Category Archives: queer issues

In which I review a book that I read: Trans, by Juliet Jacques

Content warning: this post mentions transmisogyny and misogyny

I was recently sent a copy of a book I’ve been itching to read: Trans, a memoir written by Juliet Jacques, a journalist and all-round interesting person who I’ve had the privilege of meeting a couple of times, and always found myself wishing I knew her better. Now, in a way, I do.

It’s hard to explain what sort of book Trans is, because at face value it’s a memoir of her life before and during transition, in reality it’s far more than that. Trans is a book about art and music and football and journalism. Trans is a political exposition of the prospect of a life of shit jobs and no money, the path that our generation find ourselves treading. Trans is an exploration of the intersections of class and misogyny and transphobia, the political springing from the personal. Trans is a reflective examination of the benefits and pitfall that come with having a platform. Trans is a critique of its own form.

The thing that makes Trans such a brilliant book is that it whets the appetite, leaving the reader with a desire to know more, and gently signposting where you can find it. I have found my reading list for trans and feminist theory grow enormously, as well a whole bunch of films I just need to watch, and a playlist of bands I should probably listen to.

Perhaps because of this constant state of piqued interest, I found myself disappointed when the book ended: it ends abruptly, a pointed choice on the part of the author, for as she says in the epilogue (a conversation with author Sheila Heti), “it really was that anticlimactic” to be discharged from the Gender Identity Clinic to go back to work at an admin job in the same hospital. Yet this is entirely consistent with the style of the book: glimpses of moments, a continuity emerging from a discontinuity. Nothing is sudden, and yet everything is sudden.

I could write loads on this, but Juliet says everything much better than I ever could, so I’ll just say this: read this book. There’s something in it for everyone, and it explains complex political issues accessibly. Juliet writes vibrantly and engagingly, and highly evocatively. I said at the start that she’s an interesting person, and this comes through in her writing. She’s cool, with great taste in music and art–although I’m not so sure about her choice of football club! Everything is presented in bite-sized chunks, making such a deep book nonetheless the kind of thing you can dip into during a short bus journey or on the toilet, or tear through during your commute or on holiday. So, read it. I guarantee you’ll like it.

 


On Pluto and planethood: or, how science isn’t very good at classification

As I write, New Horizons is within celestial spitting distance of Pluto. When the craft was launched in 2006, Pluto was a planet. It isn’t any more.

Later in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), decided to finally get their shit together and define what a planet actually was. You see, in the run-up to 2006, improvements in observation methods had led to the discovery of what is scientifically known as a fucking fuckload of objects, at least one of which was more massive than Pluto. This would not do, because with each new discovery, it had been possible to say it wasn’t a planet because it was smaller than Pluto (pleasingly, the object more massive than Pluto was named Eris, after the goddess of fucking shit up and ruining everyone’s day). And so the IAU decided to finally figure out what the hell comprised a planet, and couldn’t manage a definition that left you with My Very Easy Method Just Shows Us Nine Planets.

And so, Pluto was stripped of its planetary status, because it only met two out of the three criteria they’d settled on for planethood: yes, Pluto orbited the Sun and was massive enough to be approximately round, but unfortunately for poor old Pluto, it didn’t meet the third criteria–clearing the neighbourhood of its orbit (i.e. there’s other stuff around where Pluto orbits).

This isn’t the first time a planet has been demoted. A little over 200 years ago, it was hypothesised that there was a small planet between Mars and Jupiter, to account for the relatively large gap between the two planets. They found the hypothesised planet in 1801 (then they lost it, then they found it again, but that’s a different story entirely). They named it after the goddess of agriculture, gave it a symbol and everything. Just a year later, another object in the vicinity was found… and then another, then another, and then basically they had a fucking fuckload of the fucking things. It was eventually decided that we would call these small objects orbiting between Mars and Jupiter the asteroids, and they were a different kettle of fish to the planets.

Funnily enough, with the 2006 definition of planets and dwarf planets, Ceres has been sort-of-promoted, to occupy the same dwarf planet class as Pluto. Good for it, I suppose.

The 2006 definition of planethood has been criticised, because of the “clearing the neighbourhood of its orbit” criteria, and not just because it means Pluto is no longer a planet, which kind of makes everything we learned at school about the nine planets a fiction (or something). The thing is, it also means that Earth isn’t a planet, because we have Cruithne, and Jupiter isn’t because of its trojans, and Neptune isn’t a planet either because of its army of plutinos… turns out that this “clearing the neighbourhood” gig is not particularly well-defined either, so if I fancied, I could demote that oversized shitlord Jupiter, with its more moons than it has any business having and its smug red spot.

It’s worth noting at this juncture that while the science upon which the “clearing the neighbourhood of its orbit” is based doesn’t deplanet Earth, Jupiter and Neptune, the wording of the definition adopted by the IAU doesStern and Levinson wrote a discussion paper, laying out a proposed new scheme which contained size criteria for a planet–small enough to have never ignited a fusion reaction, but big enough to be roundish. As well as this, they suggested dividing “uberplanets” from “unterplanets” by their ability to be gravitationally dominant. This is not simply clearing the neighbourhood of everything: a gravitational interaction is acceptable. The paper is an interesting, and reasonably accessible one, and well worth a read as it outlines a lot of the problems with approaches to defining a planet. It’s assumed that the IAU’s neighbourhood clearance criterion was based on Stern and Levinson’s work, although Alan Stern himself points out that it’s a bit of a shitty criterion and excludes literally half the planets.

So, in short, what happened was we started out with no definition of a planet: it was something we just knew when we saw one. And now, we have a definition of a planet, and it’s pretty much just a manifestation of what feelings we have about planets, which Alan Stern described as “sloppy science and it would never pass peer review”.

That’s a thing with the science of categorisation, though. For the most part, it simply reflects what prejudices and constructions we have about whatever is being categorised, because it’s humans doing the categorising. It is something which needs to be undertaken with a degree of reflexivity. A lot of the time, we can pootle on for years lumping and splitting things into various categories, only for that to be thrown into disarray when new information emerges (take, for example, the advent of DNA analysis, and how that has moved a lot of animals around the tree of life). With new information, we tend to redefine based on what we already think.

Some areas are more behind than others. For example, if we defined planets in the same way we considered biological sex, we’d only count the five or six planets we can see with the naked eye.

I expect that within my lifetime, I will see the definition of “planet” changed once or twice more, to incorporate new discoveries, but, more than that, to maintain a comfortable number of planets that falls within Miller’s Magic Number: I suspect this is the ultimate motivation for creating a reductive approach to categorisation.

So, is Pluto a planet, or is it not a planet? Does it really matter? I consider it so, not due to any scientific criteria–although I am sure I could rustle up a definition. All right, fine, fuck it. A planet should have an atmosphere which isn’t predominatly just particles flying at it from the Sun. This makes Pluto a planet (it has an atmosphere and literally as I write this a spaceship is studying it!), but it makes Mercury not a planet since it doesn’t fit this criterion; which is fine, because fuck Geminis, they don’t need a ruling planet, the two-faced bastards.

This, then, is the challenge in classification, categorisation, and building definitions, and similar problems pop up everywhere. Remember this, when you see definitions presented, and categories built by scientists. Remember it, and question it–what do they stand to gain, or preserve?

__

A couple of years after Pluto got demoted, I was doing my PhD (I never finished). My subject matter involved classification and categorisation, and I turned to the natural sciences to have a look at how they did stuff. I suppose, in its own way, this post is the reinterpretation of the findings of the literature review I published; this is something which lurked in the back of my mind, but I didn’t really have the courage to say at the time, because it would put my work on a pretty shaky footing from the off. I needed to believe that classification systems had some sort of “objectivity” to them. I might have nodded in Borges’s direction then, but now I think I’m basically with him.


I won’t be going to Pride tomorrow

Content note: this post discusses homophobia, transphobia and biphobia

Tomorrow sees London’s Pride parade, supposedly a celebration of how brilliant things are. Each year, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth, because things are not great. They really, really aren’t, unless you’re one of the lucky ones who yell over the voices that should be heard and dominate our movement.

On a personal level, I wouldn’t feel safe attending the event with either of my partners. For a supposedly inclusive space, Pride in London is peculiarly intolerant of anybody but monosexuals and cis people. Marchers yell “breeders” at bi people, with many overtly expressing that they thing bi people shouldn’t be there.

And then there’s the transphobia, which they say they’ve cleared up, but it doesn’t look like it has. Perhaps “toiletgate”–transmisogyistic barring of trans women from accessing toilet facilities–has been cleared up. but a lot of the trans women I know don’t want to be the guinea pigs in finding this out.

So, even if I went, my friends and partners wouldn’t be there, so what’s the fucking point?

It seems as though a schism is becoming more visible than ever in our community. On one side are the marginalised, the oppressed. On the other are those who don’t give a fuck. This issue was perhaps exemplified in this week’s intervention by Jennicet Gutierrez, and the reaction to it.

Gutierrez is a trans woman and undocumented migrant. At a White House dinner, set up to circlejerk about how very good on LGBT rights Barack Obama is, Gutierrez shouted out truths. She pointed out the violences occurring against LGBT migrants, how they were being detained and deported, facing sexual and physical violence, by Obama’s very own administration. As reward, she was shouted down by the hypocrite she was trying to address, and hauled away by the Secret Service. The audience, who were ostensibly comprised of LGBT people, booed her and showed happiness at her silencing.

Here’s what Gutierrez wanted to say. Read her words, and digest them.

We have little to celebrate, all things considered. Yes, we can get married, and yes, in the US a breakthrough was made where now openly gay people can be killed in combat. Yet these are hardly victories when our siblings are homeless, facing violence, in poverty, in fear.

London’s Pride events ignore all of this. London’s Pride events actively march perpetrators of the violences we face through our streets. There was protest about UKIP marching, but so many more of the marchers are our enemies. The police, Tories, and countless corporations. If you can’t see why it’s inappropriate that they’re there, then you are out of touch with the very real violences which face a lot of us.

We have a lot of work to do, and the Pride parade is like a rainbow flag pinned to a wall covered in cracks. The issues are still there, but it distracts from them, giving the cishet population a feeling of warm fuzzies. Too many LGB people are complicit in distracting from the fights yet to be won: the fights which are barely being fought.

So no, I’m not going, because I know there’s nothing to celebrate, and nothing to be won by being there.


In which I review a book that I read: Tiny Pieces of Skull

Content note: This post touches on transmisogyny, rape and sex work, and contains spoilers for Tiny Pieces of Skull.

Roz Kaveney’s at-least-partially-autobiographical novel, Tiny Pieces Of Skull: Or, A Lesson In Manners, was a long time coming. It was mostly written close to the time it was set, in the late 70s, but did not see the light of day until now. Its publication in the present day, perhaps, marks a shift in attitudes creating the social conditions where such a book actually can be published.

Tiny Pieces Of Skull follows Annabelle, a recently-transitioned trans woman, through a pretty eventful period of her life in London and Chicago, including surgery, sex work, rape, drugs and crimes. With themes like this, one would expect a moralistic lecture, or at the very least a misery memoir, yet the book is anything but.

At its heart, Tiny Pieces Of Skull is a book about women and their complex inner lives. It is a story of learning and growth, and a tale of community, the little spaces carved out by the characters in a world that is against them. Terrible things happen to the characters, and it is made all the more shocking by how completely normal this is treated. Annabelle quickly understands the daily battle of survival, and it swiftly becomes almost like background noise. The title quite adequately portrays the content of the novel: Tiny Pieces Of Skull is a starkly violent phrase reflecting the 70s Chicago underground, while A Lesson In Manners describes Annabelle’s coping strategy: using her wits and charm.

Each event in the novel could form fifty thousand words in and of itself, and yet TPoS tears through everything at an alarming pace. We are barely given time to react to and process one thing, when something else happens. Blink, and you might miss something deeply important. Like the protagonist, we must adapt quickly and never get too comfortable.

While TPoS may be mostly thirty years old, I was struck by how much is still relevant to discussions happening today. Its unflinching yet non-judgmental attitudes towards being trans and being a sex worker is a masterclass in writing trans and sex worker characters: their circumstances are important, and yet it is not these things that define them–they are rounded people outside of this. While the word “trans” does not even feature in the novel, it is abundantly apparent that this shapes the characters’ experiences. Instead, the word “sister” is used, because that’s what TPoS is about: sisterhood.

Like with blood sisters, there are bonds between the women, even when they absolutely detest each other. They gossip, they bitch, they cut up faces and yet they are united against external threats: cis men–rapists and the police. They come through for one another in the face of fundamentalist Christians and men who prey on vulnerable women.

While many of the specifics in TPoS have changed over time: the spectre of the AIDS epidemic had yet to rear its head at the time it is set, so it is therefore not a threat to the characters, for example, it is still highly relevant to all women. The villains–cis men with power–remain the same to women of all circumstances even today, yet we must acknowledge that still trans women and sex workers are more at risk from this brutality.

It’s the sort of short novel you can tear through in an afternoon, but it will stay with you. Personally, I’m planning on reading it again pretty damn soon.


Solidarity with Aderonke Apata

Content note: This post discusses lesbophobia and treatment of migrant women

Aderonke Apata is a lesbian woman who was born in Nigeria. There, she faced absolute horrors. She was tortured by police, three members of her family were murdered, her girlfriend of 20 years was murdered. Aderonke herself was sentenced to death by stoning by a Sharia court, and due to a homophobic law passed in Nigeria, she faces 14 years in prison if she returns. What happened to Aderonke–and what could happen to her–happened because she is a lesbian woman in a world that would rather lesbian women were dead.

Over here in the UK, the Home Office too would rather send Aderonke to face–at the very least–prison and the very real threat of being killed. They’ve refused to grant Aderonke asylum, a decision which Aderonke is challenging. They refused, even after Aderonke was forced into all sorts of degrading things to “prove” she is a lesbian, such as submitting a DVD and intimate photos of her sex life.

Their reason? Aderonke has children, and had previously been in heterosexual relationships. They are playing on lesbophobic tropes to try to send this vulnerable woman into danger, because they know that society at large thinks horrible things about queer women.

The issue of “provability” is in and of itself a lesbophobic trope. Under heterosexual patriarchy, sex doesn’t actually count unless a man is involved. In terms of “proving” that she is gay, Aderonke must fight a losing battle, because she is trying to battle against a world that doesn’t believe in lesbians anyway.

Aderonke’s relationships with men, many years ago, are unduly weighted as her “real” relationships, negating her true identity as a lesbian and devaluing her relationships with women.

Unfortunately, the definition of “lesbian” is kind of baffling to most people who aren’t queer women who have given this some thought. There is a demand for a “gold star”, for lesbian women to have never even kissed a man, let alone had sex with one. “You can’t be a heterosexual one day and a lesbian the next day. Just as you can’t change your race,” said the barrister against Aderonke, summing up this ridiculous societal attitude pretty fucking well, by accident.

Under heterosexual patriarchy, women are expected to have sex with men. Wanting that is presented as a norm, a default. A hell of a lot of lesbians have had sex and relationships with men, simply because it is expected (and often, because men feel entitled). When there’s a norm presented, most people will at least have a pop at living the normative way. This is even the case in countries where homophobia is nominally, legally Not A Thing, the sort of countries where gays can marry.

The “gold star” drivel has sadly been internalised by some lesbians. It’s used to devalue lesbians and queer women who haven’t managed to figure it all out early, or those of us who are bi. The myth of the gold star is something we desperately need to destroy.

The other thing, of course, that needs smashing, is the idea lesbians are incapable of reproduction. That’s really not the case. A lesbian couple can reproduce all by themselves.

The sad thing in regard to Aderonke’s case is this is not abnormal for the Home Office. The Home Office is where misogyny, homophobia and racism come together to crush women like Aderonke. Ultimately, we’ll stop seeing cases like Aderonke’s only after we have ground that repulsive institution and the ideologies that underpin it into dust.

But in the meantime, there’s some things you can do to help and support Aderonke. You can sign a petition. You can follow the Facebook page for updates about actions in the meatspace and what’s going on with her case. And finally, there’s this beautiful photo project for queer women and femmes to show solidarity. Please help Aderonke, and help women like her by rejecting the structural lesbophobia and racism coming wafting out of the Home Office.

 


The Green Party need to drop Rupert Read by, like, yesterday: An open letter to the Green Party

Content note: This post discusses transmisogyny

Dear Green Party,

Look, I’m an anarchist, and voting isn’t something I do any more. But sometimes, I look at the Green Party and think “they look like they might stand a chance and they’d probably be the least terrible. Maybe I’ll vote for them.” It was growing inside me, the knowledge that you, at least, might make things tolerable rather than terrible. All that’s gone now, because you’ve made yourselves look no different to the others.

I’m talking, of course, about your Cambridge candidate, Rupert Read. It turns out he’s a really, really nasty piece of work. The clues came when he tweeted the sort of dogwhistle comment which alerts the wise to transmisogyny: he went for the old “don’t call me cis” type bollocks. Digging deeper it turns out that yes, he’s a transmisogynist, and wrote a dreadful, pompous diatribe defending Julie Burchill and transmisogyny within feminism. It’s strange, because while he self-identifies as a “male feminist” (a phrase which makes my skin crawl and sets off numerous red flags at the best of times), he opposed representation quotas for women in the party, claiming, in a popular misogynistic refrain that women already lead the party. Oh, and he’s also enormously UKIPpy about immigration. Oh, and the whole thing started because he used a disablist slur.

So, he’s generally, up and down, pretty godawful and doesn’t embody Green Party ideals–as I understood the Party’s ideals, anyway. He did the old politicians’ apology and made the whole thing significantly worse. As I understand, an apology ought to include some distance from the unpleasant beliefs for which one is apologising, but Rupert Read’s… well, it really, really didn’t. Indeed, he restated a bunch of transmisogynistic ideology, adding that he wasn’t sure if trans women should be allowed to use women’s toilets. More broadly, he showed a devastating lack of understanding of how the world works these days, like a fucking dinosaur. He framed himself as a victim because of one or two four-letter words on Twitter. He moaned that it’s so hard to represent oneself on Twitter (which hardly fills one with confidence about his ability to represent his views in Parliament!). He made it clear–achingly clear–that he prefers debates to happen in the academy. The man is quite patently out of touch with the year 2015. I’d be a little embarrassed for him if he wasn’t such a thoroughly dreadful human.

I wondered why the Greens would select a candidate who is so at odds with the Party’s beliefs, and reeks of the kind of public school privilege of any other politician when a big part of your image is you’re different from the rest. He was the only candidate who put himself forward for the Cambridge seat, it’s true, but I know how political parties work, and I know if you didn’t want him, you would have dragged someone else up to stand against him. It’s pretty clear why you didn’t do that. He’s quite a big donor to the Green Party. He’s in the top 10 biggest donors to the party of all time. Last summer, he was the fourth biggest donor.

It might all be a coincidence, Green Party, but you can’t deny this looks very bad indeed. You’re running a candidate who not only holds absolutely terrible beliefs, but also gave you a lot of money. It looks a lot like he bought his selection. It looks a lot like the Green Party is no different from all of the others.

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I like you, Green Party. Despite most of my instincts, I don’t want you to be destroyed by this. Rupert Read claims that most of the criticism is coming from people who want to see the Green Party burn, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of us who are angry are exactly the kind of people who would vote for you.

This is why I’m giving you some friendly advice: drop Rupert Read. Drop him like a burning turd. It’s Rupert Read himself who will harm you. He has to go. You need to take a strong stand against bigotry, and distance yourselves from him. I want you to do all right, and you can’t with a pompous transmisogynistic, sexist, racist conservative shitweasel like Rupert Read dragging you down.

So please drop him. Pretty please.

Love Zoe xoxo

Further reading:

On “Male TERFs” (Sarah Brown)
My view of Green Party candidate Rupert Read’s “apology”. (UnCommon Sense)
Green MP candidate for Cambridge makes transphobic statements (Get Real Cambridge)
An open letter to Rupert Read (Loz Webb, Action for Trans Health)

Update 24/1/15: A second apology has now been issued. This one is significantly better, though only addresses the transmisogyny. Furthermore, Read and the Cambridge Green Party have refused to take donations from violent transmisogynistic hate group Gender Identity Watch and have condemned them [1] [2].

However, in light of the donations and the other awful stuff still left unaddressed, I still do not believe that it is appropriate for Rupert Read to stand.


BBC Have Your Say 31/12/14 discussion of Leelah Alcorn’s death: a transcript

This transcript was made by Abigail (@bradypodoid). It is posted here because Elaine (@scattermoon), one of the participants, asked me to host it. You can listen to the full broadcast here

Content note: This transcript discusses transmisogyny and suicide

Presenter: Hello, I’m Deidre Finnerty. Welcome back. One of the stories you’ve been commenting on the most today is the death of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender teenager who took her own life. Leelah was born a boy but identified as a girl, and before she died she left a post on her tumblr blog, which read “When I was 16 I realised that my parents would never come around and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any kind of transitioning treatment. This absolutely broke my heart.” Now Leelah’s death and her post have started a conversation about the challenges people face when growing up transgender. So today on this programme we’ve brought together a group of people who’ve had this experience. If you’ve got a question for them get in touch on facebook.com/worldhaveyoursay

[ jingle ]

Well, we’re joined by guests in Michigan and in London, but first let’s bring in Raquel Willis in Georgia and Elaine in Reading in the UK. Welcome to the programme, both of you, and Raquel, let’s start with you. What was your response when you heard about this story?

Raquel: Hi. I definitely initially was kind of numb. Usually, I hear these stories – which happen a lot – there’s almost a new one every week – and usually I hear these stories, and it’s just kind of like, here’s another one of our girls – here’s another one of my sisters, here’s another person that could have been me. But as I sit there, and I start think about all of these deaths, you know, there’s a line there, Elaine knows, there are other trans women who have been murdered or have committed suicide, I just break down, I couldn’t help but be distraught. And the first thing I thought was that we need to get our voices out there. People have got to hear just how devastating it can be to be a transgender person in this world.

Presenter: Well, Raquel, I’m very keen for you to tell us about your own experience. What was it like for you when you were growing up?

Raquel: For me, it was very different. My family has always supported me, but of course my identity as far as a transgender little girl, I didn’t have the words for all of that – at that point I thought it was just a sexuality thing – people just called me gay, so I was just a little gay boy. But then as I got older I realised that people weren’t making fun of me because they thought I liked boys, at that point. They were making fun of me because of how I expressed myself, how my gender was. And my mom, she was very supportive of me, we had this, I guess, behind the closet conversation, just about these different things. She knew I liked make-up, she knew I liked these things that were deemed stereotypically feminine, and that society was already pressuring me to be a way that I really don’t think I was born to be. So, I was lucky on that front but I definitely received a lot of bullying from my peers – students always bullied me, particularly little boys.

Presenter: Now, Elaine, I want to put the same question to you that I put to Raquel. How did you feel when you heard about Leelah’s death?

Elaine: Hi. Yeah, my initial reaction was anger, to be honest. Not shock – it wasn’t shocking. This kind of news comes up all the time, literally every week, more and more people – many of whom, you know, don’t get to tell their stories – many of whom aren’t really mourned by people in the way that Leelah has been mourned this time. And I was just angry. I was angry that this was still going on, that we’re still losing so many on a daily basis, to this hatred – to these feelings of despair. People thinking they have no way out and not being listened to by their nearest and dearest – or supposedly nearest and dearest – who should be there to look out for them, but actually just won’t let them be who they are, when they need to be who they are.

Presenter: And is that a common feeling. You talk there about the hatred and your nearest and dearest not understanding you. Is that something you experienced yourself?

Elaine: Yeah. My parents weren’t abusive in any way, but when I, as a 14-year-old, pre-puberty – which is quite an important thing – well it felt like an important thing at the time – went to my parents and said “Hi, mum and dad, I’m trans”; they said “no, we don’t think that’s quite right. We think you’re wrong. You’re not like those people on the TV or on the front page of the tabloid newspapers. That’s not you, you must be mistaken, it must be a phase.” Um, “And God doesn’t make mistakes,” as well, something I was told, which I saw Leelah mentioned as well.

Presenter: And how do you cope with something like that?

Elaine: It’s a nightmare, really, because you just feel so incredibly trapped, you feel so incredibly isolated. It’s like being at the bottom of a well. You can see the light way above you, but you just have no way of getting there. And there’s nothing really to help you. Especially when you’re a teenager, as I was then, you don’t have the same legal rights you might as an adult. You have parental consent to do anything. So, if your parents aren’t on your side, then you are really stuck, because you need to do these things but you’re not being allowed to. And especially since puberty tends to kick in in the teens, you’ve got the feeling of your body changing against you, and you know it’s preventable, but you can’t stop it. It just feels like your entire life, your future life is going to be wrecked because of this.

Presenter: And Raquel, is this something that you identify with?

Raquel: Oh, definitely. I definitely resonate with the sentiment that you do feel so powerless. And that powerlessness kind of infiltrates your adulthood a lot of the time for trans individuals. You just felt like the world is against you, you know. You start out with your having maybe peers against you, or maybe your family against you and then it just kind of continues into healthcare, into education, and the workplace. I mean, there’s discrimination on all fronts for transgender individuals. And to battle with that kind of external relationship with the world, but also to battle with how internally with how you’re figuring and how you figure out you who are, and knowing that you will probably never get exactly to where you want to be, just given the fact that the resources aren’t always there. So there’s definitely this kind of disconnect from who you are as a person, to how society operates.

Presenter: It sounds like a very lonely place to be. Does it ever get any easier?

Raquel: I definitely think it can get easier. I think it doesn’t get easier for a lot of people, because after you’ve been drug through the trenches a lot of times it’s really hard to ride back up, so I don’t fault people who have committed suicide, people who have kind of isolated themselves, because the world can be very harsh. And it is lonely, on the dating scene it can be very difficult regardless of who you are attracted to. In terms of having family and community, I mean, even in the LGBTQ community there is a lot of ostracisation of transgender individuals, and when you think about cisgender people in the broader society, I mean, there’s so many blocks, that it’s really difficult to get through, to get to peace within yourself.

Presenter: And Elaine, did it ever get any easier for you? The support groups? Places where you could go for support and things you missed within your own friends and family circle?

Elaine: Not really. Not to begin with. I was quite isolated. I was growing up in Nottingham, which isn’t, you know, the end of the earth, but I didn’t know anyone else around. I didn’t have anyone else. All I really had was my online connections, a community on – well didn’t have tumblr – but back then it was livejournal where we all met up and discussed our thoughts, and it was really important because it gave us an avenue to actually speak about what was on our mind and what we were struggling with, with other people who had been in the same situation, and were in the same situation. And it felt a lot less isolating in that regard, because even if we didn’t have anyone to speak to in person, we still could log on to livejournal every night and speak with other people who were in the same place. But in person, no. And it’s still been largely the case, there isn’t as much support in society as there really should be. Especially once you get past your teens and early years, then a lot of support dries up, and lot of us have to form a kind of informal community where we all support each other, in lieu of that support. But really there should be more out there.

Presenter: Now I want to bring in Autumn Mahoney in Michigan and Katy Valentine in Leicester. Welcome to the programme, both of you. Now, I’m very keen to sit back and allow you all to share your own experiences, but let’s start with you, Autumn. What was your own experience of growing up transgender?

Autumn: Well, my experience was more of – I don’t think I really fell into the traditional narrative you hear, where you know what the situation is right from a very early age. I always understood that I felt different, and didn’t seem to fit in the same way people did, but I never had really much of a way to put a name or understand what those feelings meant until I got much older. It seems that nowadays with the Internet and so many resources out there, there are people that you can look at to see that, yes, this is a possibility, that yes, you can be transgender, that yes, you can make it through this, but when I was growing up, there was just absolutely no information out there. Pre-Internet days, and not knowing anyone in person, so, I really didn’t have any way, any context to put these feelings into. And so it wasn’t until much later in my life that I was able to kind of figure that out – and go through a transition, and become much happier as a result of that, but I wish the resources that had been available were there when I was growing up, it would have made things a whole lot easier.

Presenter: Katy is that something that you recognise?

Katy: Yes. I’m very similar, I am. I mean, I’m 25 years old, and I knew from a young age that I was different, but I didn’t know that becoming transgendered was a possibility, changing to the other gender. And it wasn’t until Big Brother’s Nadia, that I realised that there was a way I could become who I was. And growing up, it was really hard for me, considering even that I’m young, there still wasn’t much support out there for us.

Presenter: Here’s a post we’ve got from Facebook. It’s from Tara. And she says “being transgender I tried to hang myself at university and survived. At the time I felt it was my only escape and I couldn’t cope. We need to show transgender people they are valued no matter what challenges they face.” And she also says that “We should respond to Leelah’s death not with hate or vengeance against the parents or against the church.” So I wanted to put that to you, Katy, and also to you, Autumn. Do you agree with Tara? What’s the right response to a situation like this?

Katy: I would say yes. We shouldn’t treat it with hate at all. And there should be more support out there for transgender people. I mean, it was such a sad moment when we heard about Leelah and the suicide. It was so awful. But it should not be treated in a hateful veangeful way. It should be a way to celebrate Leelah’s life. Even though she did obviously take her own life. Which was horrendous. We should not be going aroudn blaming people, we should be able to help people.

Autumn: I see that it’s a very sad thing that we are able to see that there are people who would treat their children in the way that her parents did. And so much of that seems to be warped by these by these really conservative Christian beliefs. I don’t think think there needs to be an attack response to that, but it’s necessary to perhaps show alternatives to that type of behaviour and beliefs. You know, there are ways of being religious or being supportive that… I guess… It seems that that should not be something that gets in the way of love between parents and their children. It boggles my mind to even consider that.

Raquel: I would like to say, I think that there’s definitely a lot of hurt going on with the parents, and this happened even before Leelah committed suicide. People like to think that owning your transition and owning your identity is selfish, but the selfish thing is to go against people and devalue people because of that identity. And there’s a lot of hurt in a lot of parents when they have transgender children or queer children in general. And that’s something that we need to tackle, because we need to learn that this is not something that’s embarrassing. This is not something that devalues you as a parent. This is something that is going to help you prove just how great of a parent that you can be. If you can get over your child not being exactly the way you thought they might have been, then you win all the kudos from me.

Elaine: Absolutely. And as someone put it on twitter, it’s a bit harsh, but it’s also true, would you rather have a child who is queer or trans, or a child who is dead? And I think one problem with a lot of parents is that they get their idea of what being trans is from society as a whole, and a lot of ideas of being trans in society as a whole are so negative. They’re always the joke brought in on the sitcom, the side gag or the comments about, and I hate using this word “tranny” – every time you hear that word, it’s in such a negative context. And it also tends to be really highly sexualised, as well, you’ve got the whole category of “she-male” porn, for example. So, when a kid goes to their parents, and says, you know “mum, dad, or whoever, I’m trans”, and the parents will immediately think of this, and think “no, no, no, you know, you’re 12. you’re not this sort of sexualised parody figure on the front cover of the Sun or whatever, you know, I don’t want you to have that.” And they think, they think maybe if they talk their child out of it they can avoid that happening to their child. But that’s not the way to solve things, we need to fix society, we don’t need to change who people are, we need to change how they’re treated, because there’s nothing wrong with who they are.

Presenter: You’re listening to World Have Your Say on the BBC. Today on the programme we are discussing the case of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager who took her own life. And we’ve brought together a group of people to talk about their experiences of growing up transgender. Tara tweeted us to say “as a Catholic and a transgender woman, I believe God gave me the gift of being a woman as much as any woman”. We’ve also got another question coming in to us on twitter, @aimsetc, and she asks “What structural change is necessary? What services need to be provided” for transgender people.

Katy: We mainly need more support out there, especially for teenage people who believe they are transgendered women – or transgendered men – and that there should be more support, especially for teenage people, because they are the one who take their lives. They’re not the only ones, but they are the very few [sic].

Elaine: We need to look at housing, for young trans girls, young trans boys, non-binary kids, but also trans men, trans women, non-binary adults, as well. We need to have that support there, because there’s an awful lot of trans homeless people, for example. I mean, with the teens, if you tell your parents you are trans and they throw you out, where are you going to go? Who’s going to look after you? A lot of people end up on the streets. There are occasionally places who will house these trans kids, but only up until 18, and then where are they going to go?

Presenter: I want to introduce you to Tori in Leicester. Hello Tori, welcome to World Have Your Say.

Tori: Hello.

Presenter: Hello, Tori, I wanted to ask you how you felt when you heard about this case?

Tori: [silence]

Presenter: I think we may just have just lost the line to Tori in Leicester. But Juliet Jacques in on the line from London.

Juliet: Hi.

Presenter: Welcome to World Have Your Say, Juliet. And I want to put the same question to you that I put to all of our guests. What was your response when you heard about this case?

Juliet: Just this kind of heartsinking and heartbreaking feeling. It’s a familiar story for anyone has spent their life versed in sort of trans issues. Personal experience. Often there are feelings that I and a lot of people I know in the trans community could relate to. It’s familiar story in lots of ways. It’s very sad. I mean, like Elaine said, it wasn’t really shocking as such, and like Raquel said, I just kind of just felt a bit numb. You’re repeatedly hit with these sort of stories and after a while it just goes num, and that’s just the saddest feeling of all. And I’m sure for Leelah, I’m sure how she felt having her identity denied by her parents, compounded by the wider culture she lived in, being aware of other trans people in similar kind of positions, it just becomes kind of overwhelming really. Yeah, I mean it’s very sad news. I’m interested to see how widely shared social media. Lots of people who weren’t trans talking about it, and empathising. Which I hadn’t seen until the last couple of years, really. So I found that quite an interesting response. So, just like the rest of your guests really, just kind of quite sad and numb.

Presenter: And what about your own experience, Juliet?

Juliet: Well I grew up in a very small town – a village, really – in the early 90s – I’m 33 now – so I realised I was trans in 1992, and it was very difficult. Like some of your other guests, I didn’t have a language to describe what was going on. I just kept wearing women’s clothes, and having my gender regulated at school and at home. If I did anything that was considered kind of feminine I got laughed at by people around me, family members, or particularly by other classmates, by teachers even. And what really me save me was the advent of the internet, which came to be in the mid to late 90s. Again, even now you’d use twitter or tumblr, and I’d just used geocities sites really, which made it clear that there were other people leading liveable trans lives, who weren’t like the people who I’d seen in films or on telly, which cut through some of stereotypes that Elaine was talking about. And there were people I could feasibly actually meet, information about support services, or places to go. And that gave me a sense of community and a sense of being slightly less alone. My family – you know, I came out as transsexual when I was 27 – my were the last people I told, I was lucky enough at that point to live in Brighton and have a fairly supportive group of friends, to know some support networks. I was working for the NHS, who have infrastructures in place, quality and diversity managers, human resources people who I could sit down to and say how can we handle this. And it was only once I’d done all those things, and was privileged enough to have them all go as well as I could have hoped, that I was able to turn round to my parents and go, you know, this is who I am, and I got the same sort of response initially. “We don’t understand and that’s not what you’re like”. And it took quite a long time to get them to the point where my parents used the right pronouns and my name I’d chosen, and everything. But because I had everything else in place, I was able to take that sort of time. For somebody like Leelah, who sounds like she didn’t any kind of outlet at all, parental rejection was so overwhelming. You know, not everyone’s that lucky.

Autumn: I think that what you said about your family were the last ones you told, that’s kind of the same situation that I was in, I had come out to everybody at my church, friends and things, and working up the courage to talk to my parents about it, even though I was 35 years old, all grown up, and had no indications that they were going to have any trouble with it, it was still the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. And to look at Leelah’s situation, where she knows she’s not supported, and is entirely dependent on them as parents, and just realise how horrible and difficult that had to have been. You can understand what would drive somebody to suicide. It’s so hard to look and see that happens to so many people. I think that this is kind of why I was really excited to see this twitter trend growing here. Seeing so many visible examples of positive trans lives. There is, as hard as it can be when you’re growing up, there’s so much potential out there. And I hope that this reaches even just one person growing up, that gives them some hope for possibility going forward.

Elaine: Yeah. If you’re listening to this and you’re trans, and you know, you may be in the same boat as Leelah, you know. I was there. I was there in my teens. I have puberty went through my body when I really didn’t wish to have it. It was horrible. It was an absolute nightmare. I made it through. Puberty doesn’t have to be the end all. You can transition at 18. You can transition at 50. You can transition at 36. You can transition at 80. You just need to transition if you know you need to transition. And it’s all valid. And you can still be beautiful. You know, there isn’t the time limit you think there is. And if you a parent and you’re listening to this, then please just let your kids know that even if you don’t think they’re trans, that would be OK for them, and that’s valid. And everyone else, ask yourselves what are you going to do to change this?

Presenter: I’m very very sorry to cut in there Elaine.

Elaine: I’m done, thanks.

Presenter: But this music coming up means we’re right up against of the programme. And thanks very much to all our guests for this fascinating discussion. World Have Your Say will be back with you tomorrow, at 18 GMT with Chloe Tilley


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