Convalescent Critic #2: “Steven Universe”

(One unlikely hero, one redeemed ex-fascist functionary, one PTSD-afflicted alien superbeing, and one sentient pumpkin. A fairly typical day in the Steven Universe universe …)


“Steven Universe” (and the Crystal Gems) (US animation, 2013-present)

The likelihood is that most of the world heard of this little sci-fi / comedy gem (pun totally intended) way before me, but since binge-watching it with the hubby – who introduced me to it – did a lot to get me through the earliest and nastiest stages of my convalescence, it seems only fit to spread the gospel …

Now on its fifth season, with a huge fanbase, and spoilers all over the place, it is perhaps difficult to approach this show with a completely open mind (which is a real shame, as the plot is full of ingenious twists and the character development beautifully judged), but for those lucky enough to be discovering it afresh, I will just stick to the premise. The titular Steven, as of the first episode, is a pre-teen boy living in a dilapidated beach resort town on the east coast of America, the son of unsuccessful rock musician Greg Universe and repentant (although now deceased) alien invader Rose Quartz, of whom Steven himself – due to the complexities of cross-species reproduction – is in part the reincarnation.

Surreal enough yet? We’ve hardly begun …

Several thousand years ago, as it transpires, a race of silicon-based holographic beings (the “gems”, who all project forms as humanoid women, unless their crystal core is corrupted and / or shattered, in which case they assume monstrous forms) attempted to found a colony on Earth, of which numerous relics and ruins remain. In spite of their advanced culture, technology, and surreal beauty, however, they were not above greed and imperialism, and their activities became increasingly cruel and threatening to organic life, leading to a civil war. Steven’s mother was the head of the resistance, the last three survivors of her cadre – Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst (the “Crystal Gems”) – are now his guardians, and it is their task to raise the initially naive boy to take his mother’s place and master her powers before the ruthless Homeworld gems turn their attentions back to Earth again.

As you may have gathered, the premise of the show is astonishingly epic with more than a shade of “Star Wars”, yet it is far more successful in the characterisation stakes, managing to conjure sympathy in the most unlikely of places. Characters set up as apparently total villains reveal hidden depths, while characters the audience has seen as selfless heroes succumb to flaws and weaknesses, or reveal information which changes our perspective on them. An aspect for which this show has rightly garnered a lot of praise is for its plethora of strong female and strong LGBT characters*: in fact, they constitute the majority of the characters, and while Steven himself is technically the lead, his own gender proves decidedly fluid on more than one occasion (but to say any more on that would be a spoiler). Grandiose as the themes and settings are, they never overwhelm the emotional dimension, and the series is invariably as touching and funny as it is awe-inspiring in its concepts.

That being said, it is a long series with an increasingly tense overarching plot, so especially as it develops one can get frustrated at the occasional episodes that seem to take it no further: sometimes the case when an episode centres around Steven’s interactions with the human townsfolk, most of whom have very little knowledge that their town is the last outpost of an alien resistance force. Some of these side characters are more interesting and sympathetic than others, a couple are just plain irritating (such as the town’s vain, ineffectual mayor, and their resident David Icke-esque conspiracy theorist, who mistakenly believes himself an expert on the town’s alien issues), but as the story moves on and the Crystal Gems are increasingly unable to shield the townsfolk from the various alien menaces, the story tends to focus on the less gimmicky characters, and again reveal hidden depths in unlikely places.

I hesitate to say any more, as this show is well worth the trouble of discovering for oneself. Alternately hilarious, haunting, and heartbreaking, with a diverse cast of appealing characters, a beautiful and surreal art style, and the most unapologetic and glorious celebration of female and LGBT empowerment ever committed to animation, “Steven Universe” is a triumph and a joy (not to mention a wonderful testimony to my wonderful hubby’s good taste).


* A wholly intentional aspect according to show creator Rebecca Sugar: “Steven Universe creator fights to show that ‘all people are deserving of love’.”

Advertisements

Showgirl at the seaside …

Here are a few snaps from my latest photoshoot down in Mathry, West Wales, in the beautiful Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. This was going to be my final shoot before surgery – a quick change of scene before my extended indoor convalescence – but given my recent bad news on that score, there is now no telling. Still, I had a very pleasant stay over there, had a quick spell of decent weather (all a Welsh girl ever dare hope for), and made sure to take some images in my burlesque costume from the “Far Far Away” show (see here, or here for the video) before it gets retired, alas … although actually it got a quick dusting off this week as me and two of my Cabaret Club classmates did a reprise of the dance routine for a local intersectional feminist event. I would say more about that, but it all hinges on the ongoing media and political war between trans rights activists and trans-exclusionary radical feminists, and Goddess forbid I should draw that sort of attention back to this blog. I prefer to keep it as light and decadent as possible these days … although I am glad our dancing was able to support the cause, in its small way. 🙂

All photographs by the lovely John Waring.

The Transphobe Within

“Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women’s names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn’t polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man’s delusion that he is female.”(1)

“The lack of insight that MtF transsexuals about the extent of their acceptance as females should be an indication that their behaviour is less rational than it seems.”(2)

(Prof. Germaine Greer)


Before I began my transition, it is safe to say that I had a pretty grim social life. Defined by the perceived need to embody a certain image that I hated and had no desire to be read according to, nor interacted with on the basis of, I more often than not simply tended not to bother, and thus became both very creative and very lonely. For many years I had decided that this was as much destiny as my gender was, and always referred to myself as an introvert.

I am not so sure of that, now. While 2015 was very much about tentatively finding my feet as a self-confessed transwoman, 2016 has seen me at my most socially active, and being trans has itself opened social doors which I never anticipated: my Springboard career development course, for example. Although I was initially very nervous about being the only transwoman in my group, there has been no hostility or bad atmosphere whatsoever. My local LGBT support group continues to invite me to conferences, plays, and coffee mornings, and in a recent highlight my friends in the local queer scene invited me to Birkenstomp VII: a feminist music event and LGBT-friendly space, describing itself thusly…

Obviously, it’s trans-inclusive. Do we need to even say that?

…so why, in that case, did I feel so uneasy there, and afraid that I was intruding?

I have no good reason to believe that. Quite apart from having been invited, I wanted to see a friend’s new band that was playing their first gig there, and thus felt my reasons for attending to be basically supportive. Still, in spite of that and the fact that my presence there was never questioned, I found myself being sceptical and judgemental on everyone else’s behalf, second-guessing all of my possible ulterior motives for being there, and feeling guilty for the unnecessary strain I was putting on the tolerance of all of the non-trans women, as if I was cruelly taking advantage of their kindness… and in fact I know why I felt that way, and the reason is that I have brainwashed myself. Bravo me…

To be more specific, I have conditioned my mind to repeat a trope that I have often encountered in gender-critical discourse: that (non-trans) women, being socialised into politeness, kindness, and putting the needs of men first (which I do not dispute), would never think to confront a transwoman in public, but in private they all consider us as frauds, or at any rate the majority who have not bought into the delusion think so. That being the case, this discourse encourages us to distrust whatever acceptance we receive, especially from women, and to assume that we are more often than not merely pitied, or secretly held in contempt and derision. In effect, it aims to encourage suspicion and social disengagement, and to thus hinder meaningful social transition, although it may also be argued this is for our good if it encourages us to see transition as a hopeless, hollow sham, and to thus detransition and accept reality.(3)

Is there anything at all in this? It would be disingenuous of me to claim no sympathies whatsoever. I have, alas, suffered enough past sexual harassment at the hands of the local trans / drag scene that these days I assume the worst automatically and never set foot in those type of clubs (including, alas, the one Cal and I first met in), although to my mind the transwomen who frequent such venues have little in common with the dysphoric, innocent, endearingly nerdy lot who tend to constitute our support group. Still, a new transitionee or someone considering transition will sometimes join the group, and my instant mental reaction will, unfortunately, be “she looks and sounds just like a traumatised, effeminate man”… which I can hardly help but be aware is exactly the figure I cut when I first dared to seek help there.

Knowing that, there is certainly no part of me that feels I would do any good in this world by promoting a message that boils down to “who are you kidding?” Transition, for all of its trials and imperfections, brought me out of a profoundly low, dark place and has so far shown me an overwhelmingly positive side to humanity, and if acceptance is the reaction I get from almost everyone who isn’t the very worst type of unreformed alpha-male misogynist (or pretend alpha, at least), then distrusting it seems more than a little ungrateful as well as counter-productive to my social transition. Nor do I see that my internalised transphobia does anything positive for feminism. Rather, it probably just makes me look like a paranoid wreck, and hinders me from more positive and effective participation.

The other event that got me thinking along these lines was re-connecting with the dear friend whom I mentioned in my previous post, who heavily cut down her own internet activities after online transpolitics left her depressed and disillusioned. She had, prior to that, been known as a strong radical feminist ally and prepared to accept some fairly disheartening definitions of transwomen’s social status in the interests of this alliance. When, in spite of that, she still drew accusations of delusion, perversion, and seeking to divide feminists by playing on their sympathy, she renounced the cause altogether and pulled back from social media. She has also started to speak of her transition not as a limited, faintly tragic thing that might just about be excused in our flawed society, but as the miracle that healed and saved her (and me). For all of my self-conditioning, that is still how it feels.

So if I do not seem to be around so much these days, I can only offer my apologies, but I must beware of offering as open a channel to transphobia as I seem to have done. I know there is an abundant supply of it, but until real life starts to justify that deluge (and it has so far done very little to) I feel I can do no better than to ignore it. With any luck, I may thus hope to cut a less shy, uptight figure at Birkenstomp VIII, although I will still, I rather fear, be a cringing mess of embarrassment around the ceramic vulva craft stall. My inner transphobe may one day be exorcised, but never my inner Victorian…


1 The Guardian, August 20 2009, “Caster Semenya sex row: What makes a woman?”

2 The Whole Woman (London: Transworld Publishers, 1999), p. 93… and if there was ever a more ironic choice of publishing house, I would like to hear it.

3 In an excellent pseudo-public demonstration of this, I was once chided on Twitter for calling a transwoman friend of mine sister, with the following rationale…

“you don’t think it’s hypocrisy to call a man [sic] your sister? … if you shore up his [sic] delusions, he [sic] begins to expect other women to do the same.”

…and no, they had not realised they were talking to another transwoman, but one gathers they were even more displeased when they finally clocked me.

Shell

oldshell

“Let us be clear: there is no such thing as “sex-reassignment” surgery. A mutilated male pumped full of estrogen remains just that—a mutilated male pumped full of estrogen. He has not “transitioned” into being a woman. He can never be a woman.”

(Margaret A. Hagen, Transgenderism Has No Basis in Science or Law)

“At the heart of the problem is confusion over the nature of the transgendered. “Sex change” is biologically impossible. People who undergo sex-reassignment surgery do not change from men to women or vice versa. Rather, they become feminized men or masculinized women. Claiming that this is civil-rights matter and encouraging surgical intervention is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder.”

(Dr. Paul McHugh, Transgender Surgery Isn’t the Solution)

“What the fuck is that?”

(Question asked by passer-by about twenty minutes ago)

“You’ve changed, like coming out of a shell. You’re not guarded all the time. You interact with people, you smile more, you’re easier to get along with.”

(Some observations made by my work area manager last weekend)

I have listened to so many arguments, and I have taken good note even of the ones that do not please me at all: of the undeniable limitations of medical transition, of the drastic and never-ending treatments I will face, and of the politically problematic message that perhaps underlies gender reassignment. Morally, I struggle to defend my decision to go from being a gender non-conforming male to a gender-conforming transwoman: it is scarcely revolutionary of me by any measure, and it arguably reinforces the very binary that keeps women (and transwomen) oppressed. I know I do not pass, and I probably never will given my height and bone structure, thus in spite of my conformist wishes I shall likely always be a figure of curiosity (or of scorn, as above). Not to mention that my decision to create within myself a lifelong dependency on synthetic hormones is practically doing a favour to “Big Pharma,” whereas loving my natural body (as I have been advised to try harder at) would be the far more ecological and left-wing thing to do. On many levels, I often feel I have failed. Not as a man, as I never wanted to succeed on that level on the first place, but as a feminist / ally, as a socialist, as a nonconforming artist… even, ironically, as a transgender person / ally, as my obsessive (yet always critical) dedication to this medical transition route  arguably fits me for the category of “Truscum.”

My transition is a surrender, I would not deny. But taking off my armour and letting my guard down has felt too liberating that I am in no frame of mind to take up the fight again. Also, whatever I am becoming – whether a pseudo-woman, an ersatz woman, or not a woman at all but just a “feminized,” “mutilated” facsimile – apparently I am becoming a better (or at least a more agreeable) person for it, and this has to count for something.

A Year of Existence

It was on the 8th of January 2015 that I began this blog, following the advice of my friend Jason, with no very clear idea but plenty of trepidation as to what might come out of it. Now seems as good a time as any to take stock of what I have learned and gained…

1. THE BLOG ITSELF

The Good – After a quiet start, interest and sympathy started to flow in, and rarely let up pace, from trans bloggers, from those in relationships with trans people, from non-binary activists, to supportive people in general. Particularly honourable mentions go to…

Ambivalence Girl

Anna Secret-Poet

Ariadne

Charissa Grace

Curiouser and Curiouser

Daniella Argento

Fairy Jerbear

Georgia Kevin

A Kinder Way

Kira Moore

Kit

La Quemada

Plain T

Tish Wolfsong

…among many other generous and uplifting voices who have encouraged me to keep this extended muse / rant as a going concern. My profuse thanks and love to you all. xxx

The Bad – Thankfully, little negativity has drifted this way, at least proportionally. Some critical feedback was drawn from Radical Feminists (a bit more on that later), and some downright hostile feedback from an older transperson who thought (and still thinks) me a charlatan, but not to name any names. The positives have vastly outweighed the negatives, and overall, the blog was a sound move that has helped me to keep a sense of purpose and progress, as I had dared hope that it might.

2. MEDICAL TRANSITION / THE NHS

The Good – Initially, this went unexpectedly well. It was with great fear that I came out to a new GP in January, and they proved incredibly sympathetic, totally helpful, validating of my new identity, and not at all judgemental. Although they did warn me I would need patience…

In February, I saw a local psychiatrist with a view of obtaining a gender clinic referral. This too went not only smoothly but pleasantly, with no hostile questioning, no attempts to sow doubt, and complete consideration shown to my (by then) firmly established transgender identity. The referral was quickly processed, and I was (fairly) promptly informed that I was on the waiting list for the gender clinic.

The Bad – Progress for the past few months, alas, has been non-existent. This was expected. Worse, however, since the referral my permanent GP  (sadly, not the one I initially saw) has declined to help me at all. I have, like the majority of transwomen-in-waiting, ended up self-medicating with internet-bought hormones and androgen blockers. This is not supposed to happen, but the interim NHS guidelines for Gender Dysphoria, like the Pirates’ Code, are all too rarely followed, and I may be doing this for months (or years, even) to come.

legopiratequeen

Disturbingly, I am in spite of this doing better than my husband Cal, who applied around the same time as me and still has yet to hear news of his referral. Also, we have by now encountered insensitivity from some GPs, and according to information Cal obtained from the gender clinic (which ran an informal workshop), many of the profession still do not see gender dysphoria as a genuine medical issue. Thankfully, the medical status of GD is still official NHS policy, but until we actually have our diagnoses we will continue, I fear, to fret over the outcome, and the possibility of policy changes that could leave us with no option at all.

3. FEMINISM

The Good – I had a suspicion right from the beginning, even before I had any experience in the murky world of online transpolitics, that feminists might look askance at transpeople, though I had no idea back then of the whole Liberal / Radical divide. For someone who began the year with little academic knowledge of Feminism, I have learned a lot in the course of understanding this debate, but apologies if I err in the following…

At a very basic level, and as I understand it, Liberal Feminism (such as espoused very early in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792) holds the view that sexism in society arises from custom, tradition, and ignorance rather than by preconceived malice, and can thus be effectively fought through the reform of existing structures. Radical Feminism (such as pioneered by Second-Wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin in Woman Hating, 1974) by contrast holds that gender and patriarchy are deliberate tools of oppression, constructed with the full, misogynistic intention of keeping women as second-class citizens and an exploitable resource, and can thus only be effectively fought by the complete overhaul of the existing, corrupt social order.

Given that Radical Feminism posits an intentional campaign of hatred and control with the oppressor / oppressed rigidly delineated by biology (specifically, males conspiring to control and exploit females as unpaid labour, sexual slavery, and breeding stock), it naturally has very little scope to accommodate not only transwomen but any queer gender identities, finding them irrelevant at best, or at worst a malicious attempt by men to impinge on what rights and spaces women have obtained. This notwithstanding, there is no monolithic Radfem community or party line, and I have met those who tentatively accept transwomen as women, albeit with the (perfectly logical) caveat that they are not biologically female, even post-transition, and should be respectful that Radfem issues will often be specific to natal women. There are some transwomen even active and generally welcome within this community, although they qualify themselves as “allies” rather than as feminists per se.

Regarding the two schools of Feminism, I am still very much a learner. I have been fortunate enough to make friends in both quarters. However…

The Bad – I have, alas, read some strikingly inept journalism from trans Libfems including inappropriate comparisons between deficient trans rights and deliberate human rights atrocities, ironic attempts to shame confused allies for not being quite sensitive enough (in the journalist’s view), and accusations of really quite moderate, even reconciliationist feminists as “TERFs” (such as Helen Lewis and Penny White). This makes me hugely sceptical of the value of lending my weight, such as it is, to trans Liberal Feminism (or Liberal Transfeminism).

However, whilst there is no particular value in harping on with the “TERF” line (it is construed as an insult, and for me to disrespect anyone else’s chosen or rejected identification seems too ironic), I would strongly advise any transwoman to be very wary of most Radfem circles, even if invited to comment. If you do, expect hostility sooner or later, and do not expect to sway any perceptions or allay any scepticism, even if your intention is allyship. For everyone who appreciates such gestures of support, there will be others who construe them as patronising or hypocritical. I have had to watch two dear friends in the course of this year being slandered and grotesquely insulted in Radfem social media circles, one of whom was broadly sympathetic (at first) and one of whom was actually a long-standing ally (but has since disavowed that role). The hatred is there, make no mistake. As one of the commenters on the previously linked article by Penny White (who, incidentally, has always been very kind to me on Twitter) felt the need to put it…

“You should be listening to what WOMEN say, and not cowardly men who would rather claim womanhood and redefine the language we use for ourselves rather than break away from the patriarchal system they benefit from and embrace their gender non-conformity AS MEN. Trans “women” are not women, they are not female, they are not her or she, they are gender non-conforming men, and if they were brave enough to face that fact, they might actually be strong allies. Instead they’re men who reinforce harmful gender stereotypes, that help maintain the patriarchal oppression of women.”

Not for me to state my own courage, or lack of… but suffice it to say that this view is representative enough. Engage with these politics at your peril.

4. FAMILY

The Good – Our respective families, with understandable concern, have been quick to offer their support, and given that many transpeople face rejection, this is something to be hugely grateful for. Also, I feel easier in my conscience now, as the weight of my dishonesty all of these years is finally lifted, and has not been held against me. Cal’s family have also accepted me as their daughter-in-law, which is a tremendous relief. Any fears we might have had of being isolated as a couple, with only ourselves to rely upon, have been beautifully dispelled.

The Bad – Sadly, the timing of our coming-out did prove embarrassing enough that we were required to attend a family wedding as our old selves, in order to avoid a scene. Hashtag awkward… Thankfully, it is understood that this will not be happening again, whatever the occasion.

5. ODDS AND ENDS…

The Good – Rediscovering modelling was a joy this year, and one that helped me to raise my public confidence. The main project has been a short film (which is finally in post-production) called “Imago,” and when it eventually became necessary for me to do a shoot in “boy mode,” I felt so awkward and unnatural that it was wholly unnecessary to act up my melancholy for the scene… I am very pleased with the results, at least, so we shan’t be needing to revisit that concept. I also had studio and location shoots to rebuild my portfolio (having junked all of my male-model shots), and have shamelessly ripped off the most iconic trans editorial shot of 2015 (and probably of ever). Take a wild guess whose…

_MG_2630

…although I wanted to Goth it up a whole lot more. The photographer (Alan) talked me out of that, his philosophy of plagiarism being to do it as faithfully as one can.

Coming out in work was unexpectedly easy. The Royal Mail policy has proven cast-iron to the extent that I have even been included on a women’s workplace development program. There has been no outspoken discrimination since (although I gather some unkind gossip).

Administrative changes proved easier than I dared to anticipate. I have now amended my NHS details, my bank details, changed my name by deed poll, changed my PhD certificate, and best of all obtained a new passport marked with an “F” in the gender box. I feel this part of transition is, to all practical intents and purposes, completed.

Also surprisingly, my church participation increased a lot this year with extremely positive outcomes, including my invitation to speak on being a trans Christian at Pride Cymru 2015 (at around the 13:50 mark for anyone wishing to hear my weird voice again…).

The Bad – Chavs making abusive comments on the street, white van men doing the same, misogynistic creeps messaging me on Facebook, elderly gentleman insisting on knowing my old name prior to lecturing me on why I am an ungodly rebel, the person who started the “dirty freak eleanor antony burns” Facebook group… oh, and electrolysis really hurts and I have many months of it to look forward to.

REGRETS

None.

Thank you for helping me through a tumultuous but overall wonderful year. xxx

Responsibilities of Embodiment

Last week at Royal Mail, while on break and working my way through the exercises in my Springboard Workbook, I encountered the following passage…


Being a woman

Being a woman is at the core of who you are. Usually the first thing that people notice about each other is the gender that they are. Some people have changed their gender, usually after a long process. So if you have had your gender re-assigned you will have thought a lot about what it means to you to be a woman.

Daisley, Jenny and Willis, Liz; Springboard – Women’s Development Workbook; 7th ed. (Stroud: Hawthorn Press, 2013); p.48.


…which certainly clears up a lot of my anxiety as to whether or not I should even be on such a course (one can at least assume from this that the course designers did not see it as a problem, in theory), although I found it an interesting point in and of itself. Perhaps even a worrying one.

Regarding that point about “the first thing that people notice”: Caitlyn Jenner’s recent gaffe about non-passing transwomen making people feel uncomfortable, although possibly taken out of context in some sources, has been making much noise of late, and as someone who struggles to pass at the best of times it rings with a nasty logic whether I like it or not. Almost certainly, as time goes by, I will try to send out increasingly unequivocal signals of my gender identity if for no other reason than to mitigate social awkwardness. Whatever feminist instinct I may be said to possess bridles at the thought of a life spent becoming more stereotypically feminine to attain social ease. It is true that one does not see that many butch transwomen. Given the alternative of spending my life being assumed to be a gender-neutral / gender-fluid / non-binary man, however, I cannot see myself doing anything other than capitulating on this point. Even my weekly electrolysis sessions, although with a bearing on my dysphoria, could also be seen as an expensive and unnecessary cosmetic concession to social expectations (It is not as if there are no born women who do not experience unusually heavy facial hair growth). One option that does not currently appeal to me is facial feminisation surgery – I have seen poor psychological outcomes of heavy facial surgery, and have no wish to inflict that on myself – but even so I am cursed with a sad sense that the means of embodiment of a transwoman could be argued from all of this as inimical to women in general: their right especially to express as they please, without reference to anyone else’s comfort or expectations.

This is germane to the second point, “you will have thought a lot about what it means to you to be a woman”, and I find in other ways that I now need to be far more analytical about my life. One disturbing thing I have noticed of late is not that I have become less assertive per se, but I have become more comfortable with being unassertive, when I strongly suspect I owe it to the world to do exactly the opposite. I used to feel acute shame when men (it was, alas, overwhelmingly men) steamrollered me in conversation, patronised me on points where I was at least no more ill-informed than they were, and generally talked down to me without actual benefit of greater knowledge (and I don’t count the Daily Mail as valid source material). This all still happens, but since my coming-out it feels inevitable, and thus less shameful.

To clarify my thoughts on this point: sexism is not shameful to women (nor to transwomen). It bloody well ought not to be inevitable, though.

Still, that is part of the reason I am on this course in the first place, and hopefully it can help me to better define my role within the context of feminism, if I even have one. One faces a curious double-bind as a transwoman: anxious about appearing too meekly self-effacing, and thus embodying the most socially regressive stereotypes, yet also anxious about appearing brash and narcissistic, too eager to make oneself the centre of the struggle. I do not, as I have hopefully already said, believe that feminism – liberal or radical – should bend over backwards to centre transwomen or trans issues in general. The issues are complex, and the place (or even existence) of trans people in any speculative gender-reformed or genderless future society is hard to guess at. Second-Wave radical feminist Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005), who it should be stressed was not inimical to trans people (seeing their condition as symptomatic of rather than causative of a patriarchal society), had this to say:


There is no doubt that in the culture of male-female discreteness, transsexuality is a disaster for the individual transsexual. Every transsexual, white, black, man, woman, rich, poor, is in a state of primary emergency […] as a transsexual. There are 3 crucial points here. One, every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her own terms. That means every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions. This is an emergency measure for an emergency condition. Two, by changing our premises about men and women, role-playing and polarity, the social situation of transsexuals will be transformed, and transsexuals will be integrated into community, no longer persecuted and despised. Three, community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.

Dworkin, Andrea; Woman Hating (New York: Penguin, 1974); pp.185-6.


Possibly slightly digressive of me, but I do enjoy quoting that, as it is so much more compassionate and less vitriolic than legions of modern internet philosophers and activists on this subject… but it does raise that nagging possibility that we are creatures born out of the very structure of abuse that feminism is (and by definition must be) ranged against. Of value in diagnosing it, perhaps – as Caroline Criado-Perez suggests – but perhaps too closely and ironically identified with it for our perspectives ever to be taken without a pinch of salt, even by ourselves. It makes my skin crawl when a retail assistant addresses me as “sir” or “fella” (although I am curious to know what training manual recommended the latter as a polite form of address). Should it not equally make my skin crawl when a stranger addresses me as “darling” or “babe?” The answer would be yes… It certainly should not feel as if I have achieved something.

Having said all that, there is one solace I dare take to from all this, which is that the authors of the Springboard workbook included that passage referring to transwomen in the first place. Critics could argue they only did that to appease liberal lawmakers, but they could easily have skipped over the issue (The law merely requires that they do not discriminate against applicants). Since the authors thus apparently felt it appropriate to include people like me on their women’s assertiveness / development course I will take that as a sign of encouragement, though also as a warning. Whatever I amount to – be it a badly-constructed woman or a badly-programmed man – I made a conscious decision to embody the social category of woman, and heaven forbid I should do so irresponsibly.

Misogyny

I have now had answered to my own satisfaction that as a transwoman, I can expect to receive prejudice based on the fact of my being trans. Now to the vexed question of whether or not I will also receive prejudice on account of being a woman (or a whatever… I appreciate this is a contentious one).

During my “former life” I made friends in the oddest of places, being both averse to and utterly rubbish at ordinary forms of masculine socialising… Hippies, anarchists, artists, and one very eclectic street performer who, a couple of years ago, spent a month or two living solidly as a feminine persona. He added an feminine “a” to the end of his standard performer name, went around various shops loudly insisting on being shown dresses and lingerie (Retail assistants must need to work hard on that poker face), and at length he materialised as – to be fair – a not unimpressive looking drag queen. I think that was his goal, as he took this persona to stage, shot a music video, and hosted gigs in it. At any rate, he was rather too extreme to actually pass, though that did not seem to be his intention. It was an act, and it did not last. He did, at the time, ask me to become his “sidekick”, which did briefly make me wonder if he had a much better trans-dar than any of my other friends seemed to… I declined, at any rate.

A week or so ago I met him on the street, chatting to a friend whom I did not know. He called me over, and asked me to confirm something that he had been telling this friend, who was apparently sceptical…

“Tell him: I inspired you, didn’t I?”

…or words to that effect, and I had not misunderstood them: he had been telling this friend (and, as I later found out, a friend of mine as well) that “Anthony” had only chosen to become Eleanor on account of being so awed by and envious of the aforementioned drag act. That was the first nail in the coffin of this friendship…

The following day, he plumbed a new depth. Approaching me in a public place, with a mutual friend, he greeted me with the following pronouncement:

“Eleanor: you’re working for me now.”

…and he went on to explain, but I missed the details in the commotion. Our mutual friend later filled me in, with incredulity:

“He said that now you’re a woman, he’ll take you down to Bute Street and pimp you out.”

If I had any scepticism of the Nordic model before, it now seems like a damn good (and a cathartic) idea…

The hubby has since emphasised that he will not be responsible for his actions if he should meet this chap again, so we can safely say that this friendship has run its course, and without regrets. One could of course be forgiving and assume he was ignorant of the large numbers of transwomen who end up condemned to prostitution and its attendant atrocities, and may have been unaware of just how sick and tasteless his joke was. Looking back, however, his views have always been deeply sexist and essentialist, and I find myself ashamed that I did not distance myself from him more quickly. It may be that my recent excursions into feminist journalism and literature have given me the perspective to appreciate how poisonous those attitudes are (and thank you, incidentally, to @Neopythia for the massive Andrea Dworkin trove). It may also be that I was more “tolerant” than I should have been because friends were hard to come by, and it is almost certainly the case that I am very bad at telling some people what they need to hear. Ironically, it seems this transwoman needs to “grow a pair”…

In more positive news, Leeds University have updated their files and sent me a lovely new PhD certificate. My doctorness is restored to me. A TARDIS would make my joy complete, but I’ll take what I can get.

phccert

Porcelain Doll

brokendoll

(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.

Three Days / Three Quotes Challenge Day 3 (Cheated)

In conclusion…

My lovely blog friend La Quemada has nominated me to post three quotes, on three consecutive days, and each day nominate three new bloggers to take up the challenge. Having contemplated this, but never being comfortable with nominations (and nine in total is a very tall order), I have decided to play fast and loose with the rules, and simply throw the challenge open to anyone who fancies a go. The exact rules, for those more conscientious, follow:

Thank the blogger who nominated you.

Share one new quote on three consecutive days on your blog. They can be from anywhere, anyone, or anything.

On each of the three days, nominate three more bloggers to carry on with the quotes.

So, a final thanks to La Quemada, and since I have decided that the theme of all three of my quotes will be women who have inspired me, we conclude with…

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

If as I suggested in my last post, Eleanor Roosevelt was the one who laid the groundwork for Radical Feminism to flourish in the United States, it was Mary Wollstonecraft who set the pattern for it to exist at all.

Social roles for middle and upper-class women in the Eighteenth Century were severely restricted, focused around the need to make advantageous marriages, with women’s education thus tending to be shallow and stifling, focused on decorative skills and social protocol. The insufferable Caroline Bingley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice sums it up nicely…

“…no [woman] can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with.  A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”

A well-born Eighteenth Century wife was, essentially, expected to be a (more) feminine version of C-3PO: possibly not quite as shiny, but certainly as deferential and obedient, and as lacking in initiative and independence. Should she fail, in spite of these skills, to make a good marriage, her only viable option tended to be working as a governess: essentially a poorly-paid and often as poorly treated live-in tutor to upper-class children. Mary Wollstonecraft occupied that role for a time, during which she gained insight into the idle, degenerate lives imposed on upper-class women and girls by society. This would greatly inform her work.

wollstone

In 1787 she left her post as a governess, moved to London, and established herself as a career writer: an extremely radical and not overly respectable choice of life for a single woman at the time, yet one in which she attained self-sufficiency, against the odds. Her greatest work, and one that could well be argued to be the first true feminist text, was A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Far in advance of modern Radical Feminism, Wollstonecraft’s book launches a sustained attack on the conventional notion that the social roles assigned to men and women are dictated by essential, natural differences between the sexes (as argued by moralists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom she repeatedly dismantles). Instead, she emphasises – taking evidence from her experience of women’s stifling education, contrasted with her own unsheltered, self-taught background – that any seemingly natural differences are almost entirely the result of social conditioning. If women are physically weak, it is because they are encouraged to cherish an ideal of beauty that is passive, frail, and helpless. If they are intellectually weak, it is because they are discouraged from cultivating mental independence as this is not seen as a valuable commodity for them in the marriage market. Furthermore; Wollstonecraft argues that the degenerating effects of this situation are self-perpetuating and inherently bad for all involved, as it manifestly creates such unfit mothers that upper class families resort to governesses and nurses to care for their children. The emancipation and education of women, and the consequent erosion of these artificially constructed gender distinctions, she argues, can only be of benefit to the whole of society.

And if none of that is cool enough (which it is), her daughter wrote Frankenstein.

karloff

(From the introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman)

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists – I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.”

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑