(Image from Gusten’s Restoration Studio Portfolio… would that it were that straightforward)
I have, as I may have mentioned, made a few trans friends online who do not fit within anyone’s stereotypes, whether those of obvious “men in dresses”, nor those of glamorously uber-feminine Caitlyn Jenner types. Jaqueline Andrews and Dr. Aoife Hart are fairly often described as “truscum,”(1) though this label may be quickly exposed as unjust, since they routinely – to use a vernacular I am not even sure they would approve of – misgender themselves. They have, since I have known them, called themselves “males”, “men”, “gender non-conforming / transsexual males”, “trannies”… and so forth, and have often accepted the definition of gender dysphoria as a mental rather than as a medical illness.
This could be easily dismissed as self-hatred, but it is a strategy. Concerned that the identity politics that are arguably inherent in trans activism could (and do) cause some women to fear for the erosion of their own sex-based rights, and for feminists to turn their back on transpeople altogether, they have attempted to create a new rhetorical space in which transpeople uncomfortable with the potential of mainstream trans activism to alienate the masses can instead reach out to the concerned parties, albeit often at the cost of having to accept such definitions as those above.
Dr. Hart, in particular, sees this as a positive thing. She feels that transwomen are often too eager to fall into stereotypes of feminine fragility, or too ready to play the victim card at all times and rely on passive aggression to get their way in society. Concerned that cultivating an air of “fragile porcelain dolls” is likely to win us more contempt than sympathy, she intentionally piles what most transpeople would construe as grave insults upon her own head.
Aoife Hart is not, in her own estimation, a woman. No more am I, although she insists that there is nothing wrong with what we are: namely male transsexuals. We can call ourselves “transwomen” if we prefer, though the “women” in that word is thus an empty signifier. For we are still, essentially, men, albeit socially maladjusted ones within a maladjusted society, and thus broken but blameless creatures. There is, she states, nothing wrong with being this way. As long as we accept this with dignified resignation, it points up the flaws in our gender-defined society and gives us some common cause with radical feminism. Our inescapable maleness, she insists, is a morally and empirically neutral fact.
I see her point, I often feel its weight, and I admire her principles… but I would be a truly miserable liar if I claimed that reminders of my masculinity did not always leave me picking up the chips of my own wounded porcelain. But at all events it raises a valid question: at what price my comfort?
This will become an issue every time I move within society, which I fully intend to do more and more of. I have not began transition with the intention of living in hiding, nor of trying to secretly mutate away from the public eye, only to one day magically emerge as a fully passable transwoman, a la our Caitlyn. Most of us who are not rich, in any case, are expected to undergo this thing called the “Real Life Experience”(2) if we intend to go the distance… Therefore I certainly feel that I should grow stronger. I may, after all, never pass well enough to receive my preferred pronouns by instinct rather than by compassion and effort (though I shall certainly to work on that). Though I could never accuse Aoife’s perspective of being uplifting for such an “autoandrophobe”(3) as I seem to be, there is logic in it that I dare not fault: for whatever reason that people call me “she,” “her,” or by my chosen name, I will derive no sense of joy or personal authenticity from it if I know it is merely out of fear of violating equality laws, or out of shame of stigma.
Last week I was invited by the wonderful Lucy Goodridge, who organises our LGBT coffee mornings, to a showing of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” at the Sherman Theatre. Since the play has a strong pro-feminist theme(4) there was a pre-play workshop that I was also invited to attend… thus making me the sole transwoman at an unequivocally feminist event. The sense that I was probably enacting the nightmares of many trans-critical radfems gave it all a rather surreal air, but I must say I was given nothing but hospitable treatment. Artist Hannah Saunders talked us through her powerful exhibition “A Hyena in a Petticoat;” themes of the play were discussed within the historical context of the feminist struggle; and for additional insight into the trials of Victorian-age women, I was invited to try on a very heavy riding suit complete with corset. That was doubly surreal, as I could just picture the sort of reaction this scene might get from the most dubious of “forced feminisation” fetishists and the aforementioned radfems who like to conflate all transwomen with said fetishists. For the record, though, there is nothing much erotic (nor convenient) in a skirt with so much weight and inertia that it tries to keep on walking after the wearer has stopped…
I seem to recall it was during this good-humoured episode that one of the team dropped a masculine pronoun into the conversation, and I quickly stifled my reaction. I do not know if I was right to do so. Cal thinks not: that people will never learn unless we make a point of telling them. Extremely wary though I am of ever seeming to patronise people, he may be right. My only thought at the time was that the evening was going so well I did not want to suddenly make it all about myself and my “condition.” Trans and LGBT events themselves can be triggering, as people will (obviously) discuss their own negative experiences. This evening was an opportunity to just be treated and included as any woman going to the theatre, and not have to think about transition, transpolitics, etc. Except that most women going to the theatre don’t get referred to as “him,” of course… The word was certainly not malicious, probably not intentional, and definitely not meant to make me feel like an outsider. I even felt guilty that my internal reaction was so strong. If I could master that, I am sure it would be psychologically healthier for me. Then again, if I was capable of that, would I even be transitioning at all?
The week wore on, and another story erupted in the turbulent world of transpolitics: Professor Germaine Greer, second-wave feminist and author of The Female Eunuch and The Whole Woman, was invited to speak at Cardiff University, and the students’ union there responded with a petition to no-platform her, as has become a fairly standard response when speakers deemed to be transphobic(5) are invited to campuses. Much as these type of gestures are meant to be supportive and protective of trans students, I am not in favour of no-platforming, as I believe it is always apt to be read as a gesture of fear and unwillingness to engage one’s opponent in debate. Bearing in mind that the event had already sold out – one can imagine many feminist students were eager to see a true icon of their cause in the flesh – I could not help but think that a campaign against her could not possibly sway any opinions in our favour. Even if she was intending to speak actual hatecrime, I thought it better that she be given the opportunity, then perhaps doubts would be raised in her audience.
I was in a minority, though, with trans and LGBT friends sharing the petition for her silencing. Cal understood my reservations on this, but somewhat doubtfully, pointing out that there would be no such discussion if a speaker with known racist views, for example, had been forbidden from giving a lecture. I do feel, though, in most people’s eyes, being trans is not the same kind of issue as racism, feminism, or even gay rights as they are now (mostly) perceived, and trans issues still strike the general public as mainly the concern of a few maladjusted individuals, and what accommodations (if any) society ought to make for them.
Perhaps I am too cynical, or perhaps I truly fear myself that I am indeed maladjusted, and am afraid of inflicting my own inner turmoil on people. I crave that sense of total normality which I only felt at this year’s Pride Cymru event, and I know that I shall never give up trying to pass, however slim the odds. I definitely do my trans pride pretty poorly…
However, my opinions continue to evolve, and I have certainly never wished to return to who I was before transition. I know that I have matured more in the space of this still-unfinished year than I had done for the whole of the preceding decade. I am, at all events, growing in strength and wisdom, though I know I have much of both still to learn.
On a lighter note, last night I gave some change to a homeless person, and steeled myself for the typical “sir” or “mate” which is my lot. In the event, I received “darling” and “babe.” I daresay that, as a supposed feminist ally, I should not have been as pleased by this (especially the “babe”) as I was, but perhaps he was just very trans-literate. In any case, it put a spring in my step, guilty or not.
Also, with reference to the aforementioned no-platforming attempt on Professor Greer, I was reminded this morning on Facebook that I have the most wonderful mother in the entire world…
“Just to clarify for all. I have trans people in my family. I do not mind civil discussion of trans politics – I’m sure there must BE some civil discussion on this topic, though I have seldom seen it. But anyone else who’s planning to link to, or repeat, the kind of hate-filled, vulgar personal abuse peddled by the obnoxious Brendan O’Neill in his Spectator article, or Burchill, or Greer, or anyone else on this topic, please unfriend me first because it’ll save me some trouble.”
All politics aside, I hope I may be forgiven for being one happy daughter…
(1) Roughly defined, “truscum” are transpeople who have gender dysphoria, and who believe that this or the fact of their transition grants them a valid right to identify as their reassigned sex / gender. They believe this right should not apply to non-binary, non-transitioned, or non-dysphoric transgender / genderqueer people. I certainly do not find this a tenable definition for transpeople who do not even claim any validity for their own reassigned gender, but continue to accept (and even to encourage) use of their birth sex signifiers.
(2) “The Real-Life Experience (RLE), sometimes called the Real-Life Test (RLT), is a period of time in which transgender individuals live full-time in their preferred gender role. The purpose of the RLE is to confirm that a given transgender person can function successfully as a member of said gender in society, as well as to confirm that they are sure they want to live as said gender for the rest of their life. A documented RLE is a requirement of some physicians before prescribing hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and a requirement of most surgeons before performing genital reassignment surgery (GRS).” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real-life_experience_%28transgender%29)
(3) As opposed to an “autogynephile.”
(4) Without wishing to give too many spoilers, the play follows “perfect” housewife Nora Helmer as she gradually comes to the realisation that her fine, upstanding husband is an abusive, gaslighting, cowardly little hypocrite… a fact which any modern audience should pick up on relatively quickly.
(5) It would be fair to state that Greer’s published views are unabashedly contemptuous of MtF transpeople (though there is no indication that she intended to speak on this subject at the Cardiff event):
“There is a witness to the transsexual’s script, a witness who is never consulted. She is the person who built the transsexual’s body of her own flesh and brought it up as her son or daughter, the transsexual’s worst enemy, his/her mother. Whatever else it is gender reassignment is an exorcism of the mother. When a man decides to spend his life impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in Psycho) it is as if he murders her and gets away with it, proving at a stroke that there was nothing to her. His intentions are no more honourable than any female impersonator’s; his achievement is to gag all those who would call his bluff. When he forces his way into the few private spaces women may enjoy and shouts down their objections, and bombards the women who will not accept him with threats and hate mail, he does as rapists have always done.”
Greer, Germaine. The Whole Woman (Great Britain: Doubleday, 1999), p.93.