Everyday Conversion Therapy

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

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

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

Transphobia, Part 7: Moral Panic

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

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

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

Threat to the safety of children and women

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

A threat to feminism and women’s rights

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

Medical transition as mutilation and dangerous

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

The ‘trans orthodoxy’

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

Stereotyping and dehumanising

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

Your identity

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

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

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

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

 

Trans flag

Transphobia, Part 6 – ‘Gender Critical Feminism’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transphobia, Part 1

There was one gay night a week when I was at university in the late noughties. Me and my friends would don our glad rags, have our prelash and pile into this tiny bar with a sweaty dance floor in the basement. I was nineteen years of age and a regular and pretty much always requested Candyman by Christina Aguilera. I remember one of the other regulars – long eyelashes, fabulous hair, glitter, make-up on point (as we say nowadays), feminine clothes and an array of body hair. I found this person equal parts captivating to repelling. I assumed they were male and used he/him pronouns (not that I spent much time thinking about people’s pronouns back then). I often found myself wondering why a guy would want to dress up like that. To my nineteen-year-old self this ‘guy’ was just weird.

Looking back I see my thoughts for what they were – transphobic. I was repelled by this gender non-conforming person and they evoked in me a whole host of internalised queerphobia, transphobia and misogyny. Why couldn’t they act like a normal man? Why did they dress so weirdly? What sort of guy would want to wear that much make-up (wasn’t guyliner enough)? Something else I also didn’t understand at the time was that I was deeply attracted to this person. But my mindscape was a shitshow of boarding school prejudices and conservatism with a big dose of toxic masculinity that I would have to battle for years to come. It wouldn’t be until the January sales of 2016 that I bought my first dress and not until the summer of 2018 that I wore a dress in public for a prolonged period of time. How sad that it took me so long when all those years ago that fellow regular at the weekly gay night (I don’t think it was called a queer or an LGBTQ+ night back then) was showing me how it’s done.

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I share this here as an instance of transphobia in my own life. It would be a much better world if I had not been transphobic in the first place and had treated my contemporary with the love and respect they deserved. Sadly that wasn’t how it worked out and it took me a long time to learn my lessons. So I share this post, now, so we can learn our lessons quicker and more compassionately because transphobia is on the rise and so many trans people are suffering – whether it’s their mental and/or physical health, personal safety and/or their life.

One thing I wish I knew back then was that biological sex and gender are different. The former, also known as assigned sex, relates to medical factors including chromosomes, hormones and genitals. There are at least five sexes, if not more, and the two most common we label female and male. Someone’s sex tells us very important things about that person, their biology and the sorts of care they might require in their lives. Meanwhile, gender relates to someone’s identity and behaviours, which relate to larger social practices/norms/pressures/expectations of what it means to be a certain gender. Often the birth sexes of male and female are used to denote gender based on genitals (and presumed chromosomes), however, as I know now, there’s so much more to gender than a binary.

I shall leave you with a very simple online 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. I wish my younger self  had this knowledge and understanding. I wish my younger self had sought it out. Instead, I was spending much too long analysing Descartes’ mind-body dualism (another binary we can do without) and sleeping off my various Wednesday morning hangovers. To be continued…

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

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!).