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Trans visibility

Posted at 11:38 on 28 Mar 2020 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: bodily autonomy, gender, gender politics, genderqueer, non-binary, trans, transgender

During disasters like this pandemic, artists and writers are more valuable than ever. We need people to document history, process the present, uplift us, and create space for us to work through our emotions about what is happening to the most vulnerable members of our society.

While all this is going on it can be hard to think about anything else. And I will write more about the pandemic and its social context. But I also want to continue writing about the other things that matter to me. The other issues in our society haven't gone away just because something big and new is happening.

People talking about gender affirming healthcare and harm reduction for trans people continue to run into hostility from those who would prefer it if trans folk didn't exist.  A statement of trans solidarity signed by hundreds of feminists was recently undermined by the Guardian, who published it alongside quotes from a couple of transphobic individuals ‘for balance’. The idea of our fundamental right to body and gender autonomy often gets lost, drowned out by misinformation.

The increased visibility of trans people in recent years has helped spread greater awareness of trans issues and rights, but also a lot of hate and misinformation. I saw a BBC Three teaser for a TV programme where a doctor gives advice to a trans guy on safe binding. Giving information to vulnerable young people about how to tackle dysphoria in a safe way is crucial - and this includes making it easy for them to access gender-affirming healthcare. I felt very sad when I saw many transphobic replies in the comments. 

I’m always unsure how to respond to this sort of thing. I don't want to reply or quote tweet, as it gives air to the hate and puts it on people's timelines who might otherwise not see it. But then the outrageous statements weigh on my mind, and I worry that people will see them and start to believe them. I think it's important to challenge harmful ideas for the sake of vulnerable people who might be exposed to them. 

So I'm going to counter some of the insidious ideas I encountered in that thread here.

"Why would you want to be a man? Don't you know butch lesbians are beautiful?"

Yes they are - and trans masc folk are beautiful too! Trans men aren't taking anything away from butch women. One gender expression does not negate another. There's enough room for everyone. 

"They're mutilating themselves"

People who seek gender affirming surgery are having a rational reaction to dysphoria. They are genuinely suffering and proactively taking steps to help themselves feel better. If you don't know what dysphoria is, please don't assume it's easy to ignore. 

"[He] struggles to convey fully what such dysphoria is like, aware how hard, perhaps impossible, it is to explain what being trans really is. The alienation between mind and body that most will never experience. Its profundity. Like explaining grief to an innocent."

That quote is from an article about the protagonist of the recent documentary on trans pregnancy, Seahorse.

In their book Trans Like Me, C N Lester talks about the idea of our "proprioceptive self". This is our inner sense of our body's position, how we tell where our hand is with our eyes closed. They describe dysphoria as a clash between this inner proprioceptive map of one's own body, and the body that can be perceived with the other senses. 

"It's like missing a step in the dark,when you're convinced that the step is actually there until the moment you hit the ground. It's not wanting a different body: it's knowing how your body should be, and living with the continual pain of discord, as wrong as a broken bone."

“Mutilating” is loaded language, implying horrendous violence resulting in lifelong disability. Even if you care so much about people seeking to alter their bodies, why aren't you going after people who get cosmetic surgery with the same vehemence? Both are alterations to your body through surgery to make you feel more comfortable within your own skin. Some people might consider my piercings and tattoos to be "self harm"; they're permanent changes to my body for aesthetic reasons. I wonder how many anti-trans activists have their ears pierced?

In the end we all have bodily autonomy. We all get to make choices about our own body, and other people get to make choices about theirs.

"Kids are getting transed"

Oh boy. Where do I even start? This idea that kids are having transness thrust upon them is the biggest red herring of all.

Do you know any trans kids? Do you know how hard it is to grow up knowing you're different, knowing something isn't right, to have to fight to be seen every day of your life? Trans kids are swimming against the tide. The waiting times for counselling and puberty blockers are far too long - and when you're approaching the wrong puberty time is of the essence. Going through the wrong puberty is incredibly traumatic. The effects of testosterone on, for instance, body hair are irreversible - once you've grown body or face hair you can't unhair those follicles, you have to blast them with laser to kill them - which is expensive, painful and imperfect. Far easier to take hormone blockers and put puberty on hold while you go through the counselling process and figure out what you want. Puberty blockers are far less harmful than an unwanted puberty. All they're doing is giving kids time to grow up a bit while they figure it out. 

No-one is forcing kids to be trans. Quite the opposite: most kids grow up facing enormous pressure to conform to the gender assigned to them at birth. It's immensely brave of trans kids to put themselves out there and advocate for their right to be their authentic selves. If gender-affirming parents are listening to their children and acknowledging their right to gender autonomy, this is a good thing, and will be in that kids' best interests in the long run, putting them at far less risk of serious mental health issues or even suicide. If more people understand trans issues, and are inclined to give kids gender autonomy, this is a good thing. The more options we have, the more free we all are. 

Being trans isnt about conforming to gender stereotypes - its about exploding them.

The idea that female-assigned kids who like “boy” things, or male-assigned kids who like “girl” things, are being “forced to be trans” is just plain ignorant. This isn't what being trans means. Being trans isn't about conforming to gender stereotypes - it's about exploding them. It's about engaging authentically with your inner voice, and being unafraid to carve your own path. Not every trans person has a binary gender, and not every trans person conforms to the traditional roles of their true gender. 

I don't see anyone arguing that all gender non-conforming people are now magically binary trans - that, for instance, all butch women have to become men now. The gender rainbow has space for individuality across the whole spectrum. A gender non-conforming person might be cis, or they might be trans. No-one else decides that for them. Whether you're trans or cis, you can express your gender however you want.

In their groundbreaking book Gender Outlaw Kate Bornstein offers an expansive definition of trans, which includes "anyone for whom their gender occupies a significant proportion of their attention". This can include gender non-conforming people, but it depends on the person. Gender expression - whether we are butch or femme, say - is different from gender identity. It's up to each of us how we express gender, and it's up to each of us to tune into what gender (if any) we feel on the inside. Some are happy breaking the rules of their assigned gender while continuing to identify with it - being a butch woman, say, or a feminine man - while others feel their gender is something different. 

The existence of trans and non-binary people doesn't threaten gender non-conforming cis folk. There’s space for everyone! 

In fact the more gender hacking we have, the easier it is for everyone, as visibility and acceptability increases for all of us. 

Binary trans men open up space for non-binary trans mascs, butches, and masculine and gender non-conforming women.

Binary trans women open up space for non-binary trans femmes, queer femmes, and feminine and gender non-conforming men. 

The more the merrier. A system that only permits us to choose between two binary genders limits all of us. The more diversity we have, the closer we are to a rainbow of gender freedom, for all of us. 


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