Interview on Acadames podcast

webfront8Earlier this year I took part in an interview for Acadames, a super-cool podcast “that explores whether being a woman in academia is a dream, game, or scam”. The episode is now available! I really enjoyed speaking with Whitney  Robinson about my work, and hope you will enjoy our conversation just as much.

Today Whitney speaks with Dr. Ruth Pearce, a social researcher and feminist scholar based at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. Ruth discusses her current work with the Trans Pregnancy project, why gender equity schemes are so important in academia, and offers tips for resiliency when facing online harassment and political backlash. Along the way, she shares stories of her life as a trans woman, how academic institutions in the UK differ from those in the US, and the similarities between organizing a concert and organizing a conference.

Click here to listen.

Passing as cis: why I’d love to stop shaving my legs, but don’t

Several months ago, a friend of mine sent out message inviting participation in a new feminist video-blogging project. This seed of an idea grew into Those Pesky Dames, in which five women say awesome things about body autonomy, self-care, inspirations, intersectionality and pop culture. And then this week, the Dames stepped beyond the realm of YouTube (and Facebook, and Twitter and Tumblr…) to appear on the good ol’ fashioned television.

You can watch them talk about body hair on Cherry Healey: How to Get a Life for the next couple of weeks (it’s available on BBC iPlayer until Wednesday 18th July).

The Dames’ contribution to the programme is fantastic: they talk about how body hair is entirely natural, and shouldn’t be regarded as unfeminine. Why should women have to spend hours shaving in order to conform to the beauty myth? Why should we feel bad about baring our natural fluff in public? And why regard hairy women as unhygienic, but not hairy men?

I was so happy not only to see my friends on TV, but to see them discussing a vital feminist issue. Michel Foucault came up with this idea known as “governmentality” to describe the relationship between individual people and social rules. We enforce social norms through self-governance, tailoring our actions and behaviour to uphold the status quo. We police our own conformity through the application of self-esteem (when we conform) and shame (when we fail to conform). I felt that the programme beautifully highlighted the governmentality at play in the maintenance of female body hair: our self-esteem depends greatly upon our lack of hair, and when our legs or armpits are hairy in public we feel shame. In this way, women come to enforce sexist ideals of appropriate female behaviour. We can escape by embracing an alternative, feminist ethic of selfhood whereby shaving is not required. I went to bed reflecting happily upon this liberatory potential.

The next day was warm and sunny, and I planned to see my friends in town. I pulled on my shorts…and then took them off again and wore jeans instead, because I didn’t want the world to see my hairy legs. My boyfriend insisted that my short, very thin crop of leg hair wasn’t even visible and that it really didn’t matter. The rational part of my brain agreed wholeheartedly. I still couldn’t do it.

A great part of this response was no doubt down to your bog-standard governmentality at work. I was ashamed at the thought of being an Inappropriate Woman, and tailored my behaviour accordingly. Knowing that you’re a sucker in this way only gives you so much power! But there was an additional element at play: my fear of not passing.

I feel that being trans greatly complicates body hair issues. I don’t really fear being read as different or somewhat deviant, and happily flaunt my subcultural identity as a rocker on an everyday basis. I don’t worry too much about looking feminine or conforming to female stereotypes. But at the same time, I don’t want anyone thinking I’m not a woman, and I certainly don’t want anyone thinking I’m a man. I spent 18 years of my life being read as male, and those 18 years were quite enough.

My fear is not that people will look at my hairy legs and think “urgh, a hairy woman”. My fear is that people will look at my hairy legs and thinking “urgh, she’s actually a man!” This is somewhat irrational given how well I pass as cis, but the fear is real, and powerful.

The problem is that passing as a cs woman is important to me. Not because I think it’s better to look cis than trans (I most certainly don’t!) Not because I aspire to some outdated, patriarchal ideal of womanhood. It’s because I hate being heckled on the street, and I fear the violence that can come with transphobic responses. I realise that I’m deeply unlikely to suffer an assault in broad daylight in my home town, but past experiences of violence – however minor – can exert a powerful control. I aim to pass for my own mental and physical well-being.

And so I shave my legs and my armpits when I think they’ll be seen in public, because I’d rather be seen as an Acceptable Woman than not be seen as a woman at all.

The thing is, I hope this might change with time. At the start of my transition, I used to wear eye make-up and straighten my hair daily. I used to shun baggy clothes, instead aiming to highlight what curves I had. As time has gone on, I’ve become more and more relaxed about my appearance. This is partly because I’ve become generally more chilled with time: I’m no longer bothered about people who know me being aware of my trans status, and this blog is hardly anonymous these days. But it’s also because of the impact of hormones, meaning that I pass more easily as a cis woman regardless of how I dress. I now wear make-up and dress in a more feminine manner on special occasions, when I want to put on a certain appearance: in this way, I’m now doing these things for me, rather than for others.

One of things I really like about the kind of feminism espoused by Those Pesky Dames is that it leaves room for all these complications. There wasn’t really time for an exploration of this in How to Get a Life, but it’s all there in their vlogs. They argue for a feminism in which you shouldn’t have to shave your body hair…but you should be able to if it’s the appearance you’re going for. A feminism in which you don’t have to wear make-up, but should feel empowered to do so on your own terms. A feminism that accepts that some of us really want to escape the governmentality that leads us to shave our legs, but for now, we remain constrained.

As such, I’m going to keep shaving my legs, despite acknowledging that (in my case) I’m not really doing it for me. Meanwhile, I’m going to celebrate the achievements of those who aim to break down this norm.

In a gender liberated world…there would be no moral panic over trans parents or trans children

And so the Bizarrely Busy Month of Trans News rolls on.

On the subject of trans parents, the Daily Mail has effectively outed a trans father; on a slightly brighter note, Green MP Caroline Lucas has tabled an Early Day Motion condemning the ongoing media witch-hunt that’s currently targeting pregnant trans guys. Kudos once again to Trans Media Watch and Jane Fae for their ongoing work on this. Meanwhile, bookmakers Paddy Power are under fire for a transphobic advert, and today saw a five-year-old trans girl splashed all over the tabloids (including front page stories in the Metro and the Sun).

Paddy Power will no doubt defend their advert (basically a “spot the tranny” competition themed around Ladies’ Day at Cheltenham) on the grounds of humour: it’s just a laugh, right? Meanwhile the tabloids will continue to defend their almost fetishistic obsession with the private lives of trans people on the grounds of “public interest”. Both actions serve to dehumanise and objectify trans people even as they build public interest in the queer freak show we supposedly offer.

This is all, of course, of massive concern to the so-called trans community. But we’re not the only ones who are affected.

In today’s front-page article, the Metro quotes “social commentator” Anne Atkins (who?) Atkins – clearly a great expert on gender diversity – says:

“Between the ages of about five and eight, I wanted to be a boy more than anything in the world. Acute though my longing was, it was relatively shortlived. I am grateful to say that there was no one around at the time to diagnose me with GID [Gender Identity Disorder]”

If I had a pound for every well-meaning cis friend who’d told me this at the beginning of my transition…well, I wouldn’t have a huge amount of money, but I’d definitely be able to afford a better toaster. But my problem with this isn’t one of cis privilege. It basically runs as follows:

What’s intrinsically wrong with a kid spending part of their childhood as a “boy” and part of their childhood as a “girl”?

What’s intrinsically wrong with the idea of a man having a baby?

What’s intrinsically wrong with (or, for that matter, funny about)  gender being complex or fluid or aligned with their body in a non-normative fashion?

I’ve not come across a single answer to any of those questions that isn’t inherently sexist in one way or another. We shouldn’t have to subscribe to an ideology of gender difference that necessitates people being placed in boxes that restrict their self-expression. We shouldn’t have to rely on old-fashioned gender roles. At the same time, we shouldn’t have to demand that “gender” be obliterated altogether. Why can’t five-year-old Zach live as a girl? Why couldn’t Anne Atkins live as a boy for a few years before settling into womanhood?

In a gender liberated world, gender expression would be free and fluid. Adults could be men, women, genderqueer, polygendered or non-gendered as they desire. Children could be children, and explore gender as one set of social possibilities amongst many. And everyone benefits, not just trans people. We’d all have more space to be ourselves.

If you think this is hopelessly utopic and ultimately impossible, try dropping by spaces such as Genderfork and Wotever, where users/attendees are pioneering gender liberated approaches to language and social interaction.

We don’t need to do away with gender, but at the same time we don’t need to subscribe to fixed, binary ideals of gender in order to live in a decent world where people value one another’s work and care for one another.

In a gender liberated world, neither the media nor the medical world would care about five-year-old trans girl, a pregnant man or a trans person at Cheltenham because it simply wouldn’t be a big deal.

The trans girl could live out her childhood as she desired and privately transition physically – or not! – at an appropriate point in her teens. The man could access appropriate care during his pregnancy without fearing the consequences of doing so. And at Cheltenham…well, isn’t the very concept of “Ladies’ Day” totally regressive?

The Sun’s hypocrisy laid bare

The Sun is in trouble. Years of journalistic malpractice are finally catching up with the venerable tabloid, with employees arrested en-masse on “suspicion” of corruption and bribery.

Associate editor Trevor Kavanagh is upset about this.  “Witch-hunt has put us behind ex-Soviet states on Press Freedom”, his editorial thunders. It goes on to detail the humiliation experienced by Sun journalists and their families:

Instead of being called in for questioning, 30 journalists have been needlessly dragged from their beds in dawn raids, arrested and held in police cells while their homes are ransacked. […]

Wives and children have been humiliated as up to 20 officers at a time rip up floorboards and sift through intimate possessions, love letters and entirely private documents. […]

Nobody has been charged with any offence, still less tried or convicted.

Yet all are now on open-ended police bail, their lives disrupted and their careers on hold and potentially ruined.

How awful! And it’s not like Sun journalists would ever do such a thing to others, is it?

But wait! what’s this we see next to Kavanagh’s article in the online edition?

(click image for full size)

That’s right, it’s the Pregnant Man! Let’s take a look at his story.

Don’t forget kids, private lives are for News International employees, not for proles! Particularly queer proles.

Of course, it could be that the Sun is simply asking for contributions because all their journalists have been arrested…

(For more constructive commentary, see this powerful post by Ralph Francis Fox, as well as analyses from Jane Fae and Christine Burns.)

“Pregnant Man” story isn’t racy enough for The Telegraph

Yesterday, I noted a number of issues with the reporting of a British man’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of his child. It seems, however, that the story simply wasn’t exciting enough for The Telegraph, who have revised their article somewhat overnight.

(click above for full-sized image)

The story itself remains largely unchanged: there is no new information. The only difference I could pick out was the introductory paragraph, which has changed one phrase in order to turn this somewhat inaccurate but broadly inoffensive sentence:

The man, who is believed to be in his 30s, was able to carry a child after taking female hormones to reverse the effects of his female-to-male sex change treatment.

…into something which takes that extra step to question the subject’s gender.

The ‘male mother’, who is believed to be in his 30s, was able to carry a child after taking female hormones to reverse the effects of his female-to-male sex change treatment.

Somewhat bizarrely, the original story remains online, possibly because The Telegraph wouldn’t dare offend the hundreds of readers who took time to comment on how disgusting it is that trans people want to mutilate their bodies.

Yesterday I was prepared to concede that Telegraph journalists were content to merely be stupid and lazy on trans issues. It turns out, however, that they’re actually prepared to put effort into their transphobic bigotry. Well done all.

Trans Media Watch at the Leveson Enquiry

Helen Belcher of Trans Media Watch provided an impressive array of evidence in relation to transphobia in the media during the Leveson Enquiry yesterday. Video footage and full transcripts in .pdf and .txt formats can be found here. Trans Media Watch’s full submission to the enquiry can be found here.

Unfortunately – if unsurprisingly – Belcher’s strong performance warranted little comment from the mainstream and “pink” media alike. Notable exceptions included the headline story in Gay Star News (Trans people victims of ‘horrific’ press coverage) and a comment piece in Pink News (Does today mean change for the trans community?). There have been just brief summaries of Belcher’s evidence (with little or nothing in the way of analysis) within articles that tackle Wednesday’s events more widely in The Guardian, The Telegraph and on the BBC website. Even the #Leveson hashtag on Twitter went relatively quiet as the majority of cis commentators lost interest.

Still, this was to be expected, and we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of Trans Media Watch’s role in compiling and presenting evidence to such a major inquiry. Belcher powerfully outlined a number of very important issues:

  • The consequences of negative media coverage can be extremely serious for trans people: examples include loss of work, death threats, and the necessity of relocation in order to avoid prejudice.
  • Dehumanising and Othering language is routinely used within news stories: “The Sun is basically saying trans people elicit horror, trans people are frauds“.
  • Stories (and pictures) are often published without any consultation with the subject, let alone permission.
  • Newspapers often rely upon false information, such as inaccurate figures about the cost of medical transition on the National Health Service.
  • The Press Complaints Commission is considered useless and toothless as complaints are regularly ignored: “The Press Complaints Commission is regarded as a useless joke by trans people”.
  • Victims of negative media coverage tend to let the issue slide: “[…] we find that individuals rarely want to pursue the case because they then become afraid of future
    harassment“.
  • There tends to be no real justification for most articles about trans people on the grounds of “public interest”.
  • The Sun continues to run transphobic pieces (contrary to the claims of Dominic Mohan during his evidence to the Leveson Enquiry on Tuesday).
  • The Daily Mail publishes six times more stories on trans people than any other UK newspaper(!)

Trans Media Watch also identified a number of common themes in confidential complaints they’d received from trans correspondents who had suffered negative media coverage:

“In each case, the subject of the story had their right to privacy grossly breached, often at a very vulnerable time, with no public interest being served whatsoever.

Was put in danger of public abuse and/or violence.

Is left with candid details of their personal affairs, including previous names, pictures, home or work, available on the Internet.

Often these details, including photographs, were acquired without the subject’s permission. Had to fight the press to force them to exercise restraint — often with no effect.”

Finally, Belcher made a number of recommendations:

  • That it should be possible for organisations to issue complaints on the behalf of vulnerable individuals.
  • Anonymity should be granted to all who pursue complaints; we shouldn’t have to rely on the limited protections offered by the likes of the Gender Recognition Act.
  • The complaints process for media malpractice should be free:
    A lot of trans people lose jobs, find it difficult to get jobs. There is evidence that the earnings of a trans person is significantly lower than they could expect if they weren’t trans. That is a further deterrent for them to seek any recompense. It actually pretty much prevents any trans person from pursuing any action against a newspaper in the courts.

Safety?

I found myself filling in a campus safety survey for my university’s Student Union yesterday. As I began the form, I thought about how safe I feel on campus.

I have this arguably unhealthy tendency to wander around all kinds of places alone at night, but inevitably feel a bit on edge and on guard in town and city centres. By contrast, I always feel comfortable on campus. I mean, this place is full of busy academic types during the day and feels quiet yet friendly at night. During the early years of my transition in particular the place was like a safe haven.

Moreover, I’ve always felt that I got off pretty lightly compared to many of my trans friends: I’m lucky really. I mean, I don’t get pestered by transphobic morons on a regular basis, and I’ve never been physically or sexually assaulted. At least, not since all those times I was beaten up as a teenager. But that was ages ago, and they had no idea I was trans (…right?)

Yet as I continued with the survey, I began to realise how much being trans causes us to redefine what counts as “lucky”, and, for that matter, what counts as a normal experience.

Firstly, there were the questions on physical attacks. Of course I’ve never been physically attacked! Oh wait, there was that time that someone threw a mysterious object at the back of my head outside the Union nightclub. Yeah, that time when the security guys clearly couldn’t care less and gave me some hassle because I immediately approached them and asked for help. Still, that was just the one time, right?

So, on to harassment. I know some trans people on campus who have had all kinds of horrible experiences in halls and suchforth but again, I’ve been pretty lucky. Except for that time I was subject to some totally inappropriate questioning during a club night at the Union: good thing my friends were there to stand up for me. And that time I was pestered by a chaser. And that time I was kicked off a bus and told to “cut my hair” after I got confused over the fare. And the time a woman refused to sell me a banana because she wouldn’t accept my gender(!) Huh, how these incidents build up…

These incidents are extremely infrequent, leading me to think that I’m lucky. This thought process points to the normalisation of transphobia: I’m entirely used to the idea that people will treat me like crap because of who I am. It’s something we all get used to, to one extent or another.

This normalisation then leads me to redefine safety. A safe place becomes a place where I experience minimal harassment, rather than somewhere I don’t expect to be harassed at all. I suppose I always expect to be harassed to some extent.

Of course, this is all par for course in the UK if you’re not a visibly abled middle-class white guy. Ho hum.