Identity and community

I was reading a lot of blogs over the weekend, and one comment in particular really stood out for me:

We don’t choose to be LGBTQ, but we choose whether to be part of the LGBTQ community.

I think that’s very true. I didn’t choose to be trans, but I can choose whether to see myself as part of a wider community of people.

That doesn’t mean uncritical support of everybody else, or even being nice to people I don’t like, or making placards and marching around the place (although all of those things can of course be really positive).

It means understanding that you’re part of something bigger, that while your personal experiences and circumstances are different from other people’s you have common struggles and often, common enemies.

Not everybody believes that, or believes it’s important enough to overcome their own self-interest. Wherever there’s a minority you’ll find a minority in that minority that doesn’t want to be associated with the wider group. In some cases they’ll even act in ways that are damaging to the wider group.

For example, among gay men there’s a schism between “masc” – hyper-masculine – gay men and  their less macho peers. Some lesbian women have a real problem with bisexual women. And in trans circles there’s the long-running schism between what some call the TTT (Trannier Than Thou) brigade and trans people who haven’t had any medical treatment. In some cases TTT people actively campaign against rights for trans people in much the same way turkeys vote for Christmas.

These schisms are all different, but they all have the same thing in common. Members of a group are demanding to be considered separately from other members of the same group.

Sometimes it’s naked careerism: there’s money to be made by throwing your peers under the bus, especially in right-wing publications. Sometimes it’s neediness, the same thing that sometimes encourages the bullied to suck up to bullies in the hope that they might be spared and which lends legitimacy to bigots. If you want to be the equivalent of the only black person in UKIP, there’s always a vacancy.

But a big part of it, I’m sure, is self hatred and internalised phobia. I’ve experienced it myself. “I don’t want people to think I’m like THOSE people.”

And of course there’s self-interest too. If you’re in a group that’s under attack, there’s a concern that THOSE people are going to attract unwanted attention and that you’ll be caught up in it.

I think there are two kinds of responses to that. The first is to say “fuck those people”, to run for the lifeboats while pushing women and children out of the way.

You can see it in the famous attitude expressed by some affluent, conservative gay men who argue that “the battle for equality has been won”: they have equal marriage. The wholesale dismantling of LGBT people’s rights is of no concern to them, because it does not affect them. You can see it in op-eds by superannuated post-op transsexuals who transitioned a hundred years ago and who don’t appreciate young trans people demanding change. You see it in gay politicians who share sob stories about their teenage mental health traumas while leading a party that’s done terrible damage to mental health services.

They’re all right, Jack. Fuck you.

The other response is to say: I’m one of those people.

I’m one of those people.

I joked the other day that I’m a “real” trans person now: I have a medical diagnosis, and that means to some of the TTT brigade I’m valid in a way I wasn’t the day before I had the piece of paper with “transsexualism” written on it (although to some that still isn’t enough: if you haven’t had surgery, you’re faking it). It’s official. I’m not one of THOSE people any more.

But in the wider world, I’m still one of those people.

No matter how many fawning Facebook friends you have or how impressive your Twitter impressions or how many column inches you scrapbook, if you’re LGBT then it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, lesbian or bi, non-op, post-op or non-conforming. To many, you are one of those people, and you’ll be treated like those people, and demonised like those people, and discriminated against like those people, and hated like those people.

Every one of us is one of THOSE people to somebody.

Real, real, real

I got a letter from the NHS yesterday. I’ve been waiting for it for a long time.

I’ve been waiting a long time because while it was dictated on the 9th of July, it wasn’t typed until the 2nd of August and didn’t get here until the 14th of September. It had been sent by mistake to my previous GP (NHS systems are not joined up, it turns out: just because my GP has the right details doesn’t mean other bits of the NHS do), and as my previous GP is an arse he didn’t let the sender know that I’m not his patient any more.

Trans people are used to waiting, though. The letter is from the Sandyford gender identity service, to which I self-referred in October 2016. It’s taken 23 months to get a written diagnosis.

This is it.

The codes are from the World Health Organisation, and they’re out of date: as of June 2018, being trans is no longer considered to be a mental disorder and has been removed from the International Classification of Diseases, as homosexuality was in the 1970s. It takes a while for the medical establishment to catch up, though, so at the moment trans stuff still comes under the umbrella of mental health.

So this is a bit of a double-edged sword, because on the one hand it’s confirmation that I’m not making this shit up – but on the other it gives me a pathology, a label of ‘disorder’ for something that the medical and psychiatric consensus agrees is not a disorder. There is nothing wrong with me, because being trans is just part of the infinite variety of human brains and bodies.

But that’s a rant for another day. What difference does having a diagnosis actually make?

The short answer is “not much”. It means the end of having to go to and pay for a private GP for my supervised hormone treatment, and it means all my healthcare is now in the hands of my (great!) local GP surgery. Although the savings I’ll make from not paying for prescriptions are dwarfed by the costs of electrolysis now my NHS funding has run out: I’m saving about £50 a month and paying out around £150 a week.

The bigger picture? It makes no difference whatsoever. Being a “real” trans woman, ie someone who’s gone through the various gatekeepers, doesn’t impress the trannier-than-thou brigade for whom the only “real” trans people are the ones who’ve had bottom surgery. And it doesn’t make me any more acceptable to the bigots who lie and say they have no issues with “real” trans people.

Mainly, though, it’s no big deal because it’s already in the rear view mirror. I know I’m trans. This is just the admin finally catching up.

“Why now, after all this time?”

I’m a big fan of the writer Jenny Boylan, and about a month back I posted a link to a Twitter thread where she talked about being a late transitioning trans woman. She’s now turned it into a column for the New York Times.

People often ask late transitioners, why now, after all this time? What kind of woman do you think you can be, after missing your girlhood and your adolescence? But those aren’t the questions one should ask.

The question is, how did you manage to go so long? What enabled you to keep carrying your burden in secret, walking around with a shard of glass in your foot, for all those years?

This story may be less about what it is like to come out as trans than it is about finding the courage to do a difficult thing, even if you are no longer young, even if you do not know how. Trans people are surely not the only ones who wonder how to close the gap between the people they feel they have to pretend to be and their authentic selves.

The smallest of acts

A tale of two tweets. The first, a news story tweeted by Glasgow Live:

A Glasgow bridge has been decked in brightly coloured post-it notes with messages which aim to help bring people back from the brink of suicide.

The notes, which appeared this morning (Monday), have been posted on the Squinty Bridge and on railings alongside the River Clyde between Glasgow Central.

Handwritten messages read: “You matter”, “Just coz you’re struggling, doesn’t mean you’re failing”, “You are strong” and “Do not give up. Not now. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”

The second, a tweet by US trans support group CATS:

Cut it out

I’ve written once or twice that the world is very different when you walk in women’s shoes: if you’re born and socialised as male you inhabit a completely different planet to women. It’s something many of my women friends find blackly funny when I’m outraged by an experience they have every day.

There was a good example of that last night in my local, where as I often do I was sitting at the bar looking at things on my phone. From out of nowhere a pissed bloke had his arms around me and his head against mine, demanding I put down my phone so “we can have a chat”. I politely and then less politely told him to get his hands off me, which he did grudgingly. He didn’t actually do the fucking off I’d requested until one of my friends came over.

He wasn’t a no-neck football fan or a sleazy middle-aged lech in a shiny suit. Just your run of the mill sensitive indie guy who no doubt owns a “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt. He’s got a child, a girl. I know this because I overheard his friend later, apologising to the bar staff for his drunken behaviour. “I’ve been trying to get him into a taxi for five hours. It’s his daughter’s first birthday tomorrow.”

It’s not something I’ve experienced before, because for pretty obvious reasons I don’t tend to be the target of that kind of behaviour. But my women friends deal with it all the time. The same friend who came over last night told me of her own experience the night before: a complete stranger had grabbed her in a bear hug and kissed her on the cheek.

It’s just part of the background noise for women, the entitlement of men who don’t just refuse to take “no” for an answer but don’t ask in the first place. And the more likely a man is to get away with it, the worse the behaviour can be. My great love, live music, has a real problem of men groping women at shows. It’s led to campaigns such as Safe Gigs For Women. And sometimes it’s even worse than that. Sweden has just held a “cis man-free” festival for women, trans women and non-binary people after multiple sexual assaults at a previous music festival.

#NotAllMen, I know. But too many.

Think of the children

This is Maddie. She’s 12.

She’s “the transgender”, “the thing”, the “lil half baked maggot” that parents of other kids think should be sorted out with “a good sharp knife”.

Maddie’s story went viral. I thought it was upsetting enough, but then I watched the Vice News video report. Seeing a wee girl pretending to be braver than she feels made the whole thing even more heartbreaking.

Please watch it. One of the reasons anti-trans sentiment still spreads is because many of us don’t know any trans people. It’s easy to mistrust and even hate people you don’t know, people you’re told are different, and some of the worst people exploit that. But it’s a lot harder to hate when you see someone who’s just like your own kids (Maddie is only slightly older than my daughter. The thought of anybody, let alone parents, ganging up on her…), because of course trans people are just people.

It’s not a long film, but there are plenty of moments to break your heart, to make you angry and sad. The police not so subtly implying that the filmmakers should get out of town or expect violence from the locals. The school board discussing everything but the case. The town mayor, who’s gay, having obvious difficulty defending bigotry. But the moment that really jumped out for me was an almost throwaway remark: when Maddie came to town, nobody knew she was trans until a teacher pulled the old records and told others.

Teachers are supposed to be the protectors of our children.

This particular case went viral, and strangers’ fundraising has enabled Maddie’s family to move to somewhere less backward. But there have been and will be many more Maddies whose stories you won’t hear, and for whom nobody will crowdfund anything.

“Self-knowledge rarely comes packaged in a single coherent narrative”

Stock photo. Inclusion does not imply any model's gender identity or orientation.

There’s a good piece in The Conversation by Tey Meadow, assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University, on the hot-button topic of gender non-conforming kids.

I know the language around this stuff can be confusing if you’re not steeped in it. By gender non-conforming we mean rejecting stereotypical gendered things, so for example a girl who refuses to grow her hair long or wear dresses is gender non-conforming, or GNC for short. A boy who’d rather play with Barbie than Action Man is GNC, and so on.

Gender non-conforming doesn’t mean transgender. The overwhelming majority of GNC kids just have finely tuned bullshit detectors and a whole bunch of individuality.

I can understand why parents might panic over gender non-conforming behaviour. For some, it’s the terror of having a gay kid, which still persists. But for others it’s the knowledge that to have a trans kid means dealing with a whole bunch of shit that parents of cisgender kids don’t have to deal with.

In the current climate it’s to know that your child will face abuse from all kinds: not just arseholes in the street but school run mums on messageboards and middle-class women in newspapers. It’s to know that your child may have to make agonising decisions about their body and their place in the world that their peers won’t have to make. It’s to know that your child will be discriminated against, and demonised.

But, again: most gender non-conforming kids aren’t trans.

More importantly, they’re not being pressured to identify as trans.

Quite the opposite. The few kids who are persistent, insistent and consistent about their gender identity have to spend months and sometimes years being assessed before even something as simple as puberty blockers may be prescribed.

The media really doesn’t help when it flatly lies about the treatment offered to gender non-conforming kids, publishing propaganda from pressure groups claiming that the entire system is fast-tracking vulnerable kids on a high-speed conveyor towards surgery. It isn’t (and congratulations if you spotted the “they are coming for our children!” trope as used by every bigoted group since the beginning of time).

A tiny, tiny proportion of gender non-conforming kids are trans; most aren’t, and those kids aren’t fast-tracked to anything.


[the] model doesn’t push kids toward a transgender outcome or even a linear narrative. Instead, clinicians teach parents to pause, absorb the messages their children are sending and then articulate what they are seeing back to their children. Parents and psychologists help children express their genders in authentic ways, and then work to understand the significance of the things they are saying and doing. It takes times and practice.

The constant misinformation in the media and on social media is letting gender non-conforming kids, trans kids and their parents down.

Meadow again:

Gender-nonconforming children who are supported by their parents in expressing their identities by and large thrive. In fact, recent studies show that trans youth who are affirmed and supported by their families to transition are psychologically healthier than children who are gender-nonconforming but receive no such encouragement.

The emerging consensus is about educating and supporting parents to help their kids thrive, not forcing kids into boxes they don’t fit into.

The last thing any trans adult wants is for a cisgender kid to be wrongly diagnosed as trans. We know all too painfully what it’s like to be forced to be somebody you’re not.

“The journey, not the destination, matters”

I recently started learning to play the piano. If it’s true that it takes 10,000 hours to become good at something, that means my neighbours will stop hating me in the year 2210, or 2114 if I practice a lot more often.

Getting good isn’t really the point, though. As TS Eliot rightly put it, it’s the journey that matters.

I like learning the piano. It’s fun, my tutor and I have a good laugh and week by week I get a little bit less shit at playing the piano. I’ll never be any good at it, but each time I make progress I get good enough to do a little bit more.

Right now, I’m doing a terrible version of Lana Del Rey’s Video Games and a terrible, basic chord version of John Grant’s Caramel. These are not difficult songs, I know, but until recently I was convinced they were impossible. Now, they’re achievable. I can’t do it now, but I know that eventually I’ll be able to play and sing Video Games without messing it up and do Caramel perfectly while honking into a kazoo for the synth solo.

Not only that, but it’s given me the confidence to write on piano too. We’re not talking piano symphonies here, but having moved from painstakingly programming keyboards one note at a time it’s enormously liberating to be able to actually play things.

I will never be good at this. But the list of things I’m good enough to play will keep getting longer.

In A Man Without A Country, Kurt Vonnegut suggested that “we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” Getting slowly better at something you previously found impossible is one of the most glorious forms of farting around I’ve ever experienced.

No-platforming Nazis

Neo-nazi poster boy Milo has posted a big rant to Facebook about how his career has hit the skids. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one must have a heart of stone to read it without laughing.

There’s more to this than well-deserved schadenfreude, though. It’s yet more evidence that refusing to give vicious rabble-rousers a platform kills their careers. Of course it does. They built their careers using those platforms to abuse free speech and other people’s tolerance of extremist views.

We’re told that de-platforming white supremacists and other bigots makes them stronger and louder. But the evidence shows that it doesn’t. Milo’s the one mewling now; not so long ago it was the neo-nazi Richard Spencer. Infowars’ Alex Jones will be next.

It’s time once again for the famous XKCD cartoon about free speech:

Cris Shapan’s incredibly funny fakes

There’s funny, and then there’s the kind of funny where you end up a crying. honking mess. Cris Shapan’s fake posters and book covers leave me helpless with laughter. His Facebook page is a joy.

What I love about Shapan’s work isn’t just the jokes, although the fake pulp novel Maelstrom Of Pee made me laugh so hard something important popped inside me. It’s the attention to detail. Shapan’s work is just extraordinary.

The fake advert above is on urban myth debunking site Snopes: it’s so convincing that many people have shared it online thinking it’s a real advert from the fifties. A similar thing happened with another of Shapan’s fakes, a foodstuff called Rolled Pig.

There’s so much joy and silliness in this stuff. It’s glorious.