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.