to pretend to be a woman so he could enter an all-female space to commit violence that still says nothing about trans women (or trans people in general) but everything about this particular cisgender man’s violence. I find it genuinely heart breaking to see trans people demonised and dehumanised in this way (just as gay men were once and still are regularly called paedophiles and perverts to justify undermining their human rights). The existence of transgender people really shouldn’t be up for debate just as we don’t question whether bisexual people exist or black people or cis women. I believe it is possible to articulate a form of feminism that champions all women, including cis and trans, and protects the reproductive rights of all women. Broadening our conception of womanhood does not dilute it but diversifies and strengthens it. This isn’t about trying to limit any women’s rights or limiting her access to spaces and resources. This is about enshrining more rights and creating more spaces and providing more resources. It’s about recognising the Patriarchy Pie is inherently unjust and causes minorities and oppressed groups to fight one another, rather than make a new pie together. As someone assumed to be male, amongst other things, the patriarchy pie affords me many privileges. But rather than cash in on them and turn my back on others I say, bullshit! I want a better pie, that’s fairer and tastier, for everyone, and that absolutely includes trans people.

I make these comments as someone who was raised a cisgender man and who now identifies as genderqueer. I will absolutely not speak for women and whilst I wish for a world of equality I cannot force anyone to suddenly feel comfortable with change. There may well be discomfort on the road to change as assumptions we long held about gender are challenged and dislodged. But I believe the discomfort felt by cisgender people as they are made to question the gender binary is so much less than the discomfort and pain they create by being transphobic. The former, I believe, is necessary for positive change while the latter is totally unjustifiable and inhumane.

Federal judge allows transgender discrimination lawsuit against North Carolina officials and universities to proceed

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