A space for our voices

A couple of blog entries posted on the same day earlier this week have been making me think about the power and importance of “trans space”.

CN Lester wrote about Andrew Hodges’ biography of Alan Turing. They picked out a passage that beautifully illustrates the sheer emptiness, isolation and alienation that can come with growing up queer:

“The deprivation was not one of laws but of the spirit – a denial of identity. Heterosexual love, desire and marriage were hardly free from problems and anguish, but had all the novels and songs ever written to express them. The homosexual equivalents were relegated – if mentioned at all – to the comic, the criminal, the pathological, or the disgusting. To protect the self from these descriptions was hard enough, when they were embedded in the very words, the only words, that language offered. To keep the self a complete and consistent whole, rather than split into a facade of conformity, and a secret inner truth, was a miracle. To be able to develop the self, to increase its inner connections and to communicate with others – that was next to impossible.”

Like CN, this resonates with me as I reflect upon my own experiences as a trans teen. It was hard to find any representations of trans people, let alone any that weren’t deeply problematic. It was even harder to come by writings, art and stories by trans people, in which trans lives were rendered intelligible, human, possible. I felt like a freak, I felt like I was broken, ill, wrong. And I suffered largely in private. Needless to say, this wasn’t particularly good for my mental health.

This is why I feel that it’s so important to have trans people who are out, and trans people who produce art. It’s why I agree so strongly with Kat Gupta’s post about the trans tent at Nottinghamshire Pride. Kat writes:

There was something magical about being in a tent and being able to listen and watch people who articulated some of my fears and anxieties and desires. There were trans* people speaking and singing and playing about trans* experiences, and cis performers adapting and selecting their work to speak to us. Not us trying to eke out a trans* interpretation of a song or a poem, but them finding the points where we could understand each other. It was people exploring gender and all that came with it; negotiating the NHS, the harsh realities of genital surgery, the misery and joy we find in our bodies. […] In this tent we were able to do something special, and create a space that was visible and proud and joyful and intersectional and defiant.

In my previous post I waxed lyrical about how wonderful various acts were, and how much fun I had playing there myself as part of a band. Kat captures the totality of this experience, and the importance of having a space in which we can come together to share our stories and develop the self, avoiding the fate of Alan Turing.

Crowd outside the trans tent at Nottinghamshire Pride. Photo by Eriw Erif

Members of my family occasionally ask why I bother organising or contributing so much to queer or trans spaces. After all, isn’t there a larger audience for events with more of a broad appeal? Plus, since the goal is to achieve equality, surely it doesn’t help to just segregate ourselves?

I think these perspectives completely miss the point. Spaces centred around straight and cis people are everywhere. These spaces are automatically about straight/cis art, straight/cis voices. Queer spaces are relatively rare, and trans spaces rarer still. It means a lot to go to one of these rare, beautiful spaces knowing that your story will be told. This is why I wrote with so much enthusiasm about Poltical: A Gender last year,  and a similar vibe can be found in CN’s post about the Trans* Education and Determination conference (TRED). It would be wonderful if such spaces were less rare.

Moreover, many trans organisers and performers are very aware of the dangers that come with shutting ourselves off from the world. This is why spaces such as the trans tent, Political: A Gender and TRED are very deliberately open to all, and it’s why we are so often open to contributions from cis allies. It’s why trans issues are just one part of the lyrics I write for my band, and it’s why I’m always keen for us to play “straight” venues as often as possible.

So let’s continue to expand the possibilities of trans space and trans art. The trans tent alone featured poetry both epic and personal, acoustic music, hip-hop, opera, burlesque and punk. There’s so much that we can share! It doesn’t matter whether you’re an artist or a consumer of art, an organiser or an attendee, trans or cis. Come and join us in celebration. There’s so much we can build together.

In praise of trans culture

This post was originally written on Friday 2nd September.

It’s 10:20am. I’m sitting on a train in Marylebone station, marvelling at my memories of the previous evening.

I attended (and contributed a DJ set to) Political: A Gender last night at London’s legendary Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The event was organised by trans/queer promoters The Cutlery Drawer as a one-off fundraiser for trans charity Gendered Intelligence. It featured music, poetry, comedy and cabaret performances from a staggering eleven acts – or thirteen, if you count myself and sound/lighting technician Jo – over seven hours.

One of the most inspiring aspects of this night was the fact that it was, essentially, a celebration of trans art. I choose the word “celebration” quite deliberately: there was a recognition of the pain we experience and the challenges we face, but the overall event was built around an ethos of joy. The whole atmosphere was immensely positive, with the audience receptive to a wide variety of styles and stories, and each performer giving their all. The night seemed something of an arty twin to the Trans* Education and Determination teach-in earlier this year, as many of us came together in a grand articulation of (trans)gendered embodiment.

This was no separatist event though. Our cis friends were very much invited to the party, and could be found both on-stage (in a minority of the acts) and throughout the audience. This celebration of trans culture was open to all, as our music and our comedy and our poems and our stories are relevant to all. Political: A Gender was predominantly about trans lives and trans experiences, but this meant that it was also about hope, love, loss, friendship, feminism, disability, race, resistance, menstruation, velociraptors and moles. I don’t think I met a single person who wasn’t enjoying themselves immensely.

It’s not often that we come together as a community on this scale. There are an increasing number of wonderful conferences, club nights and mini-festivals organised by hard-working and caring people, but they are still few and far between. There are even less events centred around our culture, our art, and this is a real pity. In art, we recognise the reality, the validity and the importance of our experiences. In art, trans lives are not merely worth surviving, but are worth enjoying. In art, trans people do not merely earn tolerance, but instead deserve celebration.

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such joy as a member of the trans community as I did last night. I certainly hope it won’t be the last time I attend such an event. We must continue to create and to celebrate, and must never forget that we all have so much to offer to one another and to the world.

Natacha Kennedy at TRED 2011

Natacha’s talk at TRED 2011. The bulk of this presentation is a witty response to Az Hakeem’s 2010 paper Deconstructing Gender in Trans-Gender Identities. Natacha herself deconstructs three central arguments present within the paper:

1) Trans people can be prevented from having genital reassignment surgery through group therapy.

2) Gender is becoming less rigid for cis people but more rigid for trans people.

3) Sex is “real” and scientifically verifiable, whereas gender is not.

The talk concludes with a brief reflection upon the work of Kenneth Zucker and the “normality” of trans and intersex phenomena.

 

Lyndsey Moon at TRED 2011

Lyndsey’s talk at TRED 2011, which formed the introduction to an open discussion of numerous topics including psychology, pathologisation, and the place of gender variant voices in academia.

In the talk Lyndsey explores a number of issues centring around counselling and therapy, including:

  • the (lack of) training practitioners receive on gender issues.
  • the attitudes that many trainee and practising counsellors and therapists hold regarding trans people
  • experiences of teaching PhD candidates about gender and sexuality
  • the impact of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)

Kai Weston at TRED 2011

Kai Weston’s workshop introduction at TRED 2011. This short talk was followed by an extensive group discussion.

Kai addresses the arguments of Julie Bindel, who was invited to speak at the (cancelled) Royal College of Psychiatrists’ event “Transgender: Time to Change”. In doing so, he challenges two key assertions made by Bindel:

1) That “trans” phenomena stem purely from psycho-medical discourses.

2) That trans people reproduce and reinforce binary gender.

Ruth Pearce at TRED 2011

My talk at the Trans* Education and Determination teach-in.

Part 1:
– Introduction to the teach-in
– My decision to undertake social research
– A brief history of trans academia
– Gender pluralism

Part 2:
– Introduction to my research on experiences of primary health
– Existing research on trans health in the UK
– The role of the internet in trans community
– Methodology and research ethics

Transcription available below.

Continue reading

Trans* Education and Determination: footage available from the event

A number of videos from the Trans* Education and Determination teach-in, kindly filmed by Natacha Kennedy, are now available on Vimeo.

There isn’t yet footage available for every speaker, but more videos are due to follow soon. I hope these will fulfil a key promise of the event: to reach beyond those able to attend on the day, and stimulate wider discussion.

It is in this spirit that I hope others might consider filming or writing responses and/or their own thoughts on the consequences of psychology, psychiatry, academia and feminism for trans people and trans rights.

Perhaps you could organise your own teach-in? TRED organisers and participants are already discussing possibilities for future events, but there’s no reason why any given group of people can’t put one together. Some notes for the future are available on the TRED blog.

On a slightly different note, I’m considering an event based upon the TRED videos at my own university. It shouldn’t be too hard to screen some of the footage from the even as a starting point for discussion.

Finally, I’ll be posting each presentation from the first TRED on this blog, along with a transcription. I hope you enjoy them as much as we did on the day!