How it feels to be a trans feminist academic in 2018

Trans feminist symbol, designed by Helen GThis piece is based on an email I wrote, in response to a message about “smear campaigns against gender critical academics” on a feminist academic mailing list.

I have updated and posted it here in the final day of the Gender Recognition Act consultation in order to give my cis readers some idea of how the past few months – and especially the last few weeks – have felt.

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I would like to say something about how it feels to be a trans feminist academic right now, with the emergence of a growing number of “gender critical” voices in academia.

In the wake of Brexit and Trump, and with the renewed growth of far-right movements across the world, it seems that everyone feels empowered to speak out about their own personal prejudice. Trans issues are no exception.

When I first came out and transitioned as a teenager, almost two decades ago, one of the scariest things for me was using public toilets. Let that sink in for a moment. I was scared simply to use the toilet – for fear that people might shout at me, drag me out, maybe even beat me up. While that fear has dissipated for me, I have not been to a public swimming pool since my mid-teens, and have not even been swimming in the sea since my early 20s. This is because I am scared. I am scared of violent men, but I am also scared of violent women. Cis violence against trans people is a reality. I have an enormous amount of admiration and respect for trans people who are able to overcome this fear.

It was hard to come out in the early 2000s. There was an enormous amount of casual transphobia in the media. Guardian columnists wrote pieces such as “Gender Benders Beware”, TV programmes such as Little Britain and the League of Gentlemen were immensely popular, and 90s films such as Silence of the Lambs and Ace Ventura remained popular with my friends. Trans women were variously represented as a pathetic joke, a burly men in self-denial, deceptive liars or outright sexual predators.

Legislation such as the Gender Recognition Act 2004, Sex Discrimination Act Regulations 2008 and Equality Act 2010 were yet to see the right of day. It was therefore legal for employers and service providers to know all about my gender history; it was also legal to refuse to hire me because I was trans, fire me from a job because I was trans, deny me services and kick me out of shops, pubs, post offices, leisure centres (etc etc) because I was trans.

It was not easy to come out in this environment. There were exceptionally few openly trans people involved in public life – and none of them looked, sounded or acted much like me. I certainly hadn’t knowingly met any other trans people. I delayed coming out for years because I wasn’t sure if I was “really trans” (a phenomenon common among participants in my research). I thought that I might ruin my life. It was only the knowledge that my life would likely be ruined regardless, and the sheer awfulness of the alternative – becoming a man – that persuaded me to take the enormous step of coming out.

Consequently, I was very isolated during the first few years of my transition. I find it very hard to express how intensely lonely that experience was. Fortunately, my friends (mostly cis girls my own age) were immensely supportive, but it was difficult not to have any people with similar experiences to me to talk with. People who had a very deep complex relationship with our gendered movement through the social world, and/or our sexed bodies, such that we knew the assignation we received at birth was not right for us. People who felt a deep, deep relief upon transitioning socially and/or changing our bodies as appropriate.

It wasn’t until my 20s that I began to slowly, gradually meet trans people my own age – and what a relief that was! We could relax completely around one another, talk about our issues and experiences, reflect on our differences as well as our similarities. It was at this time that I encountered the term “trans bladder” – used to refer to the pain and urinary infections that could follow from not being able to use toilets outside of the home. Let that sink in.

I also began to realise the wider extent of the damage caused to other trans people by both external and internalised transphobia.

Many of my trans friends have attempted suicide, sometimes on multiple occasions. The first trans person I knew to take their own life was a member of a trans youth Internet message board I frequented when I was 16. Others would follow, including a housemate, whose body I discovered shortly before I was due to head into work to teach a class. When I see “gender critical” people disputing well-established trans suicide statistics, it feels like gaslighting. I know what happens in our communities when people are not affirmed and don’t have access to adequate support.

Other trans friends have experienced severe sexual violence, often in their youth, often in very public spaces such as school playgrounds. Trans people are at particular risk of various forms of sexual assault, violence, coercion and control – for example, 28% of trans respondents to a large Stonewall survey had experienced domestic abuse within the past year alone. When I see “gender critical” people talking about the supposed violent threat that trans women pose, I think about how when trans friends of mine are raped, our first conversation about accessing support is usually about whether or not it is safe for them to go to the local rape crisis centre. This is not something we can necessarily take for granted.

When academics and journalists “come out” as “gender critical”, scaremongering about changes to the law we have been fighting for for decades, representing trans women and girls as sexual predators, debating our access to legal rights and public spaces and women’s services, I wonder if they know who we are, what our stories are, what our experiences are like. Is it simply that they don’t know any trans people, that they are ignorant? Or is there a deeper cause for their hatred? Do they realise they sound less like feminists, and more like the fundamentalist religious right? (for an example of how fundamentalist Christians and “gender critical” feminists basically employ the same language and discursive anti-trans tropes, I recommend a look at the responses from organisations to the Scottish government’s recent consultation on gender recognition).

As for the notion that anti-trans campaigners are “gender critical”, and my use of inverted commas in my use of this term – I spent an enormous amount of time thinking about gender, sex and sexism as a teenager. I read about the social construction of gender, and it made sense to me as a concept, but it took me a long time and a lot of theorising to figure out how to make sense of that with relation to my own body and experiences. I began to figure out that sex was a social construct too, reflecting the construction of gender, many years before I would encounter the work of Emi Koyama and Judith Butler. In my 20s, I was heavily involved in the NUS Women’s Campaign, and I am now (among other things) a gender theorist. In recent years I have been interested as a scholar and campaigner in the drawbacks and possible benefits of gender equality schemes such as Athena SWAN, and the fight to tackle staff-on-student sexual misconduct.

People who object to pro-trans legislation and oppose our access to public space do not have a monopoly on being “gender critical”, any more than those who oppose abortion rights have a monopoly on being “pro life”.

The growing number of academics who hold “gender critical” positions wield an enormous amount of power over their trans students, and have the potential to cause an enormous amount of harm. There are more and more of these trans students every year – of course there are. The exponential growth in the visible trans population is an outcome of the assertiveness of trans activists, our increasing visibility in public life, and a more positive legislative environment. It was predicted on multiple occasions many years ago – by Lynn Conway in 2001, by GIRES in 2009 and 2011. This is the outcome of an invisible population gradually becoming visible – just as the number of young people prepared to be out as lesbian, gay and bisexual also continues to rise. This growth will, eventually, flatten out – but it will be a fair while before this happens, especially if the current backlash continues.

I hope that cis people reading this post reflect on what it feels like for me to be involved in feminist and women’s groups at this time, especially as conversations such as this become more common. It feels terrifying. I am petrified about where the discourse is heading within feminism as well as within the wider social world, and I am very scared about what might happen next, what violence might be perpetuated or excused in the supposed name of women’s rights.

I am hardly alone in this: I see trans friends freaking out en-masse every time I sign into social media. We know our history. Some of us survived Section 28. Many are also black, or disabled, or gay, or bi, or Jews or Muslims, or migrants. We know what happens when minority communities are scapegoated, and we know that the rise in transphobia is not an isolated phenomenon. We know that the most vulnerable among us are the easiest targets for hatred.

I worry every time I see a post goes up or message is written on a feminist Facebook group or blog or academic mailing list, every time somebody organises a feminist seminar or conference. I fear that someone will start raising “reasonable” concerns about my existence or civil rights, or lying about the supposed threat that I and others like me pose. For all that I move through the world as a woman, for all that I am a woman and have lived my entire life as a woman, for all that I am subject to sexism by clueless male colleagues and internalise the need to constantly apologise for myself at work, for all that I am harassed in public by men and fear male violence every time I leave work after dark, I start wondering what place I have in these groups. I start to wonder how many cis women think that somehow I am more privileged than them in terms of sex and gender even though I am subject to both sexism and transphobia. I wonder how many feminists hate me.

When “gender critical” blog posts are written or emails are sent, I feel like I have a choice. Either I respond – and it may well take the form of an essay like this – an enormous outflow of nervous energy, fear and anger, energy that I will not get back repeating stories I am quite frankly bored of telling. Or I may attempt to remain cool and rational, encouraging calm and thoughtful debate even as I attempt to stem the rising panic inside. Or I try to ignore the message, even as it plays on my mind for the rest of the day, rest of the week, rest of the month, knowing that the environment has become a little less safe for other trans people – and especially other trans women – and especially other trans women less privileged than myself.

Or I just leave these feminist groups and mailing lists and academic collectives, which is of course what “gender critical” women would like me to do.

But not today. Today I stay. Today I fight. And I do not do this alone. For I know also that the majority of women support our cause.

As ever, I do this with my sisters.

Solidarity.

New coming out guide for young trans people

LGBT Youth Scotland have produced a fantastic new booklet with advice on coming out for trans people. Some of the information and language is a little Scottish-specific but there’s some good stuff in there that could be useful to anyone.

Contents include general advice on coming out to friends, family and in school/college/uni etc, as well as links to further resources in terms of general advice and UK law.

You can download the guide in PDF format here:

Coming Out: a coming out guide for young trans people

(Guest Post) Turn and Face the Strange

The following was written by Louis, who recently experienced an appointment with “Dr Jiff” that unfolded pretty much as outlined.


But let me tell you, this gender thing is history. You’re looking at a guy who sat down with Margaret Thatcher across the table and talked about serious issues.
George H. W. Bush

One morning, as I awoke from anxious dreams, I discovered that in my bed I had been transformed into exactly the same body as I had been the night before.

Examination of my whole organic structure proved this to be true, and as my mother greeted me normally in the kitchen, my feeling of de-centralised horror was crystallised. Most people, upon waking to find themselves the same, would find reassurance in the stability of their own identity – unchanged by the nights stargazing. To the average man or woman, the roaming of a well-gendered mind at rest is a pleasure. I, however, on that morning, realised that my unprecedented disquiet was the beginning of something. I was right. I have not been quite at home with myself since.

Psychology today is a noble hobby, halfway between a humanity and a science. I tend to lean towards the side of art.

On the 9th December, 2010, I find myself sitting in the office of Dr Jiff in University Hospital Coventry. It’s the psychiatric clinic. I’ve spent half an hour waiting outside, before being beckoned, with a smile, into this room, where I am to give the performance of my life. My part: Myself, as the National Health Service wants to see me. The office is large and sparse, with high, grey windows and navy blue carpet. It’s warm, however, and my chair is comfortable. Not a couch, but a plain lavender seat by the doctor’s desk. Dr Jiff himself is something of a surprise. After all I’ve heard, here is a man in his twilight years: rotund, moustached, with yellow sweat patches under his arms. A fair tie, mind you – M&S perhaps.

He has an affable face, and is delightfully frank in all things… though as usual for a psychiatrist, his eyes are mirrored walls. This is our first meeting. As I write, I expect many more: my performance this day is a surprising success.

To begin to understand the nature of my madness, I would first have to explain what madness actually is, in a social context at least. I’m sure you have your own ideas on the matter, but here’s my take on the state of things. Madness is a state of mind which society as a whole (or perhaps the ideal that society projects of itself, and never seems to actually get to) finds to be outside the bounds of “normal”. Sometimes madness is considered genius. Sometimes geniuses go mad. More often than not, madness is considered a rather dangerous or undesirable thing to have around. The more cutting amongst you may have noticed that I didn’t define what “normal” is. That’s because I truly have no idea.

In Psychology and Psychiatry, different kinds of madness are categorised and given different names. The name for my particular type of madness is Gender Dysphoria. It has an average occurrence, according to the NHS, of about 1 in every 4000 people in the UK – though it is important to note that these are only those individuals seeking treatment. Estimates have been made suggesting that 1 in every 1000 people may experience gender dysphoric feelings, or even 1 in every 120. Some psychiatric organisations have suggested that there are perhaps 500,000 gender dysphoric people in the UK, and 10,000 who have successfully asked for, and received, treatment. Statistically speaking, you’ve probably met at least 3 people with some level of gender dysphoria within the last 5 years of your life. Whether or not you were aware is a moot point.

The treatment of my disorder is seen with some contempt by the general populace – it requires the breaking of ancient rules of civilisation. This sounds more exciting than it really is. In day to day life, I’m perpetually astonished by how seriously people take gender labels, and how violently they will react against those individuals who wish to put their hand up halfway through the lesson, and say “Excuse me, I think you got that bit wrong.”

On the 19th of August 1992, a gender dysphoric person was removed surgically from its mother’s stomach and placed (screaming, purple and bloody) into the world, possessing all the appearance of female genitalia. Because of this, a somewhat tenuous, but deeply historic and traditional, social categorisation was made, and it was assigned the gender role of “female”. However, the gender label which it now identifies with, if it has to at all (and that is a whole other debate), is “male”. Some people interpret this in the following way:

She wants to be someone else” OR “She wants to be a man.

A gender dysphoric person find this degrading and frustrating. As far as they are concerned, they have always been the same person, and will always be the same person, in one form or another. I summarise the following:

He is a man, and if society wishes to hang so much meaning and status on gender pronouns – a figment of language no less – then it can at least have the decency to let people identify themselves, rather than thrusting identity upon them at a stage where they can’t argue back.

Dr Jiff’s office, on the 9th of December, is a pleasant change from the usual hostility. To begin with, he has assured me that there are “unlikely” to be any problems in my referral. I explain the issues I have had when trying to achieve this in the past, and he shrugs off the ignorance of some in his profession with a simple:

“Some people just don’t go to enough conferences.”

Then:

“Do you masturbate?”

(Don’t tell me that wouldn’t knock you off balance a bit.)

“Yes.”

“Any particular fantasies?”

“Hmm.” I pull the face which I always pull when planning to politely lie. “No, just generic men.”

(Really, I have an imagination.)

“How do you identify – put into words?”

“Gay male, polyamorous.”

“Do you dream in colour or black and white?”

“Colour.”

“How do you place yourself within your dreams?”

(I want to say ‘the victim’, but I don’t.)

“Omnipresent.”

“And male or female?”

“I don’t see.”

“Any suicidal tendencies?”

“Nothing unusual. I saw a counsellor, it’s all in my notes and over with.”

And so on.

This stream of banal, sometimes cryptic, often probing questions, will determine the course of the rest of my life. In the end I “perform” so well that I achieve the referral and more: a fast track to a new clinic, with treatment as good as guaranteed in 3 months. The gatekeeper has been defeated. Apparently, the land of maleness is mine for the  exploration, chatting-up, styling, drawing, eating, sucking, dressing, drinking, writing, injecting, rubbing, wanking, fucking, and taking. And the clothes. I’ll be able to wear a pair of trousers on hips that aren’t just-too-wide, and a suit tailored to fit a new figure – simple pleasures hard won. Why choose soft curves when you can have hard lines? I know which I find easier to follow. But I digress.

“What do you know about the surgical options?” Doctor Jiff asks.

“First you have to ‘live the life’ for 2 years.”

“Yes that’s right, how long’s it been for you now?”

“2 months. Facebook proves it.”

“Good. And what were you considering?”

“Phalloplasty looks generally crap. I want top-surgery though.”

“Yes. The success rates for breast reduction and removal are excellent. How big are your boobs?”

(I can’t describe the impact of words like ‘boobs’ leaving this man’s lips.)

“Small.”

“Well it will be a question of finding the right surgeon, but I can help you.”

“Thanks.”

“Phalloplasty, though, is a tricky one. In 2 years time when you’re eligible, things may have changed completely, but at the moment it’s a poor sport. What you really want is to be able to feel and to experience, which as things stand in the field is not particularly attainable, so unless you suddenly become desperate for a penis, it’s worth avoiding for now. I mean, can you have a really good orgasm with what you’ve got?”

“…Yes.”

“Then that’s good, and anyway, there are things you can do with a strap-on, especially anally, that just can’t be done by natural men.”

(It’s only after I leave the room that it occurs to me to laugh and laugh.)

The question of my sexuality is only mentioned in passing. I have heard several, interesting viewpoints on it. My good friend L___ was rather surprised when I suggested that there was any problem. “But 80% of the female population are straight,” he argued, “So surely 80% of transmen are gay? It’s just logic.” I thanked him for this excellent piece of reasoning.

Others, however, have been less supportive. The first psychiatrist I saw to try and obtain a referral was quite obstinate in her belief that a transman couldn’t possibly be gay, because all transmen must surely be lesbians who just couldn’t face up to their sexuality. “I like anal sex,” I told her, just for the hell of it. She didn’t appreciate that. Of course, there lies another minefield of debate: my under-eighteens counsellor pointed out that with my total lack of sexual  experience of any kind, how could I possibly know what I was attracted to? This, to me, seems like a rather foolish question, and leads me to assert a rather controversial fact:

Nobody knows a person as well as they know themself.

That point made, it is interesting to note the breadth of reactions that a trans or gender dysphoric person may receive in their exploration of this idea. Imagine meeting someone you have known since infancy for coffee. The two of you make small talk and enjoy each other’s company, then out of the blue, your friend tells you that they have to say something important: they are not really brunette at all, they are actually blonde. To the evidence of your own eyes, this is ridiculous, and you say so. No, they explain, the brown is dye. I’ve been covering this up for my whole life.

Of course, hair colour is a somewhat less mind-bending issue than gender, but the premise is similar. Imagine the same conversation, but instead your friend reveals that they are homosexual. This is slightly more controversial. To   someone like me it doesn’t matter at all, but of course to many people, this is a genuinely world-altering piece of information. Now, imagine your friend putting down their coffee cup, and telling you that they are actually the opposite gender.

Imagine walking away with that information in your mind.

Surely you know them better than that? Don’t you?

If you need to stick a label on them to understand them, do you really know them at all?