Sunday, September 6, 2015

'Boy Meets Girl'. The most revolutionary comedy in decades. And how we got there.

So, it's finally got on to television. 'Boy Meets Girl', the first comedy ever to appear on British tv seeking to say something affirmative rather than insulting about transgender people - and featuring in its central role a trans actor - began last Thursday.

The reviews have been broadly positive. There's been a bit of grumbling about overwritten characters or cliched plotline from some critics, and the story in some ways seems fairly traditional.

But any romantic comedy that starts with the main female character saying to her date, "I was born with a penis", can hardly be called traditional. And any reviewer who moves on from that moment in his or her haste to measure the show only on more familiar 'comedic' grounds needs to be careful that they're not in the midst of what Behavioural Scientists call 'Recency Bias'.  With Caitlyn Jenner on the front of Vanity Fair, Kellie Maloney on the sofa of breakfast tv, Paris Lees guesting on Question Time, and journalists keen to demonstrate that they are on board with the new era of trans 'acceptance' (by much of the media at least), it's important they don't miss what just happened here.

The road traveled to the air date of September 3rd 2015 has been a revolutionary one. No doubt about that. I hope I'm well placed to comment, because I was there at the start of 'Boy Meets Girl'.  I was there before that too - when the trans community first started to truly stand up against media bullying and ridicule and when battle was joined. 

And it was comedy that started it all. 

In 2009, ITV broadcast the second series of an otherwise forgettable situation comedy called 'Moving Wallpaper', about the trials of a hapless production company and it's monstrous boss - played by Ben Miller. One episode featured a 'transgender script writer' - Georgina.

The episode amounted to what many saw as the most concentrated piece of hate-comedy ever directed at transgender people on British TV, as 'Georgina' (brought into the episode simply to take the role as butt of a tirade of demeaning jokes - her being trans playing no purpose other than as a comedy device to make the gags work) was ridiculed and then driven out of the job for which, within the storyline, she'd been hired.

Naturally, the television industry circled the wagons, with disingenuous denials of intention to upset. Ben Miller's  defense rehearsed a soon to be endlessly repeated, disingenuous refrain - that people's right to be offended should somehow be protected - and this justified the programme's decision to package together half an hour of unrestrained abuse. What neither he, nor ITV, nor Kudos who made it, could see was that the vocabulary that they were parading on television was playing loud to an audience who were saying these things to transgender people for real every day across Britain.

Workmates, classmates, shop assistants, employers, family members, even random strangers felt able to humiliate trans people up and down Britain, sometimes at will. And one of the reasons they were doing it was because every time they turned on their television and saw reference to trans people  they saw only the 'victim' or the 'freak'. Comedy was playing a central role in validating their prejudice.

So much for 'protecting' the trans person's 'right to be offended'. Protecting our right to be spat on, to be beaten up, to be fired, to be driven to suicide, more like?

The correspondence which developed between the rapidly assembled campaign group and Ofcom about 'Moving Wallpaper' led to a predictable attempt by them to ignore the concerns. But after the first set of complaints was rejected, Dru Marland and I complained again - with 30 signatories,  and took it to appeal. We lost that appeal - there was some risible language in Ofcom's response about how 'well' trans people were treated on television (the only example cited being the 1998 depiction of Jackie McAuliffe, a sex worker (at that time) featured in the series 'Paddington Green'). But we wouldn't stop, and I led attempts to get the issue into a further appeal process.

Eventually, we won a meeting with Ofcom - they'd meet us if we would just stop complaining, they said. So I led the team from the recently formed Trans Media Watch into Ofcom's South Bank offices. We made a presentation to them called 'Insult with Impunity' - a broad scale review of the British media. We looked at the hate headlines, with their punning 'jokes' which destroyed innocent people's lives, written without permission or atop stories gained through blackmail by tabloid journalists. We looked at the suicide rates, the family destruction, the isolation.

But much of our time was spent looking at and discussing television - we used a 13 minute edit created by media monitoring group Transgenderzone bringing together over 30 clips of abusive comedy. This was the era of Little Britain's 'Laydee', of violence-for-laughs against trans people (The IT Crowd), of a rich seam of ridicule on panel and game shows (from Mock the Week to Russell Howard). That abuse was being repeated all over the country, and with research we had conducted, we could demonstrate that the vocabulary of hate being paraded for laughs on the tv, was being repeated in the pubs and streets of Britain for...hate.

Ofcom, who had been unable to support our complaints because the Broadcasting Code didn't provide the foundation to do so, was ultimately aghast. They watched in horror as we demonstrated to them what was really going on, under their noses. At the end of it, they said "You have to talk to Channel 4. We'll help you connect with them".

Which is why a few weeks later when we heard of an event being run by tv industry lobby group, the Creative Diversity Network, at Channel 4, I volunteered to go to representing TMW (growing at this stage to form the core group of Jennie Kermode, Helen Belcher, myself, Sarah Lennox and Paris Lees).

The CDN event, chiefly aimed at the worthwhile objective of increasing the presence of Black and Asian faces behind and in front of the camera, took the form of a panel discussion followed by questions from the floor. I got hold of the microphone and challenged the panel to explain what they were doing to support the transgender community. I talked of how the trans community was on the end of regular abuse and physical violence in part because of the way the media was modelling behaviour and language towards us.

The panel members shifted uncomfortably hoping someone else would field this awkward and  unexpected intervention. Stuart Cosgrove of Channel 4 then responded and with a certain amount of courage in front of large audience said that the industry was clearly getting it wrong, things needed to change and that he'd like to talk to me.  Afterwards, Amanda Rice of the BBC came over and said the same.

Thus began a relationship with Channel 4 that saw them commissioning the first piece of original research in the world into the issue, workshops with their commissioning teams, and the creation of a climate in which 'My Transsexual Summer' could later be made. Elsewhere, at TMW we were talking to the BBC, to the Press Complaints Commission, to the press itself, to advertising regulators, and working with members of the trans community who were on the end of media abuse and intrusion. Eventually we were to put together a detailed and widely admired submission to the Leveson Inquiry that received specific attention in Lord Justice Leveson's final report.

In 2010, TMW was approached by Nathalie McDermott of On Road Media. Nathalie had accidentally witnessed the tragic death, on a tube platform, of noted Human Rights Lawyer and trans woman Sonia Burgess and had been appalled by the media's demeaning and intrusive coverage of the story. She wanted to help. Thus was born the Trans Media Action project, from which grew the hugely successful media-interaction initiative, All About Trans

It was Nathalie and her small team who in 2012 put together an event called 'Trans Camp'. Activists, social entrepreneurs and tv people gathered at Channel 4 for a day to work on the development of a range of initiatives to support the community and especially its portrayal in the media.

I was at Trans Camp and part of the team looking at what was felt to be one of the most intractable of issues - continuing abuse that remained endemic in tv comedy. Our team - Claire Parker, Shelley Bridgman (two stand up comics who also happen to be trans), Elisabeth Anderson, Milanka Brooks, the BBC's Head of Creative Resources, Ian Critchley and I - didn't take long to reach a conclusion. In order to really start to change how British comedy treated transgender people...we needed to stop being the victims of it (endlessly attempting to influence recalcitrant writers and comics, or berate them for their hurtful routines)...and create our own.

The road to 'Boy Meets Girl' started in that room.  Initially it seemed like an insurmountable mountain to climb. How? Who would fund it? Who would write it?

After about 6 months of scoping, talking and charting a course, pressure from my day job meant that I had to step back from managing the project. I knew we could do this, somehow, and that it was too important to let die. I put it into Claire's and Shelley's capable hands. They nursed it forward - keeping the flame alive with Ian and Milanka's commitment, as others became involved.

Step by step, the process came together. First via the involvement of the BBC Writer's Room (a 'nursery' space for aspirant authors), then in the creation of the Trans Comedy Award which invited writers to develop something genuinely funny - and trans-affirmative, rather than insulting. Jon Plowman, the BBC's Head of Comedy, seemed initially skeptical but in a key workshop involving Paris and Sarah, plus the On Road team, started to come round to the idea.  Later the process traveled through the stages of assembling a full judging panel (including someone from Production company Tiger Aspect), long and shortlisting the submissions, then getting the budget to make a pilot, finding the cast (including trans actor, Rebecca Root) and getting it made.

And then - in the face of competition from several other contenders - getting the whole series commissioned.

Which brings us back to where we started. On Thursday, the fruit of all that work appeared in front of millions.

On prime time British television, Rebecca's character Judy -  a beautiful woman in her forties - looks Harry Hepple's Leo in the eye and tells her 'secret'. 

Yes it's a moment of Comedy Gold, but for reasons that are revolutionary.

Leo doesn't run screaming from the room.

And he doesn't laugh.

And he doesn't vomit.

And he doesn't beat her up.

He falls in love with her.

Some might think that the opening lines of this comedy, spoken by Judy, are what make it revolutionary. But, sadly, painfully, I think we've heard those lines in comedy, or something very similar, before. Not least, said for entirely different reasons, in another sitcom of 2009.

It's what happens immediately after they are spoken that makes 'Boy Meets Girl' truly revolutionary.

It took us six years to reply to 'Moving Wallpaper', but we did it.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Remembering what?

Why am I wearing a red poppy this year? 

Well partly because I just cannot find a white one - to symbolise my hate of all war - to wear as well. 

And I'll be honest, that is a little because, as someone who still feels vulnerable and stays hyper vigilant when out and about, I hesitate about running into some thug or a UKIP supporter and being accused or abused whilst wearing one. Though if I could actually find a white poppy I would probably get over that I dare say. 

But the whole debate about the meaning of remembrance, the Guardian art critic criticising what he sees as the nationalistic sentimentalisation of death in the moat of the Tower of London, and the hate poured on him for doing so by the right, has made me think about how I feel about all this once more.

Despite having a father who fought his way up through the Western Dessert and into Italy (in the war that 1914-18 failed to prevent), despite having an Uncle (my Mum's eldest brother) who died in an appalling tank battle in North Africa in 1941 (his commanding officer wrote to my Grandparents and said "I was at Dunkirk. This was worse."), I have always hated feeling compelled to wear a poppy.

At my school in the 1970s not wearing one would get you a detention. Later I came to distrust the authoritarian agenda (it's still growing) that enforces public shows of nationalism at the risk of being branded a deviant or dangerous. The poppy - like the Union flag - is a symbol vulnerable to being hijacked by groups that are in truth actually quite in favour of wars or of attacking (even killing) foreigners. It's sadly ripe to being hijacked as some sort symbol of collective supremacy and power. The 900,000 from the British Empire who died in World War One are in this unpleasant narrative somehow principally the victors in some epic struggle (about which they in truth knew mostly nothing), rallying to the national cause and whose meaning in death is chiefly to valourise the State, the Monarch, the Established Order 'for which they fought'. They did, after all, die for it, says this reading. And we did, after all, win...say the people who in the next breath oppose the memorialising of the German dead. I'm not sure Britain First, UKIP and the Tory right would take so much interest in all this if we'd lost the First World War.  

Yet of course there's the other powerful lens on all this - one I grew up with and have been hugely affected by. This is best captured by Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est' which in its final lines demolishes the morality of this nonsense forever and with an unchallengeable and permanent authority (he was killed weeks before the armistice). Or in his 'Strange Meeting' in which a dead soldier means the German who killed him, also dead, in Hell. Or in the shattering paintings of CRW Nevinson or Otto Dix. Or in all the loss and pain in the writing of Vera Brittain or in Erich Maria Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. All of these accounts were based on real experience. The work of Dix and Remarque was burned by the Nazis of course - and it crosses my mind that some of the more extreme opponents of the Guardian art critic might feel happier in the company of those who did that. 

But none of this means, for me, that the red poppy is off limits. Just like I resent a society trying to force me to wear it for reasons I distrust, I want to guard my right to do so for reasons that I feel have real honesty. Attempts to co-opt it into a patriotic parody do not change the fact that at its simplest, the poppy remains the flower that sprang up on the churned earth of the trenches after the guns stopped. Poppies thrive on disturbed ground and early observers were powerfully struck by how land that had hosted so much death and horror could so soon bring forth so much beauty, and with it a strange and powerful sense of hope. 

So for me the symbol of the poppy is about the spirit and intention those who died. It isn't the moment or agony of their deaths that I principally try and remember - the appalling realities of which we cannot comprehend. It is their lives. It is their spirit and their hopes and their dreams and their loves. It has nothing to do with the ludicrous patriotism that some revisionist politicians are trying to rekindle. It is for me about the humanity of all those who were there - and I mean everybody, whatever side of that tedious set of tribal dividing lines called nations they were on. 

I have read Owen and Sassoon and Graves and I have been to the vast cemeteries on the Somme and to the huge memorial at Thiepval. Walked through preserved, grassed over trenches, seen the moss covered sprigs of barbed wire. I understand that the memory of the appalling injustice that was done to these men - on all sides - should - must - be reflected by something that tells us of the horror they were put through (and which others go through now). Something must continue to confront us with that. 

But for me the red poppy isn't that, and never was. It's bigger than that. For me it's come to be again what I felt it was always meant to be - a flower that grows where almost nothing else will. The flower that gave life to the battlefields and said that every one of these men should not just be remembered because they died but because they lived. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Weaponised language

I am glad that Caroline Criado-Perez replied to my last post. It was one of the few moments of civility in an otherwise ghastly, though sadly routine week in the narrative of Trans versus Radical Feminist debate.

What Caroline did in that post, and what I am hoping to continue here, is to demonstrate a few things.

Principally, that it is possible for people with different perspectives to engage in debate. That even though there are elements of that debate which include themes around which consensus may be difficult, perhaps seem impossible, this does not preclude the possibility of respectful listening and discussion. Some of the poison can be drawn and simply hearing another does not mean abandoning your principles or your beliefs. Not facing the hardest questions up front does not mean that they can never be faced (a basic principle of any negotiation is to create that which can be built on, and to move forward step by step from there). Even though there are some who open their mouths with words that they know will send the 'other side' running from the room in hurt (a kind of 'first strike doctrine'), it is possible to start the conversation from other places and then see where the path started there might lead.

Caroline and I are both women. I hope she believes that. Let's start there. Our experiences are in some ways quite different. But in other ways probably very similar. Though I do not know her - in a sense I address this to all women reading this - I can already say that we share a lot in our femaleness.

The exchanges between us have started with the language of this shared experience, rather than by tearing the scabs off unhealed wounds and thrashing around in the resultant fountain of blood. Unlike some other exchanges, elsewhere. Especially the ones going on inside 140 characters.

Which isn't to say that wounds do not need healing, nor that we should avoid the hard questions. The reverse. We have to engage with them. We have to go - step by step - to where the pain is. I have been told by some that what I am doing here is futile. That the deep-set hate of some Radical Feminists, for people like me, especially the 'Trans Exclusionary' wing, is baked in. Like the words through a stick of rock. I have seen this in action myself of course (and will say now that I have no interest in debating with anyone who enters this discussion tooled up with a package of 'first strike' weapons designed to reduce my sense of self to ashes before I have a chance to even respond).

We do have to deal with the pain being caused to people by the opinions being expressed, because actions are caused by the voicing of these opinions. 

For me, on my side of this debate, this is not an academic nor simply theoretical issue. I have been told this week (by an established radical feminist writer) that my lived experience is not valid as it conflicts with a conceptual framework that she prefers. This has in fact been going on for a long time - some years ago, journalist Julie Bindel published a piece that literally caused me to hyperventilate with shock and pain. I remember the physical feeling of sick panic one Saturday morning. I won't link to it - it doesn't need further exposure and it has been widely dissected since. I was married and in the final - literally desperate - throes of trying to hold together a life which I had constructed, believing it to be my best and only hope of happiness. An existence I had erected to try and make what I felt to be a ghastly knowledge about myself go away. I was doing this for the sake of my spouse and my children, but also for myself because I was terribly terribly frightened of what would become of me if I did address this need. I was - very classically - abused, and in a state of deep oppression. Bindel's piece, full of hate and ridicule came at a time when I knew I was running out of options. Suicide was certainly one. It turned the dial up on that abuse significantly (and it wasn't her only foray into this by any means). It moved me closer to death. Talk about oppression.

I have of course known trans people who have committed suicide  - full of despair, using an inner vocabulary to themselves taken from the world around them - especially from the media. I have heard those hate words too - said to me, over and over. The speaker of them gained authority (and, worst of all, legitimacy even to me, in my abused state) by knowing that the words they were using were appearing in print.

The climate in Britain has, thank God, started to improve. But we still face challenges and insult of course, as Julie Burchill's vile piece last year shows (still proudly hosted by Toby Young on the Telegraph's site). And then of course, there's stuff like this and this and other pieces I could find but won't (but would have if I was still a confused and closseted woman feeling desperate and trying to find out what the world had in store for me).

Beyond this, around the world, laws are passed because positions expressed in these views are taken to be valid and within some sort of morally legitimate debate - even if they question our very identity or (at worst) right to stay alive. In parts of the United States a conflation of fundamentalist Christian and Radical Feminism has even emerged to try and drive the (sometimes still fairly non existent) rights of trans people backwards in various state legislatures, with some success.

Narratives of hate are exported too. Some Southern Baptist preachers (for whom trans people are simply a particularly unbiblical version of homosexuality) have demonstrated this in their 'Kill the gays' agenda in Sub Saharan Africa - bankrolling lethal homophobia in Uganda, Nigeria and elsewhere. I met a trans woman from Uganda last year at a conference - she has to move every three days from safe house to safe house, lest the mob find her. She can't even get on a bus.

The Radical Feminist discourse is not, of course, the chief reason why people are being murdered in Africa and in the UK I can get on a bus without fear for my safety*, thank God. But my point is that words travel...have actual effect on the world, and can kill people. These words - of individual rights, of gender theory, these claims and counter claims around authenticity - might first appear in the setting of academic 'debate' or sociological discourse but they get picked up and percolate through the culture.  Its not long before they are in the hands of people with the power do real hurt.

The narrative that questions my right to even exist in the only way that makes sense to me, treating me like some negotiable concept rather than as a flesh and blood human being, is never far from the surface - even in this country. We saw this again last week when the BBC's 'Newsnight' tried to frame the recent emergence of Kellie Maloney as a transgender woman by creating a debate in which there was every chance that some fundamental, hard won but fragile social rights (possibly including the use of public lavatories appropriate to their gender) could have spewed out on to the table again. (We don't know whether they would have, because two of the three trans participants booked saw this coming and pulled out of the debate. But given the list of people the BBC initially contacted to put up 'against' those two trans guests (there still has to be an 'against' - that's a key part of the problem), the broadcaster's exploitative intention was pretty clear, to me. Nor was the response by the Editor of Newsnight anything other than disingenuous).

It's all about words then. We can be destroyed by them. Or start something with them. One word that has been at the heart of recent debate - and this recent exchange online - is the word 'cisgender' (or 'cis'). In Caroline's post, she says this:

"I had felt that cis could be a useful term if it meant nothing more than that my body was one I felt I could live with. But I have seen that that is not how it is used – I have seen many ways in which it is used that mean that I have to say I am privileged for being allowed from birth to be socialised as a woman – and there is not a day that goes by that I do not experience a reminder of just how shit it is to be born into the class woman. So I can’t accept that."
Caroline, I do not share your view that feeling that your body is one you could live with" actually gives you nothing, in relation to me. We both live in a world that is constructed around that idea of congruence, as if nothing else could even be possible - or even (in the West at least) conceptualised. That has an effect on the erased minority who do not feel that congruence. And it puts us in different power relationships with respect to that world. But I am not trying to insult you by claiming this.

For me, this is no way conflicts with your assertion that to be a woman - cisgender, transgender, whatever term we use, or none - places us both at a disadvantaged position in a wider setting though - the unfair patriarchal society in which men own the power and women work for them. But there is a web of factors in play - I feel I could also easily get into intersectionality issues too. I can speculate and accept that I have social privilege in a different context for example as an able bodied person versus someone with disabilities.I don't feel insulted by that. I can also accept that I have privilege as a white trans woman versus a trans woman of colour who is loaded with society's racial prejudice as well as its views about femaleness as well as its prejudice against people who have lived transgender lives.

As for where it nets socialisation of several decades, my trans experience, my innate femaleness, your (by my definition) cisgender experience, your femaleness...the venn diagram of understanding of ourselves they create, I cannot speculate. But for me socio-cultural positioning cannot be a simple matter of a meta view which characterises everything within only the class definition of gender. Oppression is more complex than that. And so is gender, which for me cannot simply a class-defined term and an outcome of social conditioning. If it was, the David Reimer story would have been very different. If it was, the children who resist implacable attempts to socialise them one way or another would learn to live with the gender role the world gives them. If it was, I would never have felt as I did.

I do share your view that cisgender must never be used as a term of abuse.  Cisgender is becoming 'weaponised', as I saw one blogger put it, with hurting trans people presumably to the fore in doing so as they lash out against the oppression they have felt. Sadly, it's starting be used as racists use skin colour. It goes without saying that I don't support that use of cisgender at all. 

For me it's use should be only, as you put it, to characterise a relationship between self and body with which one can cope. That's all its for.

So maybe we agree on that? I hope that we can go from there.

* Sunday August 17th - having written this, I today come across news from a trans woman yesterday abused and insulted on a bus in the Midlands, whilst other passengers sat there and looked on. She writes of her distress and of how she felt more isolated and vulnerable in 30 minutes on that bus than she has done in the last 11 years. Words matter. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

We need to stop "pouring buckets of shit over each other's heads".

A Reply to Caroline Criado-Perez

The quote in the title is Stalin's. And - I'll put my hand up - the context is pretty inappropriate to the one I'm going to discuss here. He used it to describe the political volte face which was the Nazi-Soviet pact of seventy five years ago this month.

Nevertheless, in one sense I found it chiming with me after yet another week in which the simmering (and often appallingly vicious) war of words between an increasingly politicised trans community and the 'Trans Exclusionary' branch of Radical Feminism (TERFs) broke out into open warfare. Yet again. 

These flare ups have a tedious dogwhistle character. This week, the arrival of Australian academic Sheila Jeffreys and her opinions - poisonous 
to me and many I know - on the BBC's 'Woman's Hour' didn't help. In this package Jeffreys paraded a range of views used since the 1980s to destroy trans people's right to self identify, even exist, and fell back on a bunch of assertions which were frankly, well, simply not true (the fact checking is here). 

A controversial piece in the New Yorker recently ignited a skirmish that had people logging into Twitter to crucify each other.

And just the other day a blog piece by the often thoughtful Caroline Criado-Perez saw her attacking the concept of the word 'cisgender'. Which resulted, as she suspected it might, in a large pail of digital excrement being emptied all over her by the usual suspects and a few new recruits. 

I hope she got through that. This is the woman who had the temerity to suggest that the Bank of England might put a woman on a bank note and was repaid by men tweeting that they knew where she lived and that they were coming to rape and kill her. Plus worse.

Let's hope that didn't happen again. Though it seems from her latest blog that it wasn't pretty and that the Shit Fire Hose she was sprayed with was certainly turned right up. 

The completely unacceptable language to your left for example - plus plenty more.

And I have read a number of responses to Caroline's blog by trans people - some of whom I know and respect - in which she has clearly now been repositioned on the 'dark side'. 

Of course it's hardly a one way street. She says she has...

 "yet to meet a so-called TERF who denies trans women the right to live as they please"

...but seems to know nothing of this influential site, and the activities of Cathy Brennan plus her acolytes. She ignores the history in which people like Janice Raymond and Germaine Greer made it their explicit business to destroy the lives of trans women. She seems to have forgotten what Julie Burchill has said, or Julie Bindel, and the actual effect that has on people's actual lives. This is a history that is hard wired into the reaction the trans community gives to attempts to marginalise or silence it now. In a world where transwomen are routinely murdered in their hundreds, just for being who they are, forgetting this, and the many examples of hate I could mention but won't, is going to be a problem. 

But my judgement and my hope is that Caroline Criado-Perez is no Brennan or Greer.   

And more importantly, we need to stop this. It sucks the energy out the room. In fact it replaces that energy with a self defeating violence that serves only to make women - any women, with any history - weaker and more vulnerable to the bigger prejudices we all face. Not since the Church of England got stuck in a fruitless debate about sexuality and women bishops for ten years has a group that should be pulling together indulged in more pointless self destruction.

So I welcome Caroline's latest piece on this maelstrom in which she looks for a more productive way forward...

"And to ask that those who take that position exercise a little empathy. Ask that they step outside their perspective and consider the perspective of the women they denounce. Ask that they consider the “other side” as fully human, with fully human concerns, not as petty, spiteful inconsequential, trivial creatures who play games. Because only when that happens, will we be able to move forward. And until it does, we will be be forced to continue to repeat this mentally damaging (to all sides) cycle of recriminations, attacks and abuse"
We need to call a halt.

To do so we need to start to listen. All of us. Caroline talks of a 'climate of fear' about expressing her views. Trans people talk about fear a lot. We have felt frightened a lot, with good reason. But we don't own fear. And sometimes the abused can become the abuser. As she says...

"I knew that what I was doing would result in exactly what it has resulted in, and as I clicked “post”, I was literally shaking. My heart was racing, I was terrified." 
That's awful. No-one should be terrified to start a discussion. 

So let's do some work on the issue that kicked this particular hate-fest off, right here?

Her blog piece was about her difficulty in seeing herself as 'cisgender'. Indeed her rejection of the term as an appropriate one - though I didn't see her claiming that others should or shouldn't use it. 

Predictably, that got a lot of people reaching for their laptops. A position that seems to disallow the existence of cisgender as a definition because it doesn't need to exist may well have baked into it a belief that a better word for 'cisgender' is 'normal'. The fire alarm is really going to go off if people feel that's the point here. Gay people faced some of this when no-one had thought of 'heterosexual' as a word that needed to be coined, because, of course, the language did not need to stretch to include a term which even acknowledged the existence of someone who might not be. As she puts it

"As a woman, I understood the importance for an oppressed group to fight against the designation of them as other, counter to an unmarked default normal"
As a woman with a trans background (that's how it works for me...I'm a woman, that's what makes sense to me. My journey was particular. Though frankly whose isn't?) I think the difficulty comes in the changing and fluid societal meaning of language. And we need to get a hold of this, before we tear each other to pieces whilst at cross purposes.

'Transgender', you'll be unsurprised to learn, emerged as a term before 'cisgender'. 

It's not a great word (though it's maybe better than 'transsexual' or a bunch of other terms that were in wide use then as now), because it's actually built around a set of assumptions. 'Gender' itself is of course the potential subject for an entire university curriculum (and a flame war of Dante-esque scale which I'd rather not start here), but let's for now just go for the one right up front in this word, in that prefix. 'Trans'.

This is what Wikipedia says about it:

Trans is a Latin noun or prefix, meaning "across", "beyond" or "on the opposite side".
The initial usage of trans, especially when it appeared in terms like 'transsexual' and 'transvestite' came to suggest a dynamic...a direction of travel. Transsexual people were on a journey to 'go' from one gender (stay with me on the binary model for now - it was almost the only one in town when these words were coined) to another. Transvestites 'changed' their appearance when dressing in clothes associated with the 'other' gender. Underneath this was the understanding that transgender people felt a dissonance (to varying intensities) between their inner, felt, gender and their bodily one. Which they sought to fix - either occasionally perhaps (transvestite experience) or deeply and permanently (transsexual experience - mine).

I 'fixed' the 'problem'. For me, the transgender word had the character of process, of journey. I have never thought of myself as 'transgender', but - from the point when I could start to make sense of this at all - as a girl, and then a woman. With a bloody big challenge ahead as I looked at my body -  a challenge from which, for many years, I ran frightened by what the world might do to me.

I always thought that any definition of me as wanting to change 'me' was wrong. I am actually the same me as I always was, in most ways. Now the life I lead and the physical body I have seems to fit right in with that.

And I have got through this 'process' now. I describe myself as a woman. Actually I have done, inside, for quite a long time. I see myself very much as Deborah Orr describes me in this excellent piece here.

In a sense, I feel cisgender now. If I feel anything. How weird eh? But I know many people who have been through this stuff, who are keeping their heads down and avoiding all this unpleasantness because they got through their firewalk, and they want no more of it. 

Having got through it, do I need a word to describe who I am? As Deborah Orr points out, I don't need ovaries - or to be able to become pregnant (much as I would love, deeply long in fact, to be able to have a baby) - to know that I am a woman. My dissonance is over.

Frankly I neither think of myself as cisgender or transgender particularly. I think of myself as a woman named Jo.

But there's much more to this of course. I know that I have now joined (to a point - read my last post and see what happens to me when I try and date a man. Yes it's a year ago, and no I haven't had the courage to approach a guy since) the heterodoxy and I know that brings privilege. Just because I don't see all the time, doesn't mean that I don't have it. That's what privilege is actually like. Not having to be reminded you don't have it is part of it. 

In fact, I do see it, because for several years whilst I travelled my 'journey' I felt the force of its withdrawal and I have the knowledge that economically and socially I am reduced versus a decade ago (before I faced up to all this). And I know also that I exist at society's pleasure. If I lived in Russia, or Iran, or the streets of Belo Horizonte, I could have everything taken from me in a moment.

Critically, just because I don't feel I need a word to express my identity or my hard won gender congruence (which others have from the outset), doesn't mean that the word doesn't have a purpose and a value. Or that the word shouldn't even exist. 

I just have to get over that. 

A term can exist without me feeling threatened or demeaned by it. That's important if the existence of that term brings genuine meaning to others' experience. Others who are labouring under social and cultural prejudices which deny them the right to define themselves. 

Because there is another usage of 'transgender'. This is more like a noun. A loose one, which is being superseded as we speak by more accurate terms like genderqueer, polygender, agender and so on (terms which themselves will doubtless soon be replaced). People who live this life may present to the world in a number of ways but they may also see the 'trans' state (if that term even has meaning for them) as not a problem (as yes, I have to confess I felt it to be - this is what prompted me to transition) but as a legitimate space in which to live ones life. You can perfectly legitimately be transgender if this is your truth and it helps you understand your identity. The level of struggle you are going through may vary, as may the place within the concept of gender at which you make peace with yourself. Which doesn't mean it isn't often bloody hard going just not getting beaten up when you leave your house.

For some who feel this way - and I know a few - the refusal of society to entertain the word 'cisgender' (which - right or wrong - for some on one side of this debate may mean a sort of unknowing, untroubled, privileged life of acceptance by society) suggests that the conceptual space in which they are trying to live doesn't even exist. That they don't either.

If you are faced with the challenge of making the world let you live as you are because of these inner needs, those who do not face them are cisgender whether they find that a useful word for them or not. They just are, and it connotes a kind of blind automatic privilege available to them from the world - whether they acknowledge it or not. It's a standpoint issue. But just as some - like Caroline Criado-Perez - can say (for now, I hope she comes to see it differently), 'I am not cisgender', others can say 'Yes you are'. And everyone just has to get over that. 

And so, in a way, we come back to etymology which underpinned the emergence of 'heterosexual'. People have been gay since there were people. But - in a binary sense at least - the creation of a term which gave equality of status to 'homosexual' by putting it in balance in the language with the culturally dominant group in society, by saying to non-gay people "Look, you do need a word too. That's how equality works", was important.

One day it won't matter. One day, like eye colour, or left handedness, all this will have gone away. Maybe the relative privilege (in this particular sense at least) of Caroline Criado-Perez, or of I, resides in the fact that neither of us are faced with this challenge on a day to day basis. From her writing (I do not know her, so I cannot know) I sense she may that never have needed to face it. Me - not any more. Though we all have our fights to fight...and she fights hers for the rights of women with vigour and determination. 

But until the day when it doesn't matter, and we don't have to talk about it, let's please talk about it. Work on it together.

Not pour buckets of shit over each other?

Saturday, August 31, 2013

A little bit of hate reserved just for me

Martin Luther King has been in the news this week with much attendant reflection on the status of black people in the United States, and how it has changed - or not - in fifty years.

Big, societal themes and nation defining conversations.

Other conversations have rightly been continuing around the dreadful situation faced by lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in Russia. Though those conversations would do well to remember that in many parts of the world it's even worse. In 76 countries it is still illegal to even be gay (let alone transgender - in many countries this doesn't even appear in the judicial code as the law makers either have no consciousness of its difference from 'aberrant' sexual orientation, or regard the idea of it as just so inconceivably deviant that you don't even need laws).

And there are nations where vicious, life threatening hate is getting into its stride at full pace now. Countries like Uganda and Nigeria where LGB & T people are attacked and murdered with almost complete impunity and with - in effect - the full support of the state. Where there are laws appearing that require you to report anyone you suspect of being gay to the police - even if it's your own child - on pain of jail time. Countries like Jamaica, where the lives of LGB & T people are now deteriorating at top speed, at the hands of Church sponsored street violence.

If you're like me, sometimes these kinds of stories mean most when you take them down to the small, to the personal, to the individual.

I think of the person I met a few months ago who is trying to provide support and sustenance to LGB & T people through an organisation she helps run in St Petersburg. I think of a long walk I took with an ex politician from Serbia who had shared with me the stories of being publicly and humiliatingly professionally destroyed by the hate of his colleagues and the wider population because of his sexuality, and who ended up having to leave the country. I think of Africans I have met who have talked of being beaten, and of seeing gay friends beaten to death in front of them. Of the courageous trans activist who is unable to stay in one Ugandan village for more than a few days before the mob will find her and she is in mortal danger once more. When she travels, anyone who sits next to her on the bus is themselves in danger too. I think of my trans friend who finally sought asylum in Denmark after a tortuous journey from Central America in fear of her life, and whose welcome to Europe involved a spell in a detention centre where she was repeatedly raped as lawyers attempted to deport her.

And I thank God that I do not have to face these things.

Yet, at least. As the Nazis creep eastward from Russia and East Europe, as the pan democratic ideal of Europe begins to disintegrate, I am not so complacent as to think that one day someone with a buzz cut and tattoos might not learn about me too and decide to ruin my life.

Or even worse, get elected to do it.

It couldn't happen here? Of course it could. The protections I enjoy here are far from embedded, far from secure.

It can happen in any country where the individual does not securely own the right to define who they are, and have their basic value as a human being recognised. Where the state, or the fascist scum hanging around in the town centre, or the cleric steeped in fourteenth century religious hatreds, claims to know better - and can project a different definition of you to others with an authority given them by the law, by the culture, by stupidity, or by a country's lazy dereliction of its duty to protect what ultimately keeps us all safe.

In such a country, your simple assertion...
"I am a Muslim - or a Tutsi - or a Jew - and I am a human being, with the rights of other human beings".
 ...might be met with
"No. You are not a human being, and you do not have the rights of human beings".
That road can lead to Rwanda. Or to Belsen. Think it's a long road? The Bosnian civil war started in 1992. Srebrenica happened in 1995.

In what seedbed does this mentality start to grow? What do people need to think to be able to look away as these things start and as they happen?

I had a little taste of the answer this week. A tiny, humiliating glimpse of one of the grains of sand that can come together eventually to get the crowd to avert its eyes as the boot hits your face, or worse.

It was a small thing. It really wouldn't register at all in the lives of many of those who face the things I described above. And as abuse goes, every trans person reading this blog will have had worse (including me). But I was struck by it, what it meant and where it came from. I thought I had left it behind, and it reminded me that I never can. It hurt me, and I write about it now to externalise it and to examine it for what I think it was.

But first, a little background.

I have been fully 'transitioned', as the jargon goes, for some years now. I understand myself to be a woman. To be frank I have never heard any compelling definition of gender that does not reside ultimately and purely in this understanding - certainly if one is to avoid all the sterile reductive definitions (ie "Women have wombs" [what about the ones who have had a hysterectomy?] "Women have vaginas?" [what about the ones who have had radical surgery for cervical cancer?] "Women have breasts" [apart from the ones who have had them removed?] "Women have XX chromosomes" - [except for the ones who actually don't?]).

I am treated by those who know me, as a woman (though I have no way of knowing what they think inside, I hope it is of me as authentically who I see myself to be). The idea of essential 'maleness' is to me inconceivable and consequently absent in my inner life now.

I am female. I always was, though the world worked damned hard, with my collusion for a time, to stop me expressing it. And yes, I have a narrative. It's one of how I got eventually to be able to live an authentic life. That's what 'transgender' means to me. It's my story, and I will tell it to you if I trust you with it. Though the story has affected me deeply, it isn't 'me'. It's what happened to me.

After my dreadful divorce, some unspeakably painful years of family agony, after 26 hours of surgery in five separate procedures in two countries on the different sides of the world (and three weeks in hospital) funded by myself as the NHS wouldn't, plus hours of painful and costly hair removal, plus expensive voice work, plus psychotherapy, plus trying to get someone to treat my hormone needs, plus fighting with misinformed GPs, plus finding somewhere to live (and moving four times in five years), plus relaunching my career to a baffled industry, plus rebuilding my social life as almost everyone I knew had walked away from me...I got myself on my feet once more.

And in the last few months - it has taken a long time to be able to feel confident enough to do this - my mind has been turning to trying to find a partner. I was married a long time. Whilst I have learned to embrace the single life, and even enjoy aspects of it, I go through periods of powerful loneliness often. I reflect on an approaching old age, alone. I gave up so much of what I had, to get the chance to be me, and really I don't see why I can't have some of it back.

And that means a man. It mightn't have meant that, as sexual identity and gender identity are not the same. But - don't ask me why - I am attracted to guys. This makes me something quite simple to understand I think - a heterosexual woman.

Approaching the finding of a man is a minefield though. Right away the definition I give myself runs slap bang into the issue of what others might think I am - in this case what a heterosexual man might think I am.

And women with my story have approached this dilemma in a number of ways.

First off, there's the 'stealth' model. I hate the very idea of it, but I understand the fear from which it comes. It means never telling your story ever. Some have sustained relationships, even marriages, for years on this basis. Your boyfriend or husband remains completely unaware of what you have been through.

Obviously, there are some for whom this option is simply not possible. Your physical appearance is key. But also, your circumstances, public visibility or family all play a role in your chances of pulling something like this off. And you live a life in which you must be alert to any chance detail reappearing - with potentially a huge price tag attached.

Up to the 1980s, the advice from the medical profession to people like me was to adopt this approach. To 'disappear' from one's previous life entirely - cut off, as if dead, from all family and friends forever, and to launch a new life as if none of your story had ever happened. The general view was that transition in Britain without doing this was simply not possible, and that you were running a significant risk of being at best destitute, at worst, killed.

At the other end of the spectrum are the women who will only look in environments where a 'pre-qualified' sample of 'trans-accepting' men congregate. There are dating sites, clubs etc that are focussed on just this audience - and men (some guiltily, many without the knowledge of their wives) approach these spaces for a taste of 'forbidden fruit'. Though genuine loving relationships do form occasionally - I know of a couple - these environments also attract a significant number of male fetishists who fantasise and simply objectify people like me. No thanks.

Then there's the middle ground in which many sit. I am here.

I have spent time on 'mainstream' dating sites, where I portray myself as who I am, share my interests and values. I do not volunteer my 'story' at this stage, as to do so means immediately shutting down any possibility of contact. Society is full of such deep misunderstanding and prejudice that to do so in this setting would just mean wasting my monthly subscription entirely. Not to say attracting a fair amount of very unwelcome abuse.

In addition, that material isn't there because my past does not define me. It is simply my 'story' - and not all of it at that. I am defined, much more effectively and interestingly I hope (though it sometimes feels like a forlorn hope in the society in which I live) by my interests, by my politics, by how I adore the Mediterranean, by my taste in music or by my love for my children. I'm getting a collection of poetry together and hope to find a publisher - it's a part of my life in which I find great happiness. These are the things about which I talk in my online dating profile.  And because of those things, and because I can, I hope, look fairly presentable in some of the photographs I upload, I do get interest.

Choosing how to accommodate my story into face to face contact with a man, if I am seeing him, is now the big challenge. And it can be pretty frightening. People of my background have been attacked, even murdered when it becomes known - especially if the man has committed himself physically to you. The beating you can get even comes from something that has even been named in legal circles - it is called 'trans panic'.

But I am committed to taking that risk. I have to. If I am to achieve anything meaningful and authentic, this must be shared, somehow.

I rarely bring it up on the first date. This can require a certain quick wittedness (though I never ever lie, I simply try going into areas where it might arise if I can, and most guys love nothing more than talking about themselves so it's less difficult than you might think). And of course I know that most first dates won't lead to a second - he turns out to be anaesthetically dull, and I have the kind of evening which would have lost by an innings and several hundred runs in a match with some quietly drying paint.

On one occasion, I have shared some background during our first drink together. A sweet man, we talked and talked, though mostly about what he had been through. I could see he was becoming emotionally embroiled, and on the way to get a drink he unexpectedly planted a passionate kiss on my lips. I knew before we went any further, that I had to tell my story, as this could go wrong. I also felt that we had both been honest enough on a couple of other subjects to make it feel appropriate.

I was very nervous.  But he was simply confused. He didn't know what any of the words I had used meant. Immediately he wanted to know if I had a penis or a vagina - one of the lowpoints of my world is to have to field questions about my genitals like others do not, and a crowded pub is not where I would choose to respond to them either.

But he took it in his stride and was keen to see me again. I didn't want to see him again though. I do wish him well, but - as I heard someone put it once - he had more baggage than Terminal 5 on a bank holiday.

Another time - my happiest experience - I saw a lovely guy for a couple of months. We got to the fourth date, and I knew that he was falling for me powerfully. I was becoming fond of him too. It was time to bring up the 'story'. He was tremendous. I was practically hyperventilating with fear as I sat in his car and told him - this was in fact my first time of doing so. But it genuinely mattered not one jot to him. He listened, asked me to say nothing more for a moment, and took me in his arms.

Our relationship later moved to a conclusion, but it wasn't because of what I had said. We wanted different things. Thank you David. I will always be grateful.

And now we come to my most recent expedition. And I have run into something that has brought me up short. Destroyed my confidence. It's why I sat down to write today.

He seemed very promising. Gentle, interesting, a wry sense of humour. Strangely we shared an almost identical set of interests, and from what I could tell, values. We emailed for a time, then spoke on the phone, then arranged to meet up.

It was quite a subdued evening, as we shared a coffee and a fairly average meal in a cafe he liked, but we seemed to have a lot in common and talked easily about music, travel, other cultures, and a range of other things. He was shy, but seemed to open up and I felt he might be harbouring something attractive within.

He asked me about my ex husband...was it some sort of 'lure' as he might have been troubled by something? I didn't get that sense. I replied neutrally, though not dishonestly I felt, referring to my 'ex'. At the end of the evening, he pointedly kissed me - I turned my cheek so it would land there. Men who are troubled by some sort of sexual or gender ambiguity don't tend to do this.

And so I went home, genuinely undecided about him.

I waited 48 hours to hear from him - then finally in response to my prompt, I got the text below.

Now, let's take this message apart for a moment.

If you do not have my background you might perhaps see this as some sort of 'joke'. The kind of thing you might hear Sean Lock or Russell Howard come up with on a Friday night comedy show. You will possibly have no idea of just how deeply wounding a comment like this really is.

These two sentences reveal a number of things. First, he has clearly been hunting for information on me online. And he will have to have been looking quite hard to find it. Welcome to the world on online dating, I guess.

Second, and this is key, he regards me as a fraud. Not the person I say I am. And that he has 'found me out', blown open my 'little game'.

I presented myself to him as a woman. It was of course no act. I am a woman. But not, it would seem, according to him. These words - and it is very painful for me even to type this sentence - say that I am a man. And he, with that easy, unexamined cultural privilege, the bigotry from which all else springs, believes he has the right to say this to me, to assert his definition of me, cancelling my own completely. To wipe away an evening together, my presentation of myself to him, in fact to erase my own right to my own identity completely. To wipe me away and in the space I occupied place a liar.

And he feels so secure in doing this that he believes he can even couch it as a 'joke'. My identity - and all that it has cost me to find a way to live authentically - is not even worth taking seriously. Everything I am is reduced to some sort of dishonest 'prank' - created to deceive him and a world which has his back and gives him the confidence to say such things.

I replied calling him "cruel". It wasn't a great reply, not one of my best, but I could hardly breathe with pain. I pointed out, actually, that I do not have 'more testosterone' than him (ironically, the 'joke' fails on every level as of course my story means that I have very little of it in my body. I even know exactly how much. My current level is 0.5 nmol/L - sitting nicely within the 'typically' female range of 0 - 2.7 nmol/L). I added to him that I have no difficulty in sharing my past with those I care about and trust.

Clearly he will never be one of those people.

After I received this text I spent the rest of the day trying to hold back the tears, trying to look energetic and managerial to my team and to my company. Until I came home, of course, where I cried for an hour.

It is a small thing. Microscopic, compared with what many face. But it seems to me to illustrate something. The attitude from which it comes - I am quite sure that this lies completely unexamined in his mind (that's the nature of prejudice and privilege) - is the tributary of blind bigotry flowing mile by mile towards a bigger river of violence and hate.

There were of course a number of ways in which he might have expressed his discomfort with me - none of them very attractive (and in various other settings I have heard plenty) - but options were available to him that might have allowed me to retain some dignity. If my background, found by him without my permission, gave him anxiety, he might have withdrawn politely. But, buying into society's trope that people like me exist only to 'trick' people like him, he consciously sought to exact some sort of 'revenge' by making our final interaction one in which he needed to demean me, denying me my dignity, and he felt entitled to do so. This man who - as I reflect on the evening now - seemed to have done so much less with his life than I have done with mine. Yet I am now destined to become just a punchline in the pub with his friends.

My date that night was no Nazi. Of course not. He had seemed pleasant and personable and quite good company. And I am sure he didn't think of himself as a bigot either. But the fluency with which he moved from what had been an enjoyable evening of conversation into a profound and confident rejection of my most basic, personal rights hit me very hard.

It showed me once more what often lies beneath.

And beneath is the place where all the rest of it starts.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

I still have a dream.

You may recognise much of this.

Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech. Delivered 50 years ago this month.

Reworked a little.

The changes are actually small. (I have revised perhaps 10% of the text. And mostly local references to 1963 America - the ones which could not be recast on a world stage of today.)

The need,
and the pain,
and the hope,


Six and a half decades ago, forty eight nations came together to sign a declaration which stated that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. That declaration, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, came as a great beacon light of hope to millions who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice and the unimaginable calamity of war. It came as the hope of a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.

But 65 years later, we must face the tragic fact that the transgender person is still not free. 65 years later, the life of the transgender person is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. Sixty five years later, all over this world, transgender people live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Sixty five years later, transgender people all over the world are still languishing in the corners of the society and find themselves exiles in their own land.

And so we join together to dramatise an appalling condition. In a sense we've come to cash a cheque. When the architects of that declaration wrote the magnificent words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they were signing a promissory note to which all citizens of the world were to fall heir. This note was a promise that all would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and security of person.”

It is obvious today that the world has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her transgender citizens are concerned. Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, the world has given transgender people a bad cheque which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this world.

So it is time to cash this cheque - a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We also remind the world of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquillising drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of justice.

Now is the time to lift our nations from the quicksands of injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood and sisterhood

Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God's children.

But there is something we must remember, we who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: in the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvellous new militancy which has engulfed the transgender community must not lead us to distrust of all others, for many of our cisgender brothers and sisters, as evidenced by their support, have come to realise that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realise that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of transgender rights: "When will you be satisfied?"

We can never be satisfied as long as the transgender person is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the world.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the transgender person’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. Or to the isolated and lonely margins of society. Or from a brief life without chances to an early death at the hands of others or, driven to despair, at their own.

We can never be satisfied as long as our young people are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by practices including arbitrary dismissal from their work, or even assault in the street, without reason.

We cannot be satisfied and we will not be satisfied as long as a transgender person in Rio de Janeiro cannot find a job simply because of who they are and a transgender person in Kampala believes there is no point even trying.

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. I am not unmindful that some of you have experienced great trials and tribulations. Some of you have spent time in narrow jail cells. Some of you come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.

You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Guatemala, go back to Turkey, go back to Russia, go back to Nigeria, go back to the quiet bigotry of Europe, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the dream of equality. I have a dream that one day this world will rise up and live out the true meaning of the creed established that day after that appalling war - we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all are created equal.

I have a dream that one day in the poorest barrios of Mexico City the next generation of transgender people and the children of those who used to murder us with impunity will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood and sisterhood.

I have a dream that one day even the nations of Brazil or Honduras, states sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that children will one day live in a world where they will not be judged by their gender identity but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, in parts of Africa, with its vicious bigots, with its politicians having their lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Africa children will be able to join hands as sisters and brothers without the poison of hatred towards transgender people driving them to bully and cast out the one whom their parents say is “different”.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the world with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of England!

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of Canada!

Let freedom ring from the heightening peaks of the New Zealand! 

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped volcanoes of Iceland!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of Argentina!

But not only that.

Let freedom ring from the Blue Mountains of Jamaica!

Let freedom ring from Mount Ararat of Turkey and Mount Athos of Greece!

Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Nigeria and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uganda, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every nation and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black people and white people, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and all others will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!


With full acknowledgement to the King Estate, and The King Center. 

Martin Luther King's original text is here. There are some small additional passages which he seems to have said on the day but weren't in the original text

Saturday, August 24, 2013

I am Chelsea Manning

As Philip Sandifer observed in a piece recently, Chelsea Manning's 'coming out' as female was a shock to many. Not least for those of us within the transgender community.We thought her name was Breanna.

Rumours about Chelsea's real identity have been circulating for some time. Shortly after they started, I heard that the lawyers around her were advising her not to make the information public nor try and use it as some sort of defence. Not for one moment did I imagine that Chelsea's legal team had grasped some finer point around wishing to protect her privacy. I assumed that with their client about to go to court facing charges that could amount to 'treason' against her country, the last thing they felt they needed was to have to defend her against a world sickened by another kind of treason - to her gender.

Or 'his' gender, as the world would, and perhaps will continue to see it.

Selfishly, I'll admit to a certain relief in discovering that Chelsea's trans status was not going to be splashed all over the world's tabloids right away. Trans people are verbally eviscerated on - literally - a daily basis in the media. One of the most vivid tropes within press coverage emerges when a trans person tangles with the law. Many newspapers like nothing more than an easy conflation of our 'deviant' identity with an alleged legal violation. The reductive, cruel headlines always bring together the two ('Sex-swap accountant accused of fraud', 'Crossdressing policeman charged with speeding' etc) into an insinuation of a more profound moral decay - as if breaking the law (or even being accused of it) must in some way be connected with a deeper, culturally dangerous sickness. The label 'transgender' (or its abusive substitutes) then somehow sinks into public consciousness as a shorthand for 'guilty' through endless, unjustified juxtaposition with accusations of wrong doing. In exactly the same way, people of colour used to constantly find the pigment of their skin irrelevantly foregrounded by the press (ie 'Black teenager arrested for shoplifting'), with much the same effect.

I have grown up with these kinds of headlines, and part of me was not looking forward to more of them - especially attached to a case of this immense magnitude. I live and do my job as I am - accepted by my friends and colleagues as the female I know myself to be. But every day I work at that. Every day, a small part of me says, as I walk through the office door, "Make sure they are ok with you today". 

I know that however people seem to feel about me, the crust of acceptance is often an unexamined, thin and vulnerable one. Rooted as it is in little real understanding, it wouldn't take much to fracture it. So I try and strengthen it, in the piece of world I occupy. And I try not to stand on the places where it's thinnest in my life. And I can do without Rupert Murdoch, The Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph, or the BBC willfully derailing my efforts - to advance some cheap agenda or sell advertising space.

But in that sense of relief that Chelsea's gender identity issues were not flooding the newspapers, I also felt some shame. Ashamed that my fear for my own safety (and I am a fully 'transitioned', well off, middle class, employed person with a credible career history) came to my mind at all when reflecting on the situation faced by 'one of our own' who might now be facing the death penalty. Was in that situation for revealing to the world material that included a video of soldiers aboard US Apache helicopters gleefully mowing down a group of unarmed Iraqis, (including murdering two Reuters journalists, the people who came to pick up the wounded in a van, and maiming two children). Someone who might have felt in some way driven to do this because she was trying to deal with features of her inner life that I might understand.

I was ashamed of my worry that the weight of Chelsea's story might suddenly land on my fragile piece of crust, like some asteroid of media bigotry, and smash a hole right through it. I guess that's what a hostile world can do to you.

Because of course it should not have been this way for Chelsea Manning. In so many respects, everything that has happened to her is both horribly wrong and awfully predictable. And my feeling of relief back then that the lawyers were silencing her in her attempts to be herself is actually part of the problem she faced. Because the silencing of her by the world is what may have caused all of this in the first place.

Millions of lines of text are already appearing about who Chelsea is, or isn't. About what kind of life she has had, will now have, and whether her revelation about herself in any way effects her 'guilt' as charged or otherwise. We cannot know the answers to many of these questions - I'm guessing partly because her defense team, complicit in the fear we transgender people have of the hate of society - avoided putting them into the court room properly. We know that Chelsea apologised to the United States for what she had done. We know that she felt remorse for any harm caused. That she believed - believes still I guess - that what she did was in support of the constitution of her country, an attempt to bring wrong doing to light.

We know less about the deeper private motivation behind her actions - and though she is, predictably, being lauded and vilified by groups with opposed political agendas in equal measure - we have little idea whether she feels the crown of 'Whistleblower's Whistleblower' fits. She'll certainly have a long time now to think that one over.

I don't want to add to the speculation about what's been going on in Chelsea's head. I can make a guess at best, and as someone who has been to the edge of despair in my way too, perhaps for some of the same reasons, I might be able to come up with something plausible. But just as Chelsea, and I, want the world to allow us to own our identities, so too, do I want the world to allow me to own my own motivations without hypothesising and forcing the painful results of all that on me. And I wouldn't be surprised if she felt the same.

I can really therefore only speak for me.

Feeling forced to live a life in which I felt I could not be who I fully am had an effect on me, and not a good one. I grew up negotiating between an emerging understanding of my true self and the knowledge that if I ever voiced it to the world the social consequences would be catastrophic.

But the need for inner honesty is a powerful force and it will be heard.

We see its power in so many ways in our lives. The marriage that is forged or broken because it will give you what you, as a person, need, or which has stopped giving it. The career on which we embark which either feeds our soul, helping us to feel authentic, that we are in the right place in the world...or which crushes and depresses us. We talk of feeling 'right' or 'wrong' in a company, a role, a city, a country. Our families and friends represent other locations in our lives where we seek expression and acceptance of our true selves - and if we are unable to do so, our relationships are thin, unsatisfactory, short lived.

Everywhere in life we look for places in which we can be ourselves, and though we may not be able to articulate easily what that 'selfness' is, we know clearly when we feel it or do not. We know what it is like to feel bent out of shape inside to try and fit a model that is simply handed to us from elsewhere, from outside without reference to who we are and what we are.

For the transgender person, finding this sense of authenticity can be tough. The world generally tries to make the one solution you increasingly know to be the one that will help (the one which involves your gender and how you live it) the only one you cannot have (in fact, in many countries, the world says to trans people we will kill you on the streets if you try). And thus you are often left only with partial solutions which you desperately try and make work.

One such solution (though you may not express it in these terms as you try and sell it to yourself) is to try and irrevocably close off your own chances for authenticity, and to force yourself to make the best of other mechanisms in life available to you. Things which can distract, or hopefully obscure the bigger problem. Join the army perhaps? Many do. The army - for many a caricature of self assured, self accepting masculinity, must surely be a place where all this pain can be driven away and replaced by some inner model that you can make work?

Another solution can be to try and vent the need for honesty, for authenticity, in other ways. To try and help others face their struggle. I joined Amnesty International when I was 19, and have been actively involved, in various ways and at various times for over 30 years. I look back at the letters I have written, the petitions I've signed, the appeals for individuals to be treated with dignity, to be given liberty and to be allowed to live their lives as who they are...and I know that I was also writing to myself.

Equally, I was actively involved in trying to support other trans people find ways out of their despair - comforting, counselling and listening - for almost a decade before I could face my own.

Perhaps had I been working in a job with access to a range of deeply disturbing secrets about how my government was breaking the law, jeopardising the lives of innocent people, and much worse, the pressure for honesty and the despair that I could not tackle in my own life might have overwhelmed me? Perhaps I would have leaked those documents in some sort of symbolic expression of my own need?

Some way of getting the 'truth', any truth, out there?

And had I done so, then what has befallen Chelsea Manning would have happened to me. The grandest of pieces of projection, perhaps, but I can't help seeing in what she did some parallels with my approach, on my much smaller stage.

And in a way something many trans people try to do. To just try and make it all go away through denial is one route. Perhaps seeking at least some measure of honesty in one's life in some other sphere, another? And overall, to turn one's life into a pressure cooker clamped shut, whilst doing nothing about the raging heat beneath it. And then to fool about loosening the lid occasionally - releasing moments of inner pressure through symbolic acts.

Chelsea's inner strategy, if this is what it was - her leaking of material as extended metaphor for dealing with some of that pain within - didn't work. And I don't mean for the US military, for the US government, or for its allies or enemies. Depending on where you stand, you may feel she did the right, or the wrong thing, in those terms. I mean for her.

My version of that strategy didn't work for me either. Luckily for me, my life choices didn't arrive framed in the same way as hers. Luckily for me, one of the options along the way to try and fix the pain did not involve actions which could easily have got me executed and I never had to face the entanglement of vast moral questions with what was going on in my own head. Luckily for me, the desperation I felt didn't perhaps get so bad - or get so bad for long - that I no longer cared about the potential consequences for me.

But had I lived her life, had I tried to answer the questions she was facing, in the place she was, then maybe I too would be starting a lifetime in jail.

So perhaps I am Chelsea Manning.

And, whatever your story, in some ways perhaps you are too?