The Trans Narrative

A good friend linked to an amusing little story the other day: Cissexuality as a Default. It’s a parody of “sympathetic” articles about trans people that turns things around somewhat. It’s not too long and I highly recommend taking the time to read it.

It made me think a little about how trans people tend to be portrayed in the media. I feel it’s often positive for trans people to have a media presence: after all, prejudice and fear often arise from ignorance, and it’s quite dispiriting to feel like you’re some lone freak rather than someone with a trait that you share in common with others. However, a good deal of trans media appearance probably do more to erase our identities than anything else.

This might seem paradoxical at first, but you’ve got to ask yourself about the nature of the trans stories you see in the UK media (when those stories exist at all). They’re usually about trans women: white, middle-aged, middle-class  trans women with “feminine” interests. Occasionally, we’re presented with a young, white, middle-class trans girl, but this is a bit more rare. Sometimes our trans woman might even be from a working-class background, but this is even more unlikely. I can’t remember the last time I saw a non-white trans girl or trans woman in the media…unless we’re talking about murder victims. It’s not so surprising that some more blinkered radical feminists link being trans with economic and/or race privilege.

Moreover, the story told is usually the same, as Cissexuality as a Default deftly demonstrates. Our brave trans woman (old name highlighted) is “different” throughout her childhood but struggles to come to terms with herself, goes through a low period, and finally decides to buy loads of make-up and come out. If this story is in a magazine, she probably also had a (single) partner to come out to as well, who will either have dumped her or slowly come to terms with the change.

This narrative accounts for the lives of many, but by no means the lives of a majority, let alone the lives of all. It’s dangerous because it often seems like the only narrative available to many trans people, and it therefore actively erases the identities of those who don’t fit the story from public conciousness.

According to this narrative, trans people are always transsexed (except when they’re cross-dressers, who usually have erotic motivations anyway). They usually conform to gender norms. They “always knew” they were trans. They’re monogamous! They are/were always “straight” or “gay”…bisexuality (let alone pansexuality) seems to be a no-no. And so on, and so forth. If you’re genderqueer, you don’t exist. If you’re a feminist, you don’t exist. If you’re a trans man, you probably don’t exist, unless you’re Stephen Whittle* (and even then you’re likely only to make a token appearance). This goes for some of the most positive and progressive trans appearances in the media as well as the more obviously regressive.

No wonder then that it’s that much harder for people to understand the concept of non-binary genders. No wonder that some are surprised to hear that trans men even exist. No wonder that many feel that they’re “not trans enough” to be taken seriously because they weren’t stereotypically feminine/masculine enough during their childhood, or they weren’t depressed enough during their teens.

The thing is, this isn’t just something the media does through ignorance or stupidity. It’s an active process. In Whipping Girl, Julia Serano writes about how TV producers in the USA insist that trans women in documentary features stick to the script: we’re talking about an appropriately feminine presentation, maybe a video of them getting dressed or applying make-up, and a suitable story. Serano’s account rang true for me, as it reminded me of my own experience with a magazine that wanted to write a story about myself and my partner of the time.

We had to tell our story to a writer, who had to adapt it to the cloyingly sickly “house style” of the magazine…fair enough, I thought. I didn’t tend to go in for all “my heart leapt as soon as I saw her” business, but I’m cool with a bit of embellishment as long as the story stays true to reality. Sadly, the story didn’t stay true to reality in any way. We were asked to revise the story again and again to fit the script. No way could we have met whilst dancing to rock music. No way could I deviate from stereotypical femininity. No way could I transition for any reason than wanting to be a soft, fluffy, pink girl.

I gave up with trying to achieve any kind of honest compromise with the magazine, but I’m pretty certain they just went out and found another trans woman who would tell them the story they wanted: the media-friendly story of being trans which can be safely consumed without any worrying deconstruction of cis-normativity or sexist ideals of womanhood taking place.

Maybe things are slowly changing. I’m beginning to see somewhat decent stories about trans children appearing in the media (although interest in trans kids can have deeply unpleasant consequences if not handled with extreme sensitivity) and stuff like the recent Guardian series in which Juliet Jacques may fit all the requirements for a trans media appearance, but at least has the decency to point out how diverse trans people really are. Meanwhile two long-running teen dramas – the UK’s Hollyoaks and USA’s Degrassi are both introducing young trans male characters.  Still, we have a really long way to go.

I’m not saying that white trans women should feel guilty about telling our stories: we shouldn’t. We should, however, be ensuring that our stories are the ones that are actually getting told, and we should helping to promote the stories of those who suffer most from this narrative erasure.

* For the record, I think Stephen Whittle is awesome. I don’t agree with everything he’s ever done, but seriously, this guy has done so much to lay the groundwork for the modern trans movement in the UK and academic understanding of trans issues on a worldwide scale.

Desirability

A version of this article was originally written for a local feminist zine themed around sex.


The poster I see is on the London Underground, but I later find out they’re part of a wide campaign backed in part by the National Health Service. On the poster is a photograph of a person’s face that, due to the limitations of our language, is all too easily described as “masculine”. This individual is wearing somewhat exaggerated make-up: bright blue eye-shadow, bright red lipstick, and a heavy layer of foundation that’s clearly covering up an extensive five o’ clock shadow. Said make-up is quite heavily smeared.

If you drink like a man”, the poster declares, “you might end up looking like one.

Although the model used in the photograph may well be a man, this poster is hardly a reassuring one for women with a “masculine” appearance. “If you’re a woman who looks like a man”, it says, “you’re a skanky whore who drinks too much”. Needless to say, this is a pretty misogynistic message. As a post on the F-Word points out, it relies on narrow and incredibly stereotypical ideals of beauty and gendered norms of acceptable behaviour.

But there’s a further subtext to this poster, and a pretty blatant one at that. “If you drink”, declares an advertising campaign that was apparently “approved” by various equality bodies, “you’ll end up looking like a dirty, ugly tranny*, and then how are you gonna get laid, huh?”

And this is the crux of the issue, and it’s why I’ve been pretty pissed off every time I’ve seen one of these bloody posters. They’re just a tiny, tiny part of the message that can be found on billboards, in magazines, in the cinema, on the television, in newspapers, in books, and in even in freakin’ academic papers. It’s quite a simple message, and it runs as follows: transsexed women are deeply unattractive and undesirable.

I understand where this idea is coming from. Trans women tend to have lived as men (or at least as boys) for some part of their life, and what’s more undesirable than a man? Hell, she might still have a penis. That’s disgusting. What kind of red-blooded male could possibly want to bed one of them? (Since we’re talking larger societal trends here, it is of course men who are supposed to sleep with women…what are you, some kind of lezzer?)

Actually, scrap that last point. This is an issue which is prevalent in the so-called LGBT community as well. Whilst it’s true that not every daughter of Lesbos is a card-carrying separatist who annually attends the Michigan Festival for Womyn-born-Womyn, I’d wager that the majority of gay women – and even a large proportion of bisexual women – are a bit funny about the idea of being attracted to a trans woman, let alone sleeping with one. It’s pretty telling after all that the one trans character in The L Word (that seminal piece of lesbionic television) is a trans man, ‘cos it’s the lady bits and tits that count, innit? The actress who plays him is even made up deliberately to look like a pretty (if slightly butch) woman on the DVD covers. What a cheek.

It took me a fair while to become confident in my own sexuality. Some of that was down to my own body image and related issues, but the media bombardment (“you’re ugly! No one will ever love you!”) hardly helped, and neither did the attitudes of people around me. If a girl’s a bit ugly or has a radical dress sense, she might “look like a tranny”. That, of course, is meant to be an insult.

Regressive stereotypes obviously play their part in this. After all, in this very image-obsessed culture with its very limited repertoire of available attractive body types, why would any self-respecting straight man or gay woman accept their attraction to a woman who looks like a man? (this is, of course, assuming that said man or woman is gracious enough to accept a trans woman’s gender identity in the first place). It’s an attitude that goes beyond image though: if you were to present our disappointingly average straight man (and our gay woman) with a trans woman who conformed to society’s ideals of an attractive female body, they’re still likely to be wary. Once a woman is known to be transsexed, her appearance often becomes irrelevant as gender essentialism and/or misguided homophobia comes into play: she’s  innately unattractive.

In an impressive twist, this can even happen retrospectively, with a trans woman becoming hideously ugly after someone has had sex with her if they found out she’s transsexed (or: if the person she slept with already knew and was trying to keep it quiet, but then someone else finds out that a bit of rumpy-pumpy occurred between the two). This kind of idiocy would be hilarious, if not for the treatment trans women get as a result of this. There’s even an exciting legal manoeuvre known as the “trans panic” defence, whereby the defendant attempts to excuse a transphobic assault or murder by claiming that after having sex with the victim, they “panicked” upon discovering that they’d done the dirty with a trans person.

It’s at this point in the article that I realise things are getting a bit depressing. Let’s face it, this kind of bullshit isn’t particularly pleasant. It’s not a lot of fun  knowing that these attitudes are highly prevalent. I’m fortunate enough to “look just like any other woman” (whatever that means), which is all very well and good for ensuring that I don’t get beaten up on the street, but I’m perfectly aware that I’m not meant to be sexually desirable to, like, anyone. This situation is a lot worse for trans women who find it harder to pass as cis women; no wonder the trans community often places so much undue emphasis on looking like “normal people”. It certainly makes life easier if you happen to do so.

But you know what? Fuck ’em.**

Trans people come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. I’ve been talking a lot about transsexed women, but there’s also transvestites, genderqueer people (who might not necessarily consider themselves to be female or male), genderfluid individuals whose identities regularly shift, and a whole spectrum of gender diversity under the trans umbrella. We all tend to look quite different, act quite different, have different interests and ideas and aims and projects, but we’re all bloody gorgeous.

That’s not just my stubborn pride talking either. There are those trans people who do, in fact, conform to societal ideals of beauty. As for those who don’t: in many queer circles, androgyny and gendered ambiguity are highly valued (and the actual gender identity of said androgynous individual is usually respected, regardless of whether that identity is female, male, or something entirely different). In butch/femme lesbian communities, extremely “masculine” woman are often considered to be incredibly hot. We’re all attracted to different people in different ways. I’m pretty certain that there are straight men out there who fancy heavily built women, gay men who fancy men with vaginas, straight women who can handle androgyny. There’s also a good reason why trans men are sometimes fetishised by lesbians and shemale porn is consumed by many, although I’d prefer for that attraction to be there without us being reduced to mere sex objects.

Still, for all our supposed undesirability, I find it pretty telling that most trans people I know are in a happy relationship with someone who’s also pretty damn attractive. Actually, a lot of the trans people I know have several partners; I figure once you’ve dealt with society’s disapproval of your gender identity, you don’t tend to give a crap what others think about ethical, negotiated polamory. By contrast, I personally happen to be a serial monogamist, but to each their own, y’know?

People who have serious body image issues can find someone who has the hots for them. These individuals aren’t deluding themselves in the slightest. The real lie is in societal norms of acceptable attractiveness, but sexual attraction can’t always be restrained by those norms.

And we have a lot of fun sex too. Vanilla sex, kinky sex, gay sex, straight sex; I’m talking everything from straightforward sex to really weird sex. We’ve all got our own ways of negotiating desire, identity and our own bodies. Some trans people just don’t care and will go at it any old how. Others will throw  essentialism out the window and redefine their own bodies. I know pre-operative trans women who describe their genitals as a large clitoris; I know non-operative trans women who describe their penis as a penis. It’s just, y’know, a girl penis. It’s on a girl’s body after all, so what else could it be? Meanwhile some trans people are asexual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t enjoy happy love hugs.

Quite frankly, a bet a whole load of women would love to be as confident and good looking as I am. I’ve got a pretty face, great hair, fantastic legs, and I’ve recently grown some rather shapely breasts (going through puberty during your twenties is a pretty weird experience, but better late than never!) I’m in a long-term relationship with a sensitive, caring, bloody handsome man, and we have awesome funtimes.

Do you look like a transsexual this morning? No? Well, unlucky. You’re missing out.

* I deliberately use this word only in a sarcastic fashion. It’s a loaded term and can be deeply offensive, so please think carefully about any context in which you use it.

** Actually, don’t fuck them. Find someone else who actually deserves a good shag, and do them instead.

My response to a Nationwide customer survey

I’ve always enjoyed banking with Nationwide. The service has been good and the website easy to use. However, I’ve had it up to here with the transphobic bullshit used to advertise Nationwide services. The television advert based on the “bad transvestites” from Little Britain portrays an interaction between staff and customers which would be highly inappropriate if experiences by actual trans people – whether transvestites, transsexed women, or genderqueer individuals. We have quite enough of this crap in our everyday lives, thanks. Seeing two offensive characters toddling across the computer screen whilst I’m trying to check my account doesn’t help.

This, combined with Nationwide’s continued (and clearly unlawful) demand that trans people present them with a Gender Recognition Certificate when changing their name with the bank, means I will soon be closing my account and moving elsewhere.

Good riddance.

“Censoring Julie Bindel”: a response

Beatrix Campbell has written a delightful article about Julie Bindel’s involvement in feminism’s “trans wars”. I couldn’t help but noticed that it’s riddled with inaccuracies…

“Airing the complications and troubles of transgender politics is being traduced as “transphobia”.”

No. Arguing that transsexed people shouldn’t exist, consistently belittling and propagating prejudice is being characterised as transphobia. It’s possible to air the complications and troubles of ‘transgender poltitics’ without being a bigot.

“Transgender people who used to live as men and now live as women persuaded the May 2009 NUS women’s conference to mandate its officers to share no platform with Julie Bindel.”

The motion wasn’t proposed by trans women.

Moreover, characterising trans attendees of women’s conference as ‘transgender people who used to live as men’ merely demonstrates your own ignorance.

“The NUS women’s campaign shows no solidarity with women who are offended by the presence in their safe spaces of people who used to be men.”

That’s true! Well, minus the ‘used to be men’ bit…but that’s a whole other kettle of fish which I’m sure others will address at length. We also show no solidarity with straight women who are offended by the presence of lesbian women, or white women who are offended by black women. In fact I might go so far as to argue that it is these ‘offended’ people who undermine the ideal of a safe space…

“This month, her enemies mustered a picket outside Queer Question Time in a London pub. They’re not censoring her, they say, you can read her, they say, just don’t go to hear her.”

“The transgender vigilantes should listen up, wise up and grow up, participate in, not proscribe, the debate they started.”

First off: it’s worth noting that the NUS has nothing to do with the picket outside Queer Question Time, which was organised by independent activists.

Also, you’re inaccurately depicting the arguments of those who would prefer not to see Bindel given a high-profile speaking slot at a supposedly queer-friendly venue. Unlike journalists with newspaper and magazine columns, we usually don’t have access to an audience to listen to our side of the story outside of blogs and community publications. We don’t have the opportunity to ‘participate’ on the level that Bindel does.

This doesn’t mean that we want transphobes to be entirely censored: rather, we wish it to be recognised that there are events at which it is inappropriate to invite a bigot to speak. Moreover, in what way is it fair for people to ‘debate’ our very existence? This, incidentally, is why we’re so ‘offended’ – and why we don’t give much credence to the ‘offence’ experienced by those who would discriminate against us.

Another man gets pregnant; commentators are “confused”

The tabloids are busily latching onto the next big “pregnant man” story. The second one ever, apparently. And this one’s gay! Or is he a lesbian? Maybe he could be a Threat to Gay Equality Itself.

Scott Moore – who is in a relationship with another trans man – acquired some sperm from a friend, became pregnant, and is having a baby. People are inevitably treating this as a big deal, mainly because they really don’t get it. The comments over at Perez Hilton pretty much sum up the “commonsense” attitude: they’re not really men because they have vaginas, testosterone will HURT THE BABY OH GOD THINK OF THE CHILDREN, and how can someone possibly be a Real Transsexual if he wants to be pregnant?

My answer to all of these questions in short is: get over yourself, and then educate yourself.

Since I’m nice though, here’s some pointers:

1) Trans is an entirely real phenomenon, and is not just in people’s minds. Really. You can look at this from a scientific, biological perspective, or a postmodern, agency-driven perspective, but either way there’s plenty of literature out there discussing the subject. Either way, this fellow is male-identified; he’s a man. He also lives as a man, and appears to have a pretty funky beard. Do you have a funky beard?

2) Some cis* men might fancy getting pregnant. Some trans men fancy getting pregnant. He’s got the bits, so why shouldn’t he? It doesn’t make him any less of a man. After all, some men grow massive moobies which, let’s face it, are basically breasts. That doesn’t make them women, just men with massive moobies. Also, did I mention the funky beard?

3) I’m pretty sure this guy has gone off testosterone for the duration of the pregnancy, just like Thomas Beatie. As such, there’s almost definitely no real risk to the child. If he I didn’t take this precaution, I concede that he’s a bit of a dick. I seriously doubt it though.

4) If you think trans people having a choice in how they use their bodies is a threat to LGBT equality because it seems “freakish”, take a good hard look at how homophobes tend to regard anal sex. Moreover, what’s so freakish about someone wanting to give birth? Shouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?

4) Whilst we’re at it, neither Scott Moore nor Thomas Beatie are quite the pioneers that the media is making them out to be. All power for them for drawing attention to the very existence of trans men for a change, but they’re hardly the only such guys who have been banged up. They’re just the ones that others have caught on to.

Now get on with your lives.

* For the newbies: “cis” means something a little like “non-trans”.

The Well of Loneliness

I finished reading The Well of Loneliness last night.

As a novel it’s not fantastic. The plot plods along in a relatively predictable fashion, following Stephen – the protagonist – as they grow up, get a job, and meet people. The writing is mediocre and occasionally quite dull.

As a giant “fuck you” to the world, it’s very powerful and still disturbingly relevant. The story follows Stephen, a female-assigned “invert”. Invert is a late nineteenth century/early twentieth century term that’s often said to refer to homosexuality, but there’s a whole body of literature out there discussing whether or not it’s more to do with gender identity than sexuality. It’s now considered somewhat backward to associate lesbianism with necessary masculinity, which has led to a great deal of criticism by latter-day activists. However, if Stephen – and other female-assigned inverts such as Jamie – are seen as trans men, everything begins to make a whole lot more sense Certainly Stephen’s story often reads more like that of a trans man than a lesbian.

I’ve come across several pieces that describe The Well of Loneliness as a plea for tolerance. It strikes me more as a demand for tolerance, and one that’s still disturbingly relevant. . The condemnation of those “good people” who oppress others for differing from society’s norms still holds true. The demand to accept the very existence of those who transcend sexual and gender stereotypes still holds true.

I got pretty depressed earlier today reading the mindblowingly ignorant comments following a Guardian article about trans rights. It made me think about how there’s still a lot of people out there who happily move through their “normal” lives whilst handing out casual bigotry whenever it suits them. We’ve come so far, yet we still have so far to go.

On a brighter note, a guy I know from Queer Youth Network was in a positive documentary on Channel 4 last night, which you can still watch on 4od. The fact that we’ve got to the point where we can tell a positive story like this on national television shows that progress.

The Guardian on the rights of trans children

“If the human rights of gay and lesbian children in our schools are routinely ignored, then the rights of transgendered children are not even recognised as existing”

I posted the following reply. Looking back on it, I probably should of said something about the plight of those children with non-binary identities, but (amazingly) the original article actually managed to refer to that.

Thank-you Phil Beadle for drawing attention to this issue.

I am a young trans person, and one of the lucky ones: I got good grades in school and recently graduated from university. My exams results were seriously beginning to slip by the time I did my AS levels due to trans anxiety. I only managed to rescue my A levels by changing to another sixth form, where I was less likely to be judged for being weird and wasn’t forced to conform to a male dress code.

The experiences of teenagers in Trans Youth Network (www.transyouth.org) demonstrates that others are having a far, far worse time than I ever did. Anxiety, depression, self-harm and anger are rife amongst young trans people. Their problems are ignored, dismissed or misunderstood.

The government avoids addressing these issues by pretending that only those trans people in the (frustratingly slow and inefficient) medical system “count”. The 2007 consultation document for the Single Equality Bill justifies the statement “that it is unnecessary to include school pupils and education in schools in any extension to protection on grounds of gender reassignment” on the grounds that “it will be very rare for a child to be planning to undergo or undergoing the process of gender reassignment as defined in the Sex Discrimination Act.” This is not particularly surprising given that it can be difficult for school children to find a free and confidential counselling service, and the NHS does not offer proper treatment for those who wish to transition until they are over the age of 18.

Moroever, the problem is not just one of bullying or of access to services, but is also one of compulsory gendering. Young trans men feel afraid to confront schools over uniform policies when they are forced to wear skirts, and young trans women at all-boys schools experience alienation and loneliness. This is a far more difficult issue to deal with, since putting little girls and little boys in dresses and trousers when we send them to primary school is such an ingrained part of our culture. I wonder if the government is so afraid to confront the discrimination that young trans people face on a daily basis because doing so will open a Pandora’s box whereby the sexism, homophobia and transphobia innate in our schooling system becomes horribly apparent.