Friday, November 23, 2012

Growing up, growing old

Glimpses of the week...

1.  

I am at work. One of the things I do is work with teams of management running workshops. And today I have around me eleven people from a client company for a full day, in a room with a huge picture window of the River Thames. At one point, during a break, someone engages me in conversation. "I'm sure we've worked together before", she says. And we talk about that, and it turns out that we have - maybe ten years ago.

Except ten years ago, I looked pretty different. I was, according the world at least, unquestionably male.

The person with whom I am talking doesn't know my story. I am convinced of that. Other small talk has made me so. We had lost touch until this week. But her memory of the projects we worked on together was accurate. And in that memory is somehow embedded a woman she recognised.

How is this possible? I'd like to think that there's something completely recognisable about me still. It's certainly how I feel. In fact I have always felt like 'me', but simply had to deal - forever I thought - with a set of distressing physical circumstances which meant I didn't look like me. After years of trying to find some kind of negotiated solution between these contradictions, with the desperation building, they proved irreconcilable - at which point some people walked straight out of my life wagging a finger of 'betrayal' at me (and worse). My protestations that I hadn't changed sounded naive, impossible, to their ears, and I heard those protestations thrown back at me with such venom, that after a while I began to ask myself if I continued to believe them.

But I did, and I do, and this week, in that moment, I smiled and felt more certain still. The physical details of my past are starting to fall away. Am I maybe beginning to outgrow their memory?

2

To the ceremony at University of London Union to commemorate this year's Transgender Day of Remembrance. A day each year on which the trans community reflects on transgender people who have been murdered or forced into suicide around the world in the past 12 months. In each ceremony, the names of those who have been killed (the ones we know of) are read out. 265 this year - a significant increase on last year. The vast majority in South America.

As these numbers rely only on the ability of community organisations to collect them, often in very difficult circumstances, it is certain that the true figure - the unreported deaths from Africa, the Middle East and Asia - would add hundreds more.

The person leading the ceremony remarked that if the death rate amongst transwomen in Brazil was extrapolated up (taking some calculations based on the prevalence of trans people in the population and rate at which they are murdered), the equivalent figure across the population would be 25,000. "This is a war", she said, commenting that death rates of that scale were more typically associated with 12 months in somewhere like Bosnia during the conflict there. But it's not Bosnia. It's the host country of the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics.

So far, so moving. We honoured our dead, some cried, there was music. And then something strange happened. An individual emerged from the side of the hall, and as the ceremony came to a close made an impassioned speech suggesting a violent response to the humiliating and demeaning stereotypes of trans people in the media. From what he said of his story, he had been through a torrid personal time in the last few years, but I felt the audience flinch. An evening of reflection on what violence had done to members of our community was not best concluded by an exhortation to bring it to bear on others.

Later the situation worsened. In the bar an altercation broke out, allegations were made about some physical abuse, and the individual was escorted from the building by security. Within hours, the Facebook post mortem was underway - with accusations and counter accusations. Forceful
threats of legal action emerged from the speechmaker, until the thread on which this was all taking place was reluctantly removed by its originator. The right decision in a space which was created to honour the memory of the dead, not to wound and hurt the living.

But that's what this community can be like. Abused to crippling levels, it often seems just a few minutes away from savagely turning on itself. The trans experience can be so various that some find it hard to listen to the truths of others. Yet most of us share an intense pain, or the memory of it, which makes hearing another's truth sound like an attack on our own (as that is for many what the world has been throwing at us for years). The result is Pavolvian.

It is holding us back, we need to move on. We need to grow up.

3

And on tv this week, the excellent Jackie Green, starring in a documentary about her competing in this year's Miss England competition. Jackie is a phenomenon, as is her Mum. I'm proud to say I know both of them a little.

There was much good to say about the film. Jackie doesn't let the filmmaker off the hook when he strays into the idiotic media tropes so common in this genre, and probably partly because of that the result feels authentic and touching.

I am touched particularly by one moment that I find recognisable and pointed. Jackie enters the competition volubly and overtly declaring her trans background. She talks impressively about wanting to be a role model for a generation coming later, as she never had one (nor I). In the early stages of the competition, she tells the coaches and the judges. I sense she is telling them to keep the power of the information herself and not have it used against her (I know trans comedians who do this, making their story a part of the act to remove a possible weapon from the heckler). And this sits happily with her desire to be visible as a symbol for other trans teenagers and to make A Point to the world.

But then her stance seems to change, at least for a while. Jackie makes it to the semi finals. And suddenly she doesn't say anything more about her past. She is a beautiful girl, she does well - but she doesn't make the cut to get into the final. There's an irony here - in previous rounds the interview section was a huge strength for Jackie. She has something extraordinary and powerful to share. Now she withholds that information, leading one judge to comment on her "boring" childhood (a great moment of television as we as viewers all know by then something of the immense battles Jackie and Susie have had to fight for Jackie to be here.)

Why the change of heart? It isn't explained. I'm sure Jackie would have shared her story once more had she won the contest. But it felt like I was seeing a dilemma I face in my own life.

How much disclosure feels right? 

How to negotiate the difficult space between the value to others of being loudly transparent and public, and the desire inside to simply leave all that behind and just be the woman you are?

I can't put words into Jackie's mouth nor thoughts into her head, but I can well imagine that she felt it appropriate - having progressed to the later stages - to withdraw the information about her past to see if she would be able to continue without it. This is a hard moment for many trans people. Certainly for me, the lead weight around my neck of being trans is paradoxically also something which I have grown accustomed to using - when it suits me. Nothing will make me the centre of attention in a crowded party faster, nothing will get someone's attention with more effect. That attention can be addictive, creating a few moments of celebrity in a small space. Despite, of course, its occasional, converse effect. It can get you beaten up, or killed too.

Perhaps I'm growing up? The instinct to leave that small sense of 'celebrity' behind is growing. You see, I always have something 'interesting' I can say to the stranger I meet at a drinks party. But in the saying it, I know I create distance, and I know it can never be unsaid. And it always makes a difference. Sometimes the difference can be good. Sometimes very bad indeed. Sometimes you just don't know, and neither, in fact, may the person with whom you are sharing. I sense that Jackie understood that for either 'good' (creating empathy, or a sense of wanting to 'do the right thing by her') or 'bad' (worries about being seen to be tokenistic, discriminating against the other girls, or just raw bigotry), it was going to play a part - and she simply didn't want it there. Just for a change. I understand that. 

I still do say that 'interesting thing' sometimes - but usually when I think it can help others. I'll stand alongside others at a protest or at a ceremony and 're-out' myself. My instincts towards social justice are strong. But I'll feel an awkwardness then sometimes - not because I am ashamed of anything - but because I know that I am in the midst of that unanswered question again. Other times, I'll feel awkward for not saying anything -when a female work colleague or client asks me if I breast fed, or how the birth of my children was.

Growing up is about finding the truth about oneself, I guess. I am still growing. 

4

And growing old too. Rather faster than I would like. People I know are just beginning to start dying.

I was contacted recently by a client with whom I had worked some years ago. This person does know my story. But her reason for being in touch was sad. A mutual colleague - a witty, warm Spanish colleague of both of ours - let's call her Maria - had died. I didn't ask how - but she was no older than me, and it was an illness she fought. Cancer is my guess. I was invited to contribute to a book of memories for the bereaved family.

My contribution to it told the story of how I had worked with her many times, but that there was one  memory which will always be with me.

When I transitioned I was terrified that I would never work again. Indeed I was told that in one instance. But I did work again. Maria called me, and asked me to come to Paris to run a session for her and her team. It was early days, my first international piece of work since I had fully revealed myself to the world.

I remember sitting in a bar on the Rue la Fayette afterwards thinking, "Yes. I can do this".

Another moment of growth.

Thank you Maria.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A reply to Lana


She co-directed 'The Matrix' trilogy. With her brother, she was one of the team that produced the forthcoming mega budget, 'Cloud Atlas', a movie that got the critics on their feet for a full ten minutes at The Sundance Festival. She is Lana Wachowski. And she is trans. 

Lana has, as you might say, always been Lana. But, despite a loving family and spouse, and a hyper-successful career, she wasn't able to emerge publically as who she really is until now, in her late forties. One reason she hints at in her words here is the value she places on privacy and in her belief in a right to not become 'public property'. To not be someone about whom 'everyone has an opinion'. To not be someone who is the subject of blog posts written about her, I suppose too - by people she will never meet, or ever know.

And yet, forgive me Lana - figuratively at least - if I do say I feel like I know something of you from this powerful speech. I have in the course of my life known many trans people. I count some amongst my closest friends. I have listened to their stories, and they to mine. We have shared the pain and confusion and rejection. And the trying to make our nature, the 'who-we-are', simply go away.

We have shared the being unable to do that, whatever penalties society contrived for us (from ridicule, to ostracisation, to murder). I have talked about the suicidal thoughts (thankfully for me now passed), and more than once I have been involved in trying to save someone's life as they were on the point of doing it. One woman I knew a little, with whom I had struck up a small friendship, gassed herself in her car. Her family buried her, dressed as a man. They refused any of her trans friends the chance to say goodbye. And of course, they used her male name. Though she died as Debbie. She was to us, and (the only thing that mattered) to herself, Debbie.

But this is no moribund rehearsal of the pain of being trans. We don't want it, and now (I nearly wrote 'luckily', but why should luck have to play a role in my right to not feel pain forced on me by society?) I don't feel it. I'm no victim. I have been through my firewalk, found and held onto my joy, just managing to keep hold of it clearly enough whilst my world fell apart around me, until that joy settled into a quiet knowledge of 'me-ness', outside and inside. No more instant memory, arising seconds after I wake anymore - that sudden realisation of another day of turmoil and growing desperation - feelings I shielded from the world to save others from the discomfort of having to deal with me. Now I have what you might call congruence. It's a quiet, more peaceful thing.


I had my Lana Wachowski Moment. Told The World. Fueled by an adrenaline that I thank God I had, for I was to need it in the next few years. For the many who walked away, some stood up and held my hand. Lifted me up, held my head above water as I went through what I needed to go through. I discovered compassion, and humanity, and kindness, of a sort I had never felt before. I discovered it from people I hardly knew, most of whom had never - knowingly - met anyone like me.
But not from many. There wasn't a lot of bare faced hostility - though there was some and that was awful - but there was a lot of what you might call benign rejection. And I experience that still. There's no malice, there may even have been admiration, but there's distance. If you don't fit the model the world uses, it's only a minority who will put bricks through your window, or dog shit through your letterbox (though woe betide you and if you are trans and you live where that minority lives - you are in real physical danger). But equally, it's only a minority who will truly embrace you, welcome you (back) into their lives, put down the 'difference' and see the 'similar'. Hear how you wish to be understood, and simply, without any analysis, accept that.
I long for that unquestioning acceptance. Full, total and final. But I can't ever have it. I had my Lana Moment...I am not famous like her, I don't have her financial security, and I don't have a spouse standing by me. But nevertheless, I relaunched myself to my world, as we all must do, publically and prominently. I had had enough of hiding, as Lana has. I became involved in activism, fueled by the years of pent up rage about how I had been treated. That gave me a certain small, brief, prominence, and it was on the point of giving me more.
But I had to stop. Because the world was making clear it wasn't done with me. The world, from which I had felt ridicule and humiliation for years, had mostly, moved into a kind of remote admiration of me. People talked of how "brave" I was. People said I was "an inspiration". I was out there, fighting my little corner, sticking it to the world, giving a few hitherto silenced people "a voice".
But when they'd done congratulating me, these people - those who weren't trans at least (with a tiny number of honourable exceptions) - didn't call me. Didn't invite me to dinner. Didn't have me to the party. Didn't include me in plans. Didn't know what to say to me, so thought it best to say nothing. It soon became clear to me that for all the majority's good intentions, the world wasn't done with making me feel like an outsider. And yes, I did reach out to them.
This is where the concept of 'stealth' comes from. The idea that once a trans person can physically ensure that he or she (or however that person wishes to self describe) is always taken by others for a member of the gender in which they can most comfortably live, then nothing should ever be said again of his or her past. To reveal that past will be to rip up the membership card that the world has so grudgingly offered - a card which finally allows you to live without, at best, others' unending curiosity, or at worst, abuse, ridicule or violence.
I was given that membership card sometime ago. In the UK, the certification you get could be seen as a direct analogue of that card - a Gender Recognition Certificate and then, finaly, a new Birth Certificate. These are your Back Stage passes to the world you've been denied all your life.

But there's a price. Go Back Stage and talk about how you've got in and people may start eyeing the door nervously. It can be like you bought your pass from a tout outside. Sure, they'll be civil...you do have the 'membership', like they do. You've even got the paperwork to prove it. It's against the rules (thank you European Union) to make a scene about that. But keep your mouth shut. You don't want it to be 1972 and you to be the newly arrived black member at some Home Counties golf club.
Lana has ripped up her Membership Card, in an eloquent, witty and moving speech. I admire her. And not in a remote, distant way. I'd have her to dinner in an instant (there are still bits of The Matrix I'd like to go over). And I recognise her Moment. She is strong enough - now - with enough people around her  - to say "I don't need to join your club on the basis of rules you dictate. I'm done with your rules running my life".
Am I strong enough? I'm no Lana Wachowski.

I got to that moment, and I pulled back. My background is known to many, but remains mostly unspoken of. I now inhabit a negotiated space where I need to remain vigilant about how my experience is portrayed and presented. I don't hide my past, but confronting the world, with its quiet, never ending little prejudices, is exhausting and feels dangerous. I know my membership card can be removed anytime, and I don't have enough buddies in the club who are prepared to get that rule about 'not talking about your past, or your reality' changed so I can stay a member if I do. You want the jargon - it's about being thrown a little 'cisgender privilege' ('cisgender' describes those who aren't trans - their inner gender identity is consistent with their outer gender expression).

The guy I dated, once, until he discovered I was trans tells me about cisgender privilege. The husband of a friend who wouldn't come to dinner with me because he was 'uncomfortable' with me tells me about it. The partner of another who I sense requires her to make up ever more unconvincing stories to explain why he doesn't want to come to spend time with us both. The girls at work, who are lovely, charming, witty, but with whom I cannot have any kind of conversation whatsoever about my femaleness, my experience, without placing an inevitable barrier between us (I can see it in the silent panic in their eyes). And believe me, I have it easy, compared to many. At least no-one is beating me up if I use the 'wrong' toilet. 
Lana's going to face all this - or certainly her version of it. She'll do it from a stronger, more resourced, more supported position than I ever could. She'll have people saying 'To hell with them'. I don't have those people, much. Nor do most trans people. For most of us, it's a solo gig. Lana's nailed her manifesto to the wall, and there's no going back for her now. She decided to use her celebrity to make it better for others. I couldn't find the strength to fully do what she has done, I guess. Maybe one day I will. I try to do what I can, quietly. In the meantime, we need people like her, who have been given a platform, and others around supporting them, to demand our right for full acceptance whoever we are, however we understand ourselves. Not some kind of conditional invitation to a club from which we still feel we can be expelled at any time.

I wish her well.