“LGBT Awareness” & The Raspberry Conundrum

Published July 3, 2013 by Sarah Thomasin

Stephen walks through the room, looks over our shoulders. “So they’re still teaching you kiddie Physics,”
he says indulgently. “They’ve still got the atom looking like a raspberry.”
“See?” says Cordelia.
I feel subverted. “This is the atom that’s going to be on the exam, so you’d better learn it,” I say to Cordelia. To Stephen I say, “So what does it really look like?”
“A lot of empty space,” Stephen says. “It’s hardly there at all. It’s just a few specks held in place by forces. At the subatomic level, you can’t even say that matter exists. You can only say that it has a tendency to exist.”
“You’re confusing Cordelia,” I say.

From Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye

There has never been a fictional character I have identified with more than I do with Elaine, the protagonist-narrator of Cat’s Eye. From point for point life events (as far as I had got when I first read it aged 15) to her personality generally. The book is a pretty fair guide to how I think.

Anyway.

I was chatting the other day with a young’un from the merry band of queer youth I work with (Hi, if you’re reading this) about how best to address trans ignorance in public sector workers. At one point in the discussion, I came out with “The problem is that the atom doesn’t look like a raspberry!”
Which, needless to say, was a mite confusing for the poor lad.
But it doesn’t. It looks like empty space.
In the above quote, let’s say that Stephen (Elaine’s genius older brother) is the queer/trans community. Physics is gender, Cordelia (Elaine’s somewhat troubled frenemy) is mainstream society and Elaine, the narrator, is anyone, of any gender, who wants to increase understanding of gender/sexuality issues.
Cordelia doesn’t see why she should even study for the exam, just as many straight people don’t see why they should educate themselves about basic LGBT issues.
Stephen, immersed in advanced physics, cannot help but see the dumbed-down version of atomic theory on the exam as childish and misleading, and feels compelled to correct it, validating Cordelia’s opinion that the whole exercise is pointless.
Similarly, anyone with a developed awareness of the myriad gender identities and sexual orientations out there cannot help but notice that “LGBT” and “gender is a continuum” are massive simplifications which render many identities invisible. It’s easy to become frustrated with the whole “trans 101″ approach to teaching about gender variance, as this excellent piece from Tranarchism demonstrates. However, as soon as you SAY to a borderline bigot “actually the LGBT acronym is massively reductive and problematic” they won’t say “Really? Wow! Please give me the more complex and nuanced version to get to grips with!” They’ll say “See? Even THEY don’t agree with this shit!” or “Well, I said I’d try a d learn more, but its just ridiculously complex and academic!” And we’re back to square one.
It reminds me of my first week at university. The head of the School of English addressed us. He said “if you’re here, you got an A at A-Level for English Literature. Forget everything you learned. It was all rubbish.”
We were incensed! We’d JUST recovered from the hideous “results are the be all/end all” hothouse that was Year 13 and here was this high handed old elitist telling us we’d wasted our time. Of course, in hindsight I know what he meant: he wanted us to stop thinking at a basic level. But at the time? I was ready to switch courses!

Then we come to Elaine, whom I feel for so much in this extract. She wants to help Cordelia, despite finding her frustrating, and she also wants to learn more from Stephen, despite knowing that his answer will most likely derail what she’s trying to achieve. She knows the atom doesn’t really look like a raspberry, and she also knows what’s going to be in the exam.
However, the analogy falls down here, because Stephen has nothing to lose by Cordelia having a limited grasp of physics, but those members of the trans/queer community who don’t fit neatly and quietly into an L,G, B or T category DO stand to lose from this reductive model being taught.
So what should the Elaines of the world do?
Should we risk confusing and alienating straight/uninformed people by trying to give the most nuanced approach possible straight away, or should we use the “raspberry” of “LGBT Awareness” as a stepping stone to deeper understanding, but risk the learning process stalling at the first easy answer?

Answers on a postcard please!

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You Can’t HAVE Marriage Equality Without Trans Equality!

Published June 29, 2013 by Sarah Thomasin

TRIGGER WARNING: I talk about misgendering, and about the disrespecting of lived gender identities in this post. I talk about recent horrifically transphobic court rulings. Take care of yourself. If you need a break from this shit, don’t read on.
Emergency kitten?

I have been neglecting this blog because of a poetry project I’ve been doing,but I’ll try and post a bit more regularly now.

I was really happy to hear about DOMA finally dying. REALLY happy. Much, much happier than I expected to be, and it wasn’t like I wasn’t hoping for it. I suppose when the international LGBT community gets some good news, that’s nice. When the news affects a country I have strong ties to, that’s nicer. When the change in law gives me, specifically, as the British same sex spouse of a New York native, more rights than I had before, it’s pretty damned potent.

Also, I genuinely did not think it would happen anything like this fast . I thought I’d be retired before I could start thinking about a life in the States. My wife and I might not take advantage of the fact that we could now apply for my right to live in the USA, but we might. And we could. And that’s powerful.

Why am writing this on my blog about being a trans ally? please read on.

This whole time, the fight for marriage equality in the UK, in the US ,France, wherever has simultaneously been filling me with hope and making me sad. Filling me with hope because It seems like a step in the right direction to stop defining marriage as a totally heterosexual thing. Whether you set any store by the institution of marriage or not, you want to be able to make that choice about whether or not you opt into it, not have that choice made for you. And it does seem like we are heading in the right direction, slowly, slowly, slowly. Speaking for myself, marriage IS a part of my life, so of course I’m happy. But it’s making me sad because some of the people fighting for those rights for me seem to think that marriage equality for transgender people is worth sacrificing in order to gain it for the same sex cisfolk. Actually, I’m not married, although I say I am. I’m in a civil partnership. And were I or my wife (sorry, “partner”) to transition, we’d be neither. We’d have to start over from scratch.

Leaving ASIDE the highly icky ‘separate but equal’ vibes of a two tier system like marriage/civil partnership, leaving ASIDE the fact that ‘civil partnership’ sounds like a business relationship between two people who secretly loathe each other, that whole shebang was a compromise brokered by people who don’t really think of transgender people as getting married, or staying married once their spouse discovered the ‘dread secret’. (You can read more about the appalling sidelining of trans rights in the fight for same sex marriage equality here, from Sarah Brown.)

And this, I think, is where we get to the nasty little crux of the matter. People making the laws about marriage don’t really, REALLY think transgender people have loving, committed relationships. Not REALLY. A scenario in which someone married transitions and their partner doesn’t want to divorce them never enters their head. A scenario where someone with a trans history they’d rather move on from altogether gets married, and that, on learning their medical history, their partner wouldn’t – indeed shouldn’t – run screaming to court to get the marriage annulled just doesn’t pop into their head.

Because behind all the nice talk of equality and diversity and recognition and support, they don’t think trans people are really the gender they say they are.

And this week, that nasty little truth has been brought brutally to the forefront of everybody’s minds with the ruling that trans people who have sex without being able to later prove that they have told the other person that they are transgender can be prosecuted and placed on the sex offenders’ register.

This is a ruling that makes total sense if and only if you think, somewhere deep in your heart, that transgender people are just pretending. If you think ‘well, he’s clearly a bloke, but, bless him, he’s happier in a dress and being called Sharon, so why not eh?’ then you’re not going to like the idea of this so called ‘Sharon’ having sexual relationships in the context of her own gender identity.

Now. let me be clear on two things. One: I think it’s probably WISE to let your sexual partner know what bits you currently have before you get down and dirty. It’s good manners, and might avoid a nasty scene if, say, the person you’re with has had some bad experiences regarding sex and doesn’t take well to surprises. Two: It is never OK to force sex without consent. If your partner suddenly freaks out at the crucial moment for ANY REASON AT ALL, you stop. Nobody is saying that that isn’t true. We are not talking about that tired old transphobic trope of trans people raping/assualting cis people. That’s not what’s happened. We are talking about consensual sex which a cis person later discovers was with a trans person.

THE SEX OFFENDER’S REGISTER IS FOR SEX OFFENDERS. NOT FOR PEOPLE HAVING CONSENSUAL SEX. THERE IS NO STATUTORY RAPE CLAUSE FOR TRANS/CIS SEX.

Except that, thanks to this case, there kind of is, now.

So what, other than timing, has this got to do with my happy tears about the fall of DOMA?

It’s this. If you think trans people should disclose their birth-assigned gender before they have sex, you don’t believe in their actual gender, do you?

And if you think it’s important enough to put them on the sex offenders’ register, then the idea of having sex with someone of the ‘wrong’ gender, even if you’re into it and you fancy them and you both have a great time, scares you a lot.

And if that scares you, then you think there is a right gender and a wrong gender

And a right way to have sex and a wrong way to have sex.

Transphobia is a fucking tewrrible thing on its own. But its not on its own.

Not ever.

Because it’s also homophobia, and it’s also sexism.

And when I think about how happy that step forward in marriage equality made me, and i apply that inversely to all the trans people who are wondering, now, whether vengeful exes could retroactively get them prosecuted for obtaining sex through ‘deception’. When I think how frightened, and demoralised and crushed they feel now, I can’t believe that people are asking me why I am so upset by this. And I wish I was a selfless enough person that I could say that this is all about empathy and solidarity, but it’s not.

Cisgender readers: this shit affects us. If we are queer, if we are women, if we care about anyone who is queer or a woman, transphobia has direct implications for us.

LGB rights lobbyists, if you sacrifice trans rights to get what you want, you are validating transphobic, but also homophobic attitudes.

Feminists, if you buy into the myth that trans women are a danger to you, you buy into the myth not only that trans women aren’t women, but also that male and female always = sexual aggressor and victim.

Why am I upset about this?

The question you need to ask is, why aren’t you?

Educating Suzanne

Published January 13, 2013 by Sarah Thomasin

There has been a spike in the ongoing stream of ignorant and transphobic sentiments from various people lucky enough to have a platform to express their views to a large audience over the last few days. A casual transphobic slur from Suzanne Moore seems to have sparked off a wave of apologism and defence of a worldview in which, somehow, cisgender feminists are threatened and oppressed by transgender people. In which the existence of gender reassignment surgery is bad for feminism, and in which it’s OK to make disparaging and vitriolic comments about the trans community in order to get your point across because, well, reasons. FEMINIST REASONS, YO

I’m not going to waste my time or yours pointing out that this is bullshit, that I’m angry or that people have been hurt by this. If you’re one of the half dozen readers of this blog, you know all that.

What I want to talk about is what we do about it.

Because Suzanne Moore didn’t mean any harm.

She didn’t.

She CAUSED harm, she exacerbated the harm she had done by refusing to accept that it was harm and reiterating the original harm done.

But she didn’t wake up one morning and think ‘Ho ho ho, I’m off to dehumanise a community I’m not altogether comfortable or informed about, and tomorrow I’ll drown some kittens and kick a pensioner!’

She did harm out of ignorance.

Which does not make it OK, but is important to factor into our response.

When someone is called out on transphobia, or any other breed of bigotry, they very rarely understand that they have learning to do. Because of the reactions to their comments, both negative and positive, they see themselves as courageous, controversial figures being attacked and rallied round by their detractors and allies respectively. This does not lead to a teachable frame of mind.

And the thing that always gets said about now is ‘but people can easily educate themselves about (in this case, trans issues). It’s not the responsibility of an oppressed minority to educate their oppressors.’

And I have a massive problem with that.

Because if you CAN educate, I think you should.

And if it’s never the job of the oppressed to educate, then it’s always the job of the privileged. By that argument, outside of official educational establishments, (which, as you know are packed to the RAFTERS with oppressed people in positions of authority, right?) only cis people should educate on trans issues. Only white people on race, only men on feminism.

If you are oppressed, but at the same time privileged enough to have a voice, a level of education/intelligence sufficient that you can express yourself effectively, and an audience, then you can be part of the solution.
No. You don’t have to, of course you don’t have to. And nobody wants to constantly be an educator on behalf of their minority. It’s a massive pain in the arse, sometimes.

But people who are ignorant, and, crucially, ignorant OF their ignorance – unconscious incompetence, I think it’s called, AKA ‘thinking you know it all’ – those people don’t seek to educate themselves. They don’t sign up to ‘awareness sessions’, they don’t read improving books, they don’t come humbly to the most appropriate person and respectfully beg for wisdom and insight any more than I, as a frustrated undiagnosed dyscalculic 12 year old, looked forward to maths lessons or sought out alternative learning styles. Instead, I ‘hated maths’. I resented my teachers, resisted their efforts and generally felt hounded. I didn’t think I needed maths, and I wanted nothing to do with it. As such I was not easy to teach, but thankfully, the school system managed to get past my resistance to impart just enough understanding for me to, in some small way, ‘get it’.

But people who ‘don’t get the trans thing’ aren’t forced to learn about it at school. If anything, their prejudices and misconceptions are strengthened and corroborated by those around them. There is no compulsory formal education about gender variance. The study of such is often viewed as a frivolous, newfangled subject for people to get meaningless PHDs in. In order to seek out this kind of learning, you have to be passionate about it.

In other words, the people who need the most education are the people who resist it the most.

That’s why being a teacher is hard. It’s not filling the vessel with knowledge that’s a challenge, it’s getting the lid off the jar.

And if you can’t do it, if it’s too painful, triggering, or something you simply don’t have time for, then don’t.

But if you can, teach.

Teach with patience, perseverance, in the face of resistance and resentment. Teach if you’re trans, teach if you’re cis. Teach if you can.

Fight discrimination with education.

It’s the only hope.

Being Come Out To: A Cis Perspective

Published December 18, 2012 by Sarah Thomasin

I want to write a positive piece for this blog. Not bemoaning some transphobia I heard about, read about or witnessed, not debunking a cruel and ridiculous myth or challenging an institutional bigotry. There will be other days and other blog posts for that,

Instead I want to tell you something nice. I want to tell you what it’s like to find out someone you know is transgender. I don’t mean when they have transitioned and you didn’t know and they tell you, enormous compliment though it is to be trusted like that,

I mean when a kid, often, or a teenager, chooses to tell you that they’ve always felt that their assigned gender was the wrong one and they want to start living as themselves.

Because I meet these teenagers, often I’ve been asked to talk to them because a teacher is worried, or they’ve come, by choice, through the door to the lgbt youth group I help facilitate. I meet my friends’ kids who, knowing what I do are that bit more comfortable taking about sexuality and gender around me.

And so many of them are trying their hardest not to exist.
It’s like some kind of psychic camouflage. They sit, head tucked, speaking exactly enough that their silence won’t draw comment, letting everyone in just enough that nobody will think to delve deeper. Never quite meeting anyones’ eyes, hiding in plain sight.

And I’m not saying I’m some kind of Youth Whisperer who notices what nobody else does. I’m not. Most of the time I miss it too.
Unless they trust me enough to tell me.
And let me tell you, there is nothing more beautiful.

There is nothing more beautiful than the determined, confident gait, the cocked head, the fear acknowledged, still present but conquered for the moment, of a young person revealing who they truly are.
I’m not talking “I think I might be…” although that’s valid and brave and important too.
I’m talking “Screw it. Look: THIS is who I am.”
It’s like the bit at the end of Return To Oz where Ozma goes from being a flicker in a mirror to being a glorious and confident smiling queen of all she surveys.

It’s like watching a personality coalesce and solidify in front of you, seeing something leap out that was always there, suddenly being brought in on the optical illusion you thought was the real thing for so long.

I can’t possibly know what it’s like to be transgender. I recognize that. But I can know what it’s like from this end, when a trans* person allows me to see.

And if your child, your student, your patient, your social work case, your therapy client, your friend… tells you they’re transgender, it’s not pity you should feel, or anger, or concern. It is gratitude.

In Memoriam

Published November 20, 2012 by Sarah Thomasin

This Transgender Day Of Remembrance, I’d like to tell you about Rachel, who died on the 6th of April 2010. She was 53 years old.

Rachel was a volunteer and service user at my workplace. She was kind, generous, sensitive and – once you got to know her – wickedly funny.
Rachel immediately made me feel welcome in my new office, and we bonded from the outset. A shared interest in creative writing, admiration for the work of Kate Bornstein, and a fondness for cutting asides (which were often missed by most of our colleagues) drew us together. We had a similar taste in clothes, but she was the more flamboyant in this regard, and I often envied her sense of style and the flair with which she wore her bold, bright colours.
Despite her stylish exterior, though, Rachel was always very down on herself. She was, in most social situations, incredibly introverted and shy, and carried herself rather as if she was constantly expecting to be kicked. Rachel suffered badly with stress and depression brought on by gender dysphoria, and by the judgements on her gender identity she knew were made by others around her.
Three days before her death, Rach emailed me in great distress. She had just undergone vocal cord surgery in Thailand and was feeling ill, depressed and isolated. We emailed back and forth for a while and then she stopped responding, which I put down to the fact that she was getting some much needed rest. A few days later I learned that she had suffered a massive heart attack and died.

Rach had multiple stress related health problems. While I was distraught to hear of her death, it was easy to see that the danger had always been there.
At her funeral, some guests misgendered my friend and used her old name. I know that it would have caused her such grief to hear that, and that those in her family who had come, at last, to acknowledge love her as her true self would have brought her such peace.
The stress caused by the operations she’d undergone, and the deep emotional distress I saw in her emails must, at last, have been too much. The Rachel I knew was a strong and vibrant woman who was true to herself and gracious everyone she met despite a constant onslaught of transphobia.
Rachel was like a warrior undergoing battle after battle. Although I hoped, each time, that she’d come home with more tales of narrow escapes and courageous confrontations, there was always that nagging fear that, one day, she wouldn’t.

The following is an extract from
Rachel’s final email to me. I believe that she’d be willing to share this part with you, as she had shared similar thoughts at the poetry open mic nights we went to together.

“When people stare at me and make their instant judgements I see what they see in their eyes, the attempt and the failure. The women feel smug because they have identified a flaw as they
perceive it and thus feel secure because this flaw distances them from what they see.”

I wish I could say that Rach was wrong, but as her friend I often saw the derisory looks and mouthed jokes aimed at her back. I saw the disgust, the fear, the hate.
Rachel was mocked, excluded, avoided – just for being who she was – by people who would call themselves open minded and unprejudiced.
When she died, our friendship had just begun to truly blossom. As much as I miss Rach, I miss the long and close camaraderie that we might have had, if things had been different.

In her last email to me, Rachel called me her sister. I was, and am, proud to call her mine.

On Trans People and the Male Privilege Accusation

Published November 9, 2012 by Sarah Thomasin

There’s a thing I keep hearing about trans women. That they approach life with too much male privilege. That their assigned male upbringing informs their behaviour – in short they act like they have more rights than cis women and like the world somehow ‘owes’ them.

There’s a thing I keep hearing about trans men: That they are sort of abortive feminists: instead of joining the good fight for gender equality they have elected to break ranks and join the winning side. To identify as male purely to get their hands on some of that male privilege the trans women are having such a hard time letting go of.

Now. Odds are that you interact with and live in a society that glorifies the gender binary and, by and large, treats women worse than men. You will be aware of certain traits and roles that men and women respectively are ‘supposed’ to have and, if you’re reading this, you have probably questioned those gender role assumptions to some degree or other.

So it’s not a big leap to assume that if you were assigned male at birth, you had a different experience of being brought up than if you were assigned female at birth. If the former, you might have had more emphasis placed on your career choices. You might have been encouraged to be less emotionally expressive. If the latter, you might have experience d people having lower expectations of you. You might have found yourself more objectified and sexualised from a younger age. If, at some stage, you found that your gender identity was not what people had originally assumed it could be said that you were likely to have learned some of those ‘male’ or ‘female’ traits, withut even consciously realising that’s what they were.

This leads to an idea that trans women have something they shouldn’t and that trans men want something they shouldn’t have: male privilege.

I can see the allure of this idea. I can see why it’s got some traction. I know trans women with a confident, entitled manner and I can imagine that their upbringing contributed to this. I can totally see that being constantly told they were something they felt deeply and certainly that they were not absolutely infused them with privilege.

I know trans men who have gone from shy, withdrawn “girls“ to confident, cocky lads. High on massive societal approval showered on them when they came out as transgender, no doubt.

Here’s the thing. It is not wrong for a woman to have a sense of entitlement and self confidence. If, regardless of gender, you have been brought up to value yourself, that’s good. If you’ve been brought up to disregard others, that’s bad and you need to fix it but it’s got tit all to do with your gender. I hear women who call themselves feminists complaining –COMPLAINING!- that some women are too confident and assertive, because they are trans. “You’re not a proper woman, you’re not oppressed enough.” As well as being patently ridiculous (since when are trans women known for their high, oppression-free status in our society?) this is horribly misogynist. Why aren’t such ‘feminists’ looking at how ALL women can be more empowered, not how some women should be “taken down a peg or two”? Maybe that would be too radical?

The thing about trans men cynically exploiting the medical system to get hold of this elusive male privilege is equally surreal. Going by that trans woman male privilege idea, surely all trans men should be shy little mice who enjoy embroidery and self deprecation, no? All that female non-privilege should inform their every movement, and be totally insurmountable, right?

Then there’s the frankly bizarre supposition that trans men decide to be trans men. No. They are trans men. They decide to tell you that, or not as the case may be. It’s not a ploy to get privilege. If it was it would be the least well thought out privilege-getting ploy ever.

It’s almost like these people get angry whenever trans people display signs of happiness, empowerment and confidence. Classy.

Changing The Changing Rooms (or Transphobic Toilet Panic II)

Published November 4, 2012 by Sarah Thomasin

Am I weird? Am I actually transphobic? Do I have internalized homophobia? Am I a massive prude?

What has sparked this cavalcade of doubt? The Jezebel post on the story about the complaints about a trans woman sharing a space with teenage girls.
This blog post came to my attention because of the outrage on Twitter about it. I don’t believe in linking to articles to point out how bad they are – (why send more traffic?) but it’s easily findable if you’re interested. The main criticism was that after calling out other coverage of the story on transphobia, the Jezebel writer repeatedly misgendered the trans woman involved. Accusations of sloppy and inaccurate reporting were also leveled by the twittersphere.
But, correctly or incorrectly, in the Jezebel version of events, the trans woman was walking around the communal changing space naked. She’s pre op, so her penis would have been visible.
I can actually see this being upsetting. As someone with (i hope) a nuanced and sensitive understanding of trans issues, this story raised a primal “someone showing their knob to teenagers aaarghhhhh” response. How much are we expecting of the teenage girls involved?

BUT BUT BUT in my other blog post about this I totally took that argument down: having a penis does not make you a rapist! so what’s going on, brain?

I think part of this stems from feelings about the inherent physical power imbalance at play here. A male assigned at birth adult and cis female teens. I think what bothers people here is that the power is perceived to be with the person with the larger frame and the penis. SHE is making the choice to be in that bathroom, and SHE is choosing her behaviour around those teenagers. Instead of the smaller, younger, vagina having people being in control. This perception is flawed in that a trans woman has far FAR less societal power than a cis man, or a cis woman, or a cis girl, but the physicality thing is a factor. For example, imagine an Assigned Female At Birth trans person asserting his right to change in front of a male sports team. Different vibe.
I believe that the answer to this lies in the education of the general population about trans issues, rather than the restriction and oppression of trans* people’s lives. But we have a long way to go.
Another issue with this story has been that the woman in question prefers women, leading to the horrible assumption that lesbian trans woman = cis straight man saying he’s trans to GET YOUR DAUGHTERS.
This nasty train of thought leads me to the question that if this trans woman’s sexual orientation is relevant in the changing room, why isn’t mine?
I see naked women in the changing room at the gym. It makes me feel uncomfortable and I often change in a cubicle and spend as little time in there as possible. I quite like the idea of being naked around other naked people in a queer friendly space, but in the palaca of heteronormativity that is the gym, it seriously gives me the creeps. Basically, my internal monologue goes “These women might be homophobic. I can see their bodies. If they knew I was queer they might freak out and I’m all naked and vulnerable right now!” add in some school PE changingroom PTSD (seriously, 5 years of twice weekly emotional/physical hell. Still have nightmares) and the one place where public nudity is acceptable becomes the least safe space EVER.
I think it’s this whole thing of “sex segregation = safety” that’s so deeply ingrained in our culture.
Once you question it, the false consciousness that assumes everyone to be straight and cis and assumes that men CAN’T CONTROL THEIR MALE URGES starts to crumble.
And with it, assumptions we didn’t even realise we had about ourselves come to the surface.
Something has to change.

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