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?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A picture of us all

Take a look at the picture on the left.

Unless - like the two individuals in black - you are a psychopath, you might find that difficult. It's ghastly.

I actually hope that you find it difficult to look at. I hope it unsettles you to your core.

Take another look. Who is the young man kneeling on the floor, forced to pose obscenely with leering apes either side of him?

I don't know the young man's name, and I don't want to know it. I'd like to apologise to him - symbolically, it's all I can do - for using this picture. In fact it's all over the internet. It first arrived there after the two individuals in black, or their supporters and colleagues, posted it on to a Russian social network. Understood to be a young gay man, he had been lured into making contact with a vigilante Neo-Nazi called Maxim Martsinkevich. Martsinkevich has made it his business to entrap gay men by posing as a date on contact websites. His prey go to meet him, where they are humiliated, beaten or tortured. Sometimes in public, with passers by ignoring what they see, or even condoning it. It's often filmed and uploaded - the purpose being to out the individual to school, to friends and to family. The victim sometimes commits suicide afterwards.

This is happening in Russia. 
Right now. 

It's just one manifestation of a situation that some are likening to the Nazi Germany of 1935. That's the year the Nuremberg Laws were enacted there, a sweeping range of legislation designed to start the process of formally excluding Jewish people from society. And 1935 was also the year before the world gathered for an Olympics in Berlin, looking the other way as a whole country geared up towards the unthinkable. 

The Russian police, say activists, are fully aware of this thug's actions, and those of others like him. But Russia is now a country which has enacted a law so broad that it is illegal to even talk in public about being gay, to share information about it, for gay people to wear any insignia, or use any emblems (the rainbow flag, for example) in public. It is illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, for an individual or media organisation to support gay rights, or for a Russian child to be adopted abroad by a gay couple, or even in a country where equal marriage exists. 
St Petersburg Pride 2013
Dmitry Lovetsky / AP
Homosexuality, decriminalised in Russia in 1993, is now moving towards being a criminal offence once more, in all but name. The State, and the police, are effectively on the side of Martsinkevich.

Earlier this year, St Petersburg police beat up and then arrested LGB&T activists who courageously held a (banned) Pride march, after watching them be showered were with bricks, eggs, and other missiles. 

More recently, the day the law was enacted, a small group of protestors held a 'kiss in' outside the Parliament. Police stood and watched as those who took part were violently attacked, and then moved in to arrest all the participants. It's not confined to locals either. The other week, four Dutch tourists were detained under the new law. 

St Petersburg Pride 2012
Alexnader Demainchuk / Reuters
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in Russia are facing the biggest disaster of their lives - certainly since the end of the USSR. One recent report suggests that more than one in seven gay people have been physically attacked in Russia in the last ten months - a desperate expression of growing hate in a country where 85% of the population opposes same sex marriage, 38% of the population believes that gay people should either be isolated from society and/or compulsorily 'treated'. And one in twenty believes that gay people should be 'exterminated'

In a country of 143 million, that's 7 million people who actively want to kill you. How do you think that feels?

The situation has been worsening. Not one of the 436 deputies in the Russian Parliament voted against the draconian anti gay laws. The Kremlin, using the well known 'internal enemies' device with which Putin and his ex KGB/NKVD buddies grew up, is happy to see the hate gathering pace as it offers a focal point for discontent that can take the national eye off the misdemeanours of the government, the vast corruption, the mafiose strong arming of business, the protection of vested interests. 

Police break up a kiss in protest
outside the Duma 2013
Kirill Kudryavtsev  / Getty Images
Next year Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics, in Sochi, a city on its Black Sea coast. The debate is raging  - not least amongst Russia's LGB&T community - about how the world should respond to these appalling developments and whether the games offers a focal point for protest. 

There have been calls for a boycott - immediately of Russian vodkas, and one next year of the games themselves. Others have rejected that approach, saying that avoiding Russian goods will go unnoticed and that a boycott of the games could even be counter productive. 

The point, some say, is best made by being there - and by being out and proud. The Russian government has 'reassured' the International Olympic Committee that LGB&T tourists and competitors will not be arrested, though Russian law says they must be if they do anything which identifies their authentic sexual or gender orientation in public. Parliamentarians are saying different things, calling for the detention of foreigners - though whether the country's leaders are prepared to have the biggest public relations disaster since the 1980 Moscow games on their hands if they do so remains to be seen. 

On balance, it's hard to see what a boycott would achieve. Even at a national level, Olympic boycotts before have had mixed results. The US absence at the 1980 Olympics didn't get the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan and was widely seen as just a piece of political rhetoric which resulted in the Soviet bloc pulling out of the 1984 games in LA and little else. 

And were it just the LGB&T participants and tourists who failed to show next year...well nothing presumably would make the proto-Nazis in the Russian Parliament happier, nor, perhaps many of the Russian people as they are taught by their leaders to deepen their prejudice.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos
1968 Mexico Olympics
Though obviously understanding would be total if individuals felt unable to do so, our LGB&T athletes and tourists should go - open and unbowed. As Dave Zirin recalls here there were calls for black athletes to pull out of the 1968 games in protest at continuing racism within the US and elsewhere, a consciousness coalescing at the time into the nascent Black Power movement. When attempts to organise came to nothing, many black athletes went, and the world remembers not the hesitancy with which they were there but this photo (right).

But we must do more. The Sochi Olympics provides a convenient focal point for protest, but it's one moment in an ongoing spiral of disaster for a beleaguered community in Russia. Attempts we make to support them should not just be about salving our own liberal consciences but about helping to deliver actual change in a society which is degenerating into barbarity for some of its citizens. 

Which brings us back to the picture at the top of this page. 

I, like everyone reading this page, must face up to the challenge it puts. As preacher and academic Charles Aked said, 

"For evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing

And as many of us sit comfortably in the West, celebrating equal marriage for lesbian and gay people in a growing number of countries, we must see that picture at the top of the page as one of ourselves. It is a picture of you. And of me. But who we are in that picture is down to us. There are only two available positions. We must take sides.

My life, and the lives of some I know, make me understand just how close I could easily be to kneeling on that floor with that young man.

He is there simply because of who he is. Nothing more. I am him.

Please don't imagine that you, whether you are gay, straight, trans, cisgender, black, white, male, female, rich, poor or anything else - are somehow magically immune from being him too.




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