The Trouble With Trans People, Is Cis People

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

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

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

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

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

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I Call Bullshit Again: Bored Of Being Polite To Bigots

A few posts ago I was encouraging people to take an empathetic stance towards Trump voters, trying to understand the lives they live, the difficulties they face and why they might vote for someone like Donald Trump. That was, however, before the election result and now that Trump is in the White House I think things have changed. Someone who promoted racism, sexism, disablism, Islamaphobia and a whole host of other prejudices is now not just the surprise candidate he is the surprise president (and don’t forget that he called for bombing civilians, waterboarding and stealing Iraq’s oil). He might be backtracking on his wall and offering a fence instead and he might be telling people to ‘stop, just stop’ committing violence towards minorities but it is precisely those things that helped get him into the White House. So, once again, I call bullshit to bigotry.

I’ve heard a few people, Barack Obama included, say we should accept the situation and just move on (y’know, that keep calm and carry on bullshit), accepting that Trump has been voted president and hoping he makes good of it. Well, as he welcomes people with even more extreme views into his team, denies climate change and courts demagogues I can’t see this ending well. This guy has profited from capitalism, flaunted the rules and grabbed pussy to boot. There is nothing progressive about this man and just because he called bullshit to the political status quo does not make him a trump card (yup, that word is marred forever). He’s a supercharged Nigel Farage who wants to use inequality, social dissatisfaction and age-old rivalries to promote his political success. He doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process so please, please can we carry on calling bullshit to Donald Trump.

And back to that post about empathy. I think it’s pretty easy for someone in my privileged position – white, male, financially secure, not in America, rarely on the receiving end of prejudice – to make simplistic statements about striving to understand people different to myself but if said people have just voted in someone who will make your life incredibly difficult and add fuel to the fires of hatred in your country then the last thing I imagine you want to do is get empathetic (getting a gun probably seems like a safer bet). Rebecca Solnit, Bernie Sanders, Owen Jones and Noam Chomsky are just some of the few calling bullshit and I reckon we should join them. And more than just calling bullshit we need to get organised. For those of us who can, we need to offer support to those facing prejudice because history has not been made by people turning their backs. We also need to ensure that Trump and his equivalents elsewhere do not have it easy – the Republicans made Obama’s presidency tough, so let’s make sure the Democrats do the same rather than just passively endorse the rise of hate. And, yes, empathy and compassion are important too and so is not stereotyping an entire group but Trump is in the White House and the many wars that the ‘West’ has always waged against itself (e.g. black people v. white people in the US, ‘nationals’ v. immigrants in most countries, rich v. poor, rural v. urban) are getting worse and worse. And sure, as the privileged person I am, I am yet to be at the receiving of said prejudices but I’m not going to wait until I get punched in the face before I do something about it. Trump is in the White Horse. This is not OK. And may I remind you that this has led to the return of Sarah Palin and we all know who she is. She says Trump’s presidency is “going to be so much fun” and that just sounds like a threat. So, game on folks, it’s time to wing a whole load of bullshit at those bigots (and here’s a link to the SNL parody of Palin’s speech but I couldn’t decide which was more funny/depressing/scary).

Queer People Need You!

Do you have to be Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex or Asexual to care about LGBTQIA issues?

Answer: No!

Now here’s a blog on how to be a queer ally, however straight you are.

But first the word ‘queer’. Why am I using it? Many might know it as a term of offense used to denigrate LGBTQIA people and this is certainly true. As a word it simply means ‘strange, peculiar or eccentric’ from the Old High German twerh ‘oblique’ itself coming from the Proto-Indo-European root *terkw ‘to turn, twist, wind’. By the late 19th century it was being used to describe homosexual people in a pejorative fashion. Fortunately, by the 1980s the word was being reclaimed by queer activists and scholars. And now queer is used as an umbrella term for people who don’t identify as heterosexual and are not cisgender (i.e. do not identify with the sex they were designated at birth). Interestingly, if I tell you I’m queer I’m not actually telling you that I fancy people of the same gender, or of both genders, or identify as the opposite sex. No, those exceptionally personal issues (what I do in my bedroom and how I relate to my own body is my business, not yours!) are not revealed instead I am saying I challenge the binary nature of gender (i.e. male or female) and any essentialisation of people for their sexuality. Of course, the queer community is a large and diverse one and even though I use the term to refer to the LGBTQIA community in general many might not. Many will prefer LGBTQIA and many will use queer to mean something else. However, for the sake of this blog I am using it as the umbrella term described above.

Anyways, in case you missed it, that was lesson one on being a queer ally – understanding the lingo, very important. Lesson two is about using it and this will vary from person to person. I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve often had people try to define my sexuality for me – people would label me with terms I never used to describe myself sometimes because they wanted to understand me, pigeonhole me and/or bully me. When it comes to politics I consider myself queer – I challenge gender and sexuality norms and I advocate for the equality and rights of the LGBTQIA community¬† – but when it comes to my personal life, am I gay, bi-sexual, queer or something else? None of your business! So please don’t assume you know what my sexuality is because you don’t and don’t ask me either unless you feel it’s appropriate to. If you’re straight the likelihood is you won’t be asked to defend your sexual preferences on a regular basis or even reveal them so please stop asking me what I like to do with my sexual organs! Just be happy with the knowledge that I am Robert and I’m a queer activist. However, I’m just one example, and many people are bisexual, transgender, gay etc and want to be recognised as such – it’s your job to find out what that means to them and to use the appropriate terminology.

Lesson three is about stereotypes. We’ve all got a bunch of them in our heads be they the mincing queen, the butch lesbian, the greedy bisexual, the weird old gay guy etc, and without even thinking about it we project them at other people. One I often get is when I ask to be introduced to other queer men and people immediately assume it’s for sex, I must be one of those “promiscuous gays.” Unfortunately, much of the time I’m just wanting to meet more people from a community I consider myself part of, yet people are still quick to pigeonhole me. Even worse is that if I do ask to be introduced to a man because I’m attracted to him I then conform to the “promiscuous gay” stereotype and just confirm everyone’s prejudices. So I’m screwed either way (although, ironically, maybe not screwed in the way I might want to be!). So those stereotypes you’ve got, whatever they are, just drop them. Even if you think you see someone conforming to a stereotype, they really aren’t because they’re a human and they come with a rich and varied story of their own. It won’t help you or them if you reduce them to a few tokenistic gestures and even if they do like to gesture in that way that doesn’t make them the stereotype. And remember, the more we stereotype minority groups the easier it is to pigeonhole them, to margininalise them, to dehumanise them, to ignore them and to hurt them. So it’s hashtag time, #humansnotstereotypes.

There are so many more lessons to be learned, for all of us, but for now I’ll sign off this post with an ace song from gay twins Tegan and Sara because, surely, even if it’s for sex or just friendship we all would benefit from getting a little closer. And just in case you find the concept of learning lessons about queer people a little patronising then please just see this as a chance to learn more about an awesome bunch of people who can make awesome friends and allies, and who throw pretty epic house parties (oh, and one other thing, never use ‘gay’ as a pejorative adjective. Nope. Don’t want to hear it. Just never. Thanks).

We Need To Not Talk About Germaine Greer

Germaine Greer has made her point – she doesn’t like trans people and she doesn’t like being no-platformed (as a petition has called for at Cardiff University). She’s made her point and so many of us are repeating it for her, amplifying her voice so it drowns out many others. But I think there’s something else we need to talk about.

Transphobia is the intense dislike of or prejudice against transsexual or transgender people. It takes many forms Рfrom extreme violence including murder and assault through to hate speech and everyday-acts-of-prejudice (e.g. hostile stares, offensive comments). One particularly distressing case of transphobia occurred in May last year. Two trans women were assualted on a train in Atlanta, US, and one was stripped. Passengers on the train cheered, filmed the attack on their phones and posted it to social media. The terror of this event speaks for itself.

I think it is against this context that we must understand Germaine Greer’s comments. She is openly transphobic and for anyone who is part of or cares about the trans community this is deeply distressing. I can understand why people would want to no-platform her as her regressive views continue to dehumanise and disregard trans people. However, the problem is that this is the problem – whether or not Greer should be no-platformed, when really the graver issue is the amount of persecution the trans community faces.

Yes, we can debate no-platforming and yes we can try to understand why Germaine Greer holds such prejudiced, transphobic views. But before that we must realise that what she’s saying will not help alleiviate the suffering that the trans community faces. It’s such a shame that the voices in the media that talk about trans issues so often belong to transphobes, where are the trans voices and the voices of trans allies? I think it’s time to stop talking about Germaine Greer and start talking about something else – namely transphobia and what we can do to stop it.

P.S. I’m a cis guy and the opinions in this blog are only my own – I am not claiming to write on behalf of the cis male community, the trans community nor Germaine Greer. You might also mistake me for one of those desperate, over-educated, white middle class people who thinks they have something to say about everything and who really wants to appear right-on and progressive. Well, I’ll let you be the judge.