Archipelago

earthsea mapI’ve loved the word Archipelago ever since I came across it in A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin, when I was around 11. These days, it means any grouping of islands (or the sea that contains them), but originally it referred to the Aegean Sea.

Anyway, enough fact-bombing. This is going to be a bit of a rant.

We’ve just had Pride day in Exeter, and an encounter I had with some other trans women has really galvanised me to want to start a peer support group for people who identify as non-binary as regards gender.

A non-binary gender identity, in case you’re not familiar with this term, is a gender identity for which neither simply “man” nor “woman” is a perfect fit. There are many, many gender labels which fall variously under this heading: genderqueer, gender-questioning, gender-curious, gender-neutral, androgyne, two-spirited, neutrois, agender, bigender, polygender, pangender… and more that I haven’t included because either I can’t remember them right now, or because they’re out there but I haven’t heard of them yet (please let me know and I’ll add them, I’d like to collect the set).

But they all share this quality of a sense of gender identity that can’t be defined simply in terms of just “man” or “woman” (which is known as the gender-binary model). Some people consider themselves to be on a spectrum somewhere between male and female, and others consider the idea of even a spectrum between those two “end points” to be still too restrictive and flat a model of gender (I am in the latter camp, in case you couldn’t tell… my own view of it is as a “probability field”).

Anyway, really enough fact-bombing, the rant. I just seem to keep having the same conversation with trans women (in particular): I mention having a non-binary gender identity, they initially nod and seem to understand, but as the conversation goes on, they almost invariably declare themselves as thinking non-binary gender identity “doesn’t really exist”, and is some kind of artificial construct.

This bears uncanny and unpleasant resemblance to the conversations I had over and over again with gay people back in the 80s when I came out as bisexual. People with a very strong investment in seeing in black & white, and an equally strong investment in believing colour doesn’t exist. I’m so tired of this. It’s especially wearying when people start out by saying “Oh, I know what you mean…” and then proceed to say something completely different.

A different issue is that trans people who are not gender-stereotypical when it comes to presentation or sexuality can be made to feel they are not “proper men or women” by others. This makes me more sympathetic to people who think I’m talking about sexuality when I’m talking about gender identity.

Just to be clear, I have no problem accepting people who identify as men or women. I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by people like that, I’m used to it (and I spent most of my life masquerading as one, too). It just really pushes my buttons to be told that either I don’t exist, or that we non-binary folk are “making trans women look bad”, or variations thereon.

So my plan for the support group is to declare it open to anyone whose gender identity is something other than simply “man” or “woman”, and see who shows up.

*****

While I’m ranting, another thing I’m really tired of: conversations in which I make it clear that I am not elitist or hierarchical about trans* folk or about people who cross-dress, in which the other person starts out by agreeing that they aren’t either – and then proceeds to complain about cross-dressers and, well, anyone who doesn’t dress like themselves, as somehow A Threat To The Cause™. It’s such a stuck record.

In the UK, we have an annual “National Transgender Celebration” in Manchester which I don’t go to, because it’s called Sparkle, and it hosts Beauty Contests and suchlike – and is basically a celebration of binary gender stereotyping, which just makes me feel marginalised and invisible. I’d go in a flash to a National Transgender Celebration if it was more like a Pride march, just a whole load of trans people being diversely visible together.

Anyway, I was talking to a trans woman on Pride day and explained how Sparkle wasn’t my scene because I don’t do parties and competitions, I just want a gathering of trans people as people to celebrate ourselves – and she agreed with me and then immediately went off on a rant about how cross-dressers at Sparkle “make us look bad” as though that was what I’d been saying, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

I need my peer group!!!

*****

Okay, I’m done ranting now.

What about the whole archipelago thing? Well, I was having a conversation online with some fellow non-binary folk, talking about how we’d depict the gender probability field, and one idea that came up was a map, with people putting themselves at different points on it (or possibly an X/Y graph, with male on one axis and female on the other, and positive and negative zones). I said that I think that’s still too two-dimensional, but that going with that model, I feel like my gender identity is a series of islands spanning over quite a lot of the Gender Sea. Hence polygender – but I don’t experience the different islands and islets as separate entities/identities, just as different aspects of a unified gender identity I have, that is complex and rich.

So yes, my gender identity is archipelagic – and it’s learning to function as an harmonious community, just as other aspects of my identity are doing, slowly and with much negotiation. All voices will be heard, and there will be no “first language”. As I have said before, I am in some ways a woman, in some ways androgyne, and in some ways a trans man. Insofar as we’re obliged to name those as distinct things in the first place, which I believe they are not. I am not an island, and I am not the islands – I am the sea in which the islands are. Naming the islands is just a convenience. I’m more a woman than I am anything else (I was conceived on that island but was then kidnapped and taken elsewhere), but I’m a citizen of the archipelago.

Broken Islands

[Above, a map of the Earthsea Archipelago, drawn by Ursula Le Guin’s own fair hand – below, Broken Islands, in British Columbia.

PS Someone in the last couple of days somehow arrived at my blog-thing by googling “sex on a bonnet” – this amuses me.]

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Iatrogenie

djinnIatrogenic. Yes, it is a thing.

Be careful what you wish for. Getting help for medical conditions can quite often cause or exacerbate others, since there’s always some kind of equilibrium, and medication is more or less explicitly designed to disturb that.

<spoiler for clinical ick>
I have a condition known as a urethral stricture. Scar tissue builds up inside the urethra, making it harder and harder to pee. This causes pain, infections, muscle strain, potential harm to kidneys, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.

I’ve had this since I was a kid. It was caused by sexual abuse. So it goes. I was sincerely hoping it wasn’t going to flare up again before I have my Gender Confirmation Surgery later this year – because it was very likely that that surgery would remove the problem permanently. But it’s back, and it’s bad, as they say in sequels.

There is some talk of me needing “reconstructive surgery”, which may interfere with my GCS later on. So lots of discussion going on in the Corridors Of Ower, to none of which I am invited.
</ick>

Anyway, the fun part at the moment is about pain control. I can’t sit down comfortably for more than about half an hour without painkillers. So far, the only painkillers that cut the mustard are opiates such as Tramadol – but opiates such as Tramadol seem to interact with my PTSD, and make me go somewhat crazy. Paranoia, anxiety, awful nightmares, and so on. Currently I’m on the hunt for a non-opiate painkiller that won’t interfere with my sanity. Other recommended treatments for neuropathy (the kind of pain I have ) are anti-epilepsy drugs such as Gabapentin – which also make me crazy.

So this is proving to be an interesting time. I’m constantly feeling the pull between being in pain and being insane (which is another kind of pain). How to stay bigger than this? It’s not easy. My whole last year was about learning to keep company with painful states of mind, and yet here I am with body pain and just want to push it away at all costs. And also I don’t want to do that, since the cost is my state of mind. I’ve never felt as close before to what it must feel like to go surfing. Both kinds of pain bring a frightened and angry little kid to my surface, and I want to curl into a ball. But I also don’t want to be isolated, so I’m making myself open out at the same time as curling up. I’ve just begun doing some very gentle Scaravelli yoga, to help me stay in my body (sorry, I can’t think of a way to say that that sounds less Californian), help me to get confidence in opening out.

And speaking of staying with things…

<spoiler for more clinical ick>
Yesterday I had a urethrogram – where they squirt radio-opaque dye upstream through your waterworks and take x-ray pictures to see where the Tube Strike is. Once again, I had this peculiar experience I only seem to get with male medical professionals, where I say “I have this experience”, and they say “No, you don’t.” In this case, I told him “Listen, this is going to hurt me a lot, and I’m anxious. Please proceed gently” because I’ve had this done several times, and having a stricture means it bloody hurts having stuff forced the wrong way through a tight spot. He basically told me that it wouldn’t hurt, because of his magical anaesthetic gel (and that’s what they always say, and it’s never true), so he got on with it, and it hurt like bloody hell, and I started having abuse flashbacks in the middle of all this. Luckily, I’d told them already that I have PTSD in relation to the cause of my stricture (because I now know that it’s better if I don’t keep silence). The nurse could see I was in distress, and was great with me, and the doctor bloke eventually apologised when he realised how much it was hurting me. At least they got their pictures. Urethropaparazzi.
</ick>

So today I’m still recovering from this, and was forced to take a Tramadol in order to get through the day. That’s 2 in a row, and seriously pushing my luck. I’m going to see a doctor I don’t much like this afternoon (she’s kind of transphobic, but she was the only one available)*, to see if she can prescribe me something that won’t make me insane. But my biggest challenge today is not getting caught up in my anger about the whole situation. Angry about the stricture, and what caused it, and how I was treated yesterday (and by extension, rippling back to all the previous times I’ve been treated badly). So many reasons to plummet into IT’S NOT BLOODY FAIR!!! – and so many opportunities to make people around me feel worse as a result. Shan’t. Won’t.

An iatrogenic condition is one caused by the treatment of another. In this case, I don’t just mean “taking painkillers makes me crazy”, or “having exploratory investigations makes me much more sore”, I also mean that if I treat my anger in the wrong way, it causes bad conditions for myself and for others around me. So I’m invoking my Inner Fennec (a new addition to my totem family) to do protection and affection, because she is nobody’s victim. I wish to do least harm, at the very least.

Sorry, now it’s the Tramadol babbling :). But seriously, you don’t fight anger with anger, because you don’t fight anger, you don’t fight your way out of anger. You love into it. Not easy, but doable, and worth it. When I let the iatrogenie out of her bottle, my first wish is to be loving.

fennec-stretch

[*edited for accuracy: the aforementioned doctor is not, in fact, transphobic, she just lacked training in how to interact with trans people (I think I just wrote the “transphobic” thing out of grumpiness because I was anxious about seeing her again since I sent her a copy of the NHS guidelines on interacting with trans* patients). Today she was very friendly and helpful.]

Put out more flags

iridescent cloud[Sorry, a bit long again, a lot on my mind…]

There’s a petition going in the US at the moment calling for the Obama administration to formally recognise non-binary genders. Several countries already have either the option to show “indeterminate gender” on passports or ID, or formally recognise a “third gender”.

I’m very much in support of countries formally recognising non-binary gender identity. What bothers me, though, is why passports and ID and driver’s licences and, well, any form of ID should show the bearer’s gender identity in the first place – especially these days when pretty much all ID carries the bearer’s photo, and many passports even have some form of biometric data embedded in them.

What I’d like to see is identity documents that include a gender marker and title on them if their owner wants them to, and not as a requirement. I can very much see the value for trans and intersex folk whose gender presentation may be at odds with what officialdom (in the form of border guards, police and so on) are expecting, of having your documents state a gender explicitly – that’s the very reason why I deliberately chose to have my driver’s licence show the title Ms on it, and why I’m glad my passport says F for “sex”. But on the passport, I wanted the F just because you’re required to show your “sex” on there, and here in the UK, the only other option is M.

As far as this Third Gender paradigm goes, it seems to me it’s not going about it the right way to insist that anyone who doesn’t want to identify officially as male or female has to sport an X on their documents instead. I’d much prefer it if nobody was required to show anything on there unless they found it useful.

*****

And following on with the subject of gender labels, I’ve been thinking more about my sense of gender identity. I’ve had the delightful good fortune to spend some time lately with trans folk who are more non-binary in their gender identity, and I feel like I’m “coming out” all over again. I am so much more able to relax into being myself around these people, and I’ve been more outspoken – with them, with friends in general, with myself, and with my therapist at the gender clinic – about my non-binariness. And now something has occurred to me, on the identity-and-labels front, which in retrospect doesn’t surprise me.

I was describing myself to someone on a trans forum the other day, saying that I identify as female (anatomically, hence my transition), but not as a woman because that outfit is the wrong style and way too tight. I could say that I have some traits of a woman, some of an androgyne, and some of a man – but that’s just because I’ve been conditioned to think of what are simply human traits as apportioned among those conventionally-assigned gender “notches”. It’s never felt right to describe myself as gender-neutral, or genderfluid, or agender – but I’ve just realised that what does feel like a really good fit is describing myself as polygender.

I seem to have a strong affinity for the poly- prefix (for some reason, I’m just not comfortable with pan-). Since I already describe myself as polysensual, polygender makes perfect sense. I do experience myself as inhabiting discrete areas of the gender probability field at the same time, some of them apparently non-abutting.

That all sounds rather mechanistic, now that I’ve written it, but in my mind’s eye, it’s something way more poetic – like I have huge wings that spread out through swathes of the gender field.

Language is self-limiting. I feel forced to try to define myself in terms of a system I don’t actually believe in any more. Calling myself polygender implies many-genders, still entangled with the idea that there are discrete genders to inhabit. It’s a convention that’s both frustrating and self-perpetuating. Within a culture that uses discrete-genders as a defining characteristic of pretty much anything alive, it’s convenient to use it, but this is what makes it self-perpetuating.

***

Meanwhile, in the light of my polysensual/polygender nature, I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable hanging onto the label of dyke that I’ve been using for a while. It felt like a good fit, while I was feeling less sure of myself and in need of a label that said something like “female but not feminine, attracted mainly to people presenting as female”, but like what I said about woman above, this feels like the wrong fit in relation both to gender and orientation. It now feels dishonest for me to identify as a dyke, because it’s becoming more obvious to me that what I’m really attracted to in others is gender-ambiguity – whatever their gender identity.

Fast running out of convenient labels. That ought to feel unsettling, but actually, it’s profoundly intertwined with why I’m a Buddhist. The most significant dream I ever had involved someone pointing out to me how in terms of both space and time, there is no discrete. Much as we try to live in a sample-and-hold universe, taking identity-shots at so many frames per second (or per year), we’re actually just a flow of constantly shifting qualities, in relation to everything going on around us whether we like it or not. So for me, losing my ability to define my identity with handy label-bites actually feels like shedding uncomfortable clothing, and stepping out naked into the world, and proudly so.

Disclaimer: don’t worry, I have an imposing juggernaut of rigid-identity still rolling on, I’m making no spiritual claims here – just saying that being more naked feels good. I am this.

spoonbill_flight[PS: it amuses me that I get a number of hits on my blog-thing every day now from people searching for images of peacocks – I wonder what they make of all this, if they ever gat past the images? Anyway, the top image is of an iridescent cloud over Colorado, taken by August Allen, and below is a Spoonbill (one of my totem animals).]

Transition through a different lens

blurry

I’ve been a bit quiet lately – a mixture of being ill and being reflective and running out of things to say! Anyway, I just spent a lovely weekend in Dublin with some lovely young trans folk, and it got me thinking about some things to do with the way we think about, and talk about, transition. Also in relation to my thinking on Buddhist teachings about the contingent nature of identity, and how easy it is to try to make solid that which is nebulous, and to make “digital” that which is “analogue” and alive and flowing.

[Note: this is mainly about people who identify as trans and are transitioning or thinking about transitioning – I’m aware that not all people who experience gender dysphoria identify as trans or intend to transition. We’ll get to that.]

The first thing that’s on my mind is that I was reminded by someone in Dublin that not everyone who is on hormones is so because they know for sure they want to transition. I realised it’s very easy to slip into trans clichés, and assume that for everyone who goes on hormones, it’s “a huge relief, amazing feeling, at last” etc. etc. No – for some people, going on hormones is an ongoing experiment, an attempt to find out whether the hormones help or not with gender dysphoria. I felt a little ashamed of forgetting (even a little) that people face uncertainty in transition, or about whether to transition, since I stopped being unsure myself.

Spending my weekend largely with trans folk in their 20’s, and having a lot of online interaction lately with teen and young adult trans folk, I was also struck by how different (in broad brushstroke terms) things are for younger and older people transitioning, or wondering whether to transition. For older people, they have a life and an identity pretty solidly formed, which they have to contemplate undoing and recreating anew. For younger people, many of them are still in the process of forming their sense of identity as an adult.

And then there’s the different (but depressingly similar) ways in which “concerned onlookers” can question people’s decision to explore gender transition. If you’re older, you often get the “but you’ve been fine with it up until now” argument. But for younger trans people, I’ve noticed the story coming up over and over that people assume (if you’re not treading the gender-normative line) that if you’re young, you don’t know yourself at all – or certainly not as well as they think they know you. Either way, if you step off the gender-normative path, people around you are falling over themselves to encourage you to doubt yourself, and I think that’s so much harder for young people to deal with.

*****

I’ve also been thinking a lot about how people both outside and within the trans* community constantly talk about transition in terms of the from-one-gender-to-another paradigm that’s so prevalent, and so damned binary.

Transition is such a loaded term. It implies a journey from-one-side-to-the-other, and we’re stuck with this daft misnomer of gender transition (when in fact it’s our physical self that transitions, to become congruent with our unchanging gender). And the inescapable gender-binary language of our culture infuses the language of transition too – FTM, MTF… and the elitist position I keep running across that the “real” transition is the one that involves visible (usually surgical) change from one sex to another.

It’s occurred to me that the way most people (trans or not) seem to think about gender reassignment surgery is the way most people seem to think about penetrative sex – that everything else is “just foreplay”. Humph.

This is bothering me more and more – especially the more I meet people who are trans but not gender-binary (I am somewhat that way myself, but nowhere near the top of the non-binary scale). In response, I’m finding myself thinking about transition more in terms of being a transition from being gender dysphoric to not being so, and leaving out the gender-specific language altogether. This seems the only way to respect the transitions of everyone who identifies as transitioning.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m inclined to think of dysphoria as a symptom, not the condition – I like to describe my condition as Gender Incongruity, and I think of the dysphoria as being equivalent to pain from a broken leg. You should treat the pain, but the cure is to heal the break.

So transition, however that manifests, is about addressing gender incongruity, however that manifests. My point here is that transition shouldn’t demand gender-labelling and any obvious (and expected) traversing of assumed gender-boundaries. We confuse and exclude many trans people when we use that kind of prescriptive language.

And in fact, dysphoria doesn’t even demand “transition” in the narrower sense it’s usually talked about, it just demands doing whatever it takes to address someone’s gender incongruity, so that they no longer experience dysphoria.

But a big part of that is addressing (whether in one’s immediate surroundings, or more globally) the socially-induced incongruity between what a person simply already is, and what society expects them to appear to be, and the limited gender-binary, gender-normative options offered them for acceptability.

We’re partly dysphoric because society tells us we’re somehow wrong. And sadly, you can’t heal all of that on an individual basis.

*****

I want to end this somewhat wordy diatribe by saying this: over the last few months, I’ve had the most amazing, delightful, encouraging, and inspiring interaction with a bunch of young trans and genderqueer people, who in spite of all the above are finding themselves, finding their gender identities among the social rubble. My heart is very warmed by this.

led-mushrooms

[I have no idea exactly why I chose these images – oh, okay, the top one is meant to express blurriness in gender-definitions, and the bottom one to express glowing/growing out of the dark – that’ll do]