Transduction

It feels a bit disingenuous to bring this up today, in a way (it being TDoR), but I’m increasingly bothered by pressure from within the trans community for anyone non-binary to label themselves as trans. Over and over, I see this Statement Of Certainty that “all non-binary people are trans/come under the trans umbrella”.

Why are people so obsessed with this idea?

For a start, it seems to stem from the assumption that there’s an Absolute Definition of the trans label in the first place. This is not the case. As with pretty much any identity label, it means different things to different people. For some it’s more about incongruity with the gender and/or sex they were presumed to be at birth; for some it’s tied up more with transition (a term which itself means very different things to different people); for some it’s tied up more with dysphoria, and so on.

And because of this diversity of meaning and significance, whichever way you use the term, you’re likely to exclude some people, or in this case include some against their will. My working definition of trans is therefore “anyone who identifies as trans – ask them what they they mean by it if you want to know more, because opinions and experiences differ.”

Personally, I identify as trans because to me it suggests transition – but I don’t mean transition in the assumed sense of clearly defined start and end points, and I don’t mean it in relation to gender at all (since I’m genderless, mine has never been a “gender transition”), but merely a sense of being on some kind of journey in relation to what most of society seems to think of as gender/sex. I’ve been through a physical transition which involved both surgery and hormones, and my body is still adapting to that. But my psyche is also still adapting, and my sense of self is fluid and constantly changing/changed in response to the changes that have already taken place. So I don’t know that I’ll ever feel like no longer calling myself trans. For me it’s also a statement of positive visibility, to help others feel less alone.

But I know many non-binary people who do not identify as trans at all, and I strongly support their right not to have others police their identity or use/non-use of labels, including trans. It’s simply exhausting fielding other people’s insistence that we’re all trans – folk need to accept that their personal definitions are not universal.

I reserve particular impatience for being told “trans means your gender doesn’t match what you were assigned at birth” by people who know they’re deliberately including people in that “definition” who do not have a gender. Just stop it. I’m happy if gender makes sense of your own experience, but it’s just a model. Leave us out of it. I’m also fed up with people insisting that trans means “not cis”. There are many people – genderqueer, genderless, gender-nonconforming, intersex – who are not cis but who are not trans either, and don’t wish to be labelled as such against their wills.

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Meeting yourself coming the other way

both-waysAs you may know, I describe my gender identity sometimes as an archipelago of gender islands within a broader ocean of me – and one of my various gender islands I can best describe as “trans man”.

I was recently mightily strafed on a genderqueer facebook group for mentioning this, by a gender-politics-fuelled trans man (who has since left the group – because we’re not political enough there, thank goodness).

Although I’ve had little negative response before to describing myself this way (including from trans men), I’ve been thinking since then how I might better explain this – as I did a very poor job at the time, and as I’m sure it won’t be the last time I get asked to explain myself. So I thought I’d write this blog-thing about it, partly to get it straight in my mind, and partly so that in the future, I can just point people here instead of having to trot it out all over again…

Actually, having this impetus to mull things over has meant it’s become a lot clearer in my mind how to explain this (and funnily enough, it was one of the “accusations” levelled at me by the aforementioned strafing trans man that put me onto this, but I’ll come to that later). So…

Imagine (if this isn’t you already) that you were born into a female body. At a certain point in your life, you find yourself facing the fact that “woman” isn’t the right word for what you are. You’re something a lot broader than that, something more androgynous. You do find yourself fascinated by and drawn towards the world of trans men… except that you’re not a man either. After much soul-searching, you realise that what you really want to be, the person you’d feel most yourself being, is somewhere in between these two.

You realise that you’d like to have top surgery, because your breasts don’t make a lot of sense to you, and because they’re the thing that gets you most automatically IDed as a “woman”. But you have no interest in bottom surgery, you pretty much like things as they are, down there – and you’re not really interested in “going all the way” with testosterone either, although it would make you more the shape you feel you should be, because it would do too many other things that don’t fit who you are.

So far, so non-binary FAAB trans* person.

Now imagine that you’re all this – but for some crazy reason, you’re in a man’s body. Then you’d pretty much be me.

So that’s what I mean, when I say that my gender archipelago consists of several islands: woman, androgyne, and something best described as “trans man”. I’m not a man, I never should have been a man, have never really been one, have never wanted to “pass” as one – I just looked more like one for a long time. I’m not a woman either, not solely a woman, I’m something on the way out of womanhood, something androgyne, but still closer to a woman than a man – Womandrogyne.

And the reason why I keep saying “some part of my gender identity could best be described as trans man” is because the only thing that remotely comes close to an experience I can really resonate with is that of some non-binary trans men.

The aforementioned strafing trans man told me in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t make claims to know what I’d feel like if I’d been born in a different body. I call bullshit on that, in no uncertain terms – because that’s what anyone who’s trans* is basically doing – it’s our imagination (by which I absolutely do not mean anything resembling mere fantasy; I mean our capacity to engage empathically with possibility) that tells us that if we were something other than we currently are on the anatomy or sex-identity or gender-expression spectrum, we’d be being ourselves more faithfully, more authentically.

So I state unapologetically for the record that if I’d been born with a female body, I’d be transitioning in some way towards androgyny – and I can state that because that very accurately and honestly describes who I actually am. I just got a weird break on the anatomy front, so I’m having to come at it from a very different angle, but that’s profoundly irrelevant.

If you’re remotely trans yourself, do not try to tell me you have the right to recognise your true self as other than you currently are physically, to imagine how and who you would be if that were not the case, and to aspire to do something about that – and then tell me I don’t have that right, because my sense of self is too far outside your experience.

This is not a quibble about labels. Labels are just vague models of our experience. I’m choosing to wear the label of “like a non-binary trans man” because when non-binary trans men describe their experience in any detail, I recognise myself in their description, in a way that I can’t in any other context.

Let’s be quite clear here: I have never claimed to be a trans man, I do not describe myself as a trans man, I am not a trans man. I am saying that within the stupid limitations of language, that’s the closest approximation I have to a big part of my experience, and I’m sticking with it as a pointer.

Questions? Comments?

vajrasattva

[This photo is of a 4 foot high statue of the Bodhisattva Vajrasattva (a Buddhist archetypal being), made by an artist friend called Aloka and loved by me at first sight. For me, this image is the quintessence of androgyny both in art and in spirituality (no, I’m not really sure what that means either, just go with it, I’m being lyrical). It’s an entertaining paradox that I both believe in and don’t believe in gender identity, that it’s both meaningful and meaningless to me – and Vajrasattva embodies that paradox in beauty here.]

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.]

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]

An out-and-out scoundrel

bizarre_forest_doorI wrote this in response to a call for contributions from Butch Wonders‘ blog. You’ll know some of this already, if you’ve been reading my blog-thing, but it feels like a good update for a new year.

*****

This is The One About Identity Interaction, I think…

So let’s see: I’m a singing, drumming, Buddhist trans woman from England, I’m 50, and I’ve now come out 8 times. Seriously. (And that number went up from 4 during the writing of this. Seriously. Self-revelation is fun.)

1) in my 20’s, as a “gay man” – in fact, I wasn’t gay (I was bi, but scared not to be part of The Gang, and it seemed simpler at the time – plus it was an excuse not to be stereotypically masculine); nor was I a man, but that took another 25 years to sort out.

2) in my 30’s, as a “bi man” – eh, it was a start. I blame/praise Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down for making me admit to myself – and others – that I liked girls too.

3) in my 40’s, as a trans woman. Okay, late 40’s, this was 2 years ago. I’d known consciously since I was 23, but it went way back further. Why did it take so long to surface? Because I was being abused at home, and I was trying to keep my girlself in a protective coma. Why did it take me so long to come out and get on with it? Because I was abused at home (and then bullied and beaten up later in life for being indefinably “different”) and needed to heal up somewhat first. Oh, and also because I was ordained into a Buddhist order that turned out to be pretty transphobic (they’ve matured since then). Oh, and because…

4) a year ago, as a trans tomboy. See, it took me a while (once I’d admitted that my gender was incongruent with my body) to feel like I was a “real trans woman”. Why? Because the Revised Standard Version of the Transgirl Bible says some variation on “Yea verily, for even before I was potty trained, I knew I was a girl, I wanted to play with dolls and dress like a princess…” and so on.

There were a lot of expectations placed on me by the local Transmatriarchy – and you’d be amazed just how binary-obsessed and homophobic and conservative many trans women can be. So I looked back, and couldn’t see my girlhood through those spectacles. It took me some time to realise that yes, I had indeed always been a woman. It was just that the women I’d always wanted to be like were not girly princesses, they were what I like to think of as The Trouser-Wearing Adventuresses. My first ever crush, at 6, was on Amelia Earhart (true story).

The world in general expects me to want to be Olympia Dukakis, when I want to be Shane McCutcheon! Basically, I’d always been a closet dyke (I leave it to you to decide whether a dyke is by definition strictly gay – to me, it’s not just an orientation thing, it’s something broader about sense of self – dykes just are the people I feel most akin to, and they seem happy to feel the same about me). I’d spent decades confused by how often I’d fall for women who turned out to be dykes. Well, duh. And yet…

5) sometime last year, as a polysexual tomboy. (Fucking labels, how do they work?) I suddenly got fed up with the label “bisexual”, because even though there’s a growing movement to have it mean something less binary than “likes both men and women”, it still pretty much means that to most people. And as I came to terms with my not-so-binary nature, I noticed with some delight that I’m attracted to certain people, and at the time of attraction, I don’t necessarily always know what gender they identify/present as (and if I’m attracted, I don’t actually care). Hence polysexual. I don’t like “pansexual” because people seem to assume that means “oh, you just fancy everybody.” Like everyone else, I have my preferences. And tomboy is handy shorthand for “I’m female but not feminine, okay? …and pretty queer.” And, so…

6) sometime later last year, as an out-loud non-binary trans woman. Somewhere in the probability field that I think gender is, I am what I call Womandrogyne. Essentially, I’m currently a very genderqueer woman with incongruent anatomy. By the end of this year, after surgery I’ll have as congruent anatomy as I can reasonably expect to have. But I’ll still be a genderqueer woman, who will even, at times, quite possibly pack (as in: Yes, I may be just pleased to see you, but there’s also a “gun” in my “pocket”). And being this, and being queer as well as genderqueer, doesn’t make me any less of a valid woman – there are billions of kinds of woman, I’m this kind. And then…

7) 2 months ago, as actually kind of asexual. This is a big deal for me. As a consequence of abuse, I’d been left thinking I was obliged to be sexual in order to get love. Then more recently, I decided that I was obliged to be non-sexual, since every time I was sexual with someone, we both got strafed by my past-shrapnel. Then I noticed neither of these were choices – so I chose instead to think of myself as Closed For Repairs until I’d finished transitioning and sorted out some of my history (I’m also living with PTSD, at least for the moment).

And in the space that created, I came to understand that I don’t like sex. I love everything that can go with it – intimacy, affection, touch, sensuality, passion, humour and so on. But actual sex leaves me scared and messed up, if that doesn’t kick in actually during the sex. So it’s kind of impossible to tell whether I ever might like sex – I have no way of knowing what causes what, but I’m now very comfortable thinking of myself as asexual, but polysensual instead. When I’m attracted to people, I may not want sex, but I really, really want to touch and be touched by them. Still figuring out the ramifications of this. And of course…

8) last but not least, as a butch trans woman. The thing is, I’d always associated butchness with a sort of stereotypical machismo that was definitely not me (you can thank the media for that “model”). But since exploring further, and amongst other things coming across the Butch Wonders blog (and a conference of very, very diverse Butch Trans Women on youtube), I’ve come to realise that butch means something way bigger than that, for many of the people who identify that way.

I’m becoming more inclined to think of myself as butch as well as a tomboy. What’s the difference? Damned if I know. But the more (loosely-speaking) masculine aspect of me is emerging, the more I transition and become myself. The more I feminise physically, the more I like dressing in jeans and boots, button-down shirts and waistcoats and skinny ties (waistcoats and skinny ties rule). The more assertive I am. That’s in no way meant to be a Definition Of Butch, but it’s a stab at saying why I’m out as butch these days. It somehow fits. Thanks for listening. I wonder what I’ll come out as next.

Amelia-Earhart-Plane

[images: forest-door by MirandaRose, and Amelia Earhart, from Popperfoto/Reuters]