Be Yourself! But Not Like That!

A while ago, I tweeted something like this:

“Cis society: Be yourself!
Trans people: Yes, okay
Cis society: No, not like that!”
It’s been running through my head a lot since. I figured it deserves a blog post.

I see this as a sibling post to my often shared post about the pressure I feel as a bi person to “choose” to “be straight”… Because I feel a similar pressure to “choose” to be cis.

There is a very strong message that often comes from within trans communities as well as from cis society that says that being trans is so, so intrinsically awful that nobody would (or *should*) be trans if they could possibly avoid it. Indeed, many people spend months or years trying to convince themselves that they don’t want to transition when they actually do because of this very prevalent idea.

And just as with sexuality where most people will concede that some people can’t choose not to be gay, it’s understood that some people can’t be cis but it is frequently suggested that some people do have a choice – and that the “correct” choice is to be cis if at all possible.

I would be rich if I had a quid for every time someone tried to convince me that I should be able to live as a cis woman instead of as a trans man.
People told me (as if I somehow didn’t know) that women can dress in men’s clothes, that women can do and be anything men can, that it’s okay to be a lesbian, that it’s okay to be butch, that women can be androgynous and still be women… And I don’t disagree with any of these things! They just aren’t reasons why I should be someone I’m not.

I also frequently get told that I’d be “prettier” as a woman, that more men would be attracted to me if I lived as a woman, that more women would be attracted to me… And I don’t believe that. Authenticity is much more attractive than forced cisnormativity ever could be and even if it weren’t, I wasn’t born to be attractive I was born to be my best self.

The ways people have tried to convince me to stop being a man say a lot about why they think trans people transition. I’m not trying to become more attractive, I’m not looking at the clothes I want to wear and trying to make my identity “match” the side of the shop I find my clothes in. I don’t think that men are any better than women and I’m not trying to avoid homophobia. I know that women can be butch or androgynous – I’m not trying to escape one set of restrictive gender roles by fitting myself into another set.

I am, quite simply, trying to be myself.

While pretending to be a girl / woman made me deeply unhappy and caused me mental pain and anguish, that isn’t even really the reason I live as a man. I live as a man because THAT IS WHO I AM. There is no good reason why I should try to “be” anyone else but me.

Think about it, especially if you aren’t trans. Can you really imagine people telling you that who you are is wrong and you should be someone else instead? Imagine for a minute being told to act like someone else for the rest of your life and being told that the other made up, false “you” was actually more real than anything you thought or felt about who you are. Like going undercover or acting, say, but forever. It’d be doable, sure, but could you be happy? Could you be even satisfied with a lifetime of being someone else, even someone almost but not-quite like you? Or would the not-right-ness wear you down? Would the pressure of hiding anything that might blow your cover eat away at you? Would you be tempted to call it quits and just be yourself and hang the consequences?

I could, in theory at least, live as though I were a cis woman. But why on earth would I trade my integrity and authenticity for a thin veneer of cis privilege?

If you feel like you’re pretending to be someone else and you want to try being yourself, you don’t need to wait for the facade to be killing you to be “allowed” to drop it. Whether that’s a gender, a sexuality, a religion, a relationship, a career or something as simple as having a name that isn’t working for you, you don’t have to wait for things to feel completely intolerable to make a change. You deserve to be your self, with integrity and authenticity, right now.

I don’t need to earn the right to be myself or to suffer through every possible attempt to find a way to me kinda like myself but not trans before I can be the trans man that I am. No one should have to exhaust every other option before being who they are just because who they are is trans.

To expect otherwise (and many people do expect otherwise) is to insist that being cis or appearing to be cis is innately better than being trans. It’s not.

We all deserve to be ourselves. So don’t you dare tell me it’d be better if I was someone else instead.

For Gender Recognition For All People

I’ve tried to write this post dozens of times. Trying to explain why I, as someone who is broadly opposed to the entire concept of “legal gender”, spend so much time and effort trying to get the UK to recognise the genders of myself and my friends without first subjecting us to invasive and institutionally transphobic questioning. Why is this even important?

If no one were given a “legal gender” in the first place, I’d not want anyone to be given one. Since people are given gender assignments at birth and those are recorded and have legal consequences, I want them to be as easy to change or update as any other piece of information attached to an unwitting infant at birth is. It’s *assumed* that the name, race, ethnicity, religion, and, yes, gender ascribed to a newborn child will remain the same for most or all of that child’s life – yet these can and do change or are updated based on new information. All of these have important legal consequences (as do other ascribed “facts” such as the disability status and sexual orientation of a person) but updating your name, race, ethnicity or religion in government and non-government records is just as easy as updating your address – you don’t have to “prove” the accuracy of your new information to anyone, just tick a different box or write a new answer on a form and it’s done. You can update these things as frequently as you need to and you’re the sole arbiter of their accuracy. If you say you’re White British, Christian and called Jonte Abellard then you are. Yet if Jonte Abellard is trans, it doesn’t matter what gender he says he is – the government want to insist he’s whatever gender he was assigned as a baby unless he convinces a panel of government appointed strangers that he’s done enough to earn his gender.

And that’s the crux of the matter for me. Any system of gender recognition that automatically accepts genders handed to newborns as accurate until rigorously proven otherwise makes gender into something that people can’t be trusted to figure out for themselves. It takes autonomy away from people and gives this part of their identity away to others to determine for them. It takes the genders of cis people as well as trans people and makes them into something requiring an external opinion – your gender isn’t yours to determine in any place that treats gender as something that needs medical “proof” of any kind.

Your gender is yours. Mine is mine. Nobody else should get to decide it for us. Almost everywhere in the world, including the UK, you don’t have the final say on what your gender is – some combination of doctors and bureaucrats do. And that’s not okay and shouldn’t be acceptable, never mind normal.

There have been times and places where doctors and bureaucrats have been allowed to decide what race people were – with legal consequences such as who they can marry. There still are places where bureaucrats get to decide what religion people are – with legal consequences such as who they can marry. Here in the UK, I can’t marry *anyone* unless I either call myself a woman (which I’m not) or I get the UK government to agree that I am a man first (by subjecting myself to medical and bureaucratic scrutiny and consenting to be listed in a government list of the current and former identities of transgender people). By not only recording but also deciding these parts of people’s identities, states more or less assert ownership and control of people’s identities – controlling who you are allowed to be and who you are allowed to become.

The more difficult it is to change the identities we are handed as children, the more fixed and “natural” they appear. Making it difficult to assert an identity that we have claimed for ourselves while simultaneously making it easy to keep the identities ascribed to us by needless bureaucracy gives the bureaucratic identity a sheen of permanence that it has never earned. Even while I live 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year as a man, with “he” pronouns, socially accepted by my peers as a man, my gender listed as Male on the census, my NHS records, my academic records, my benefits records… the government of the UK doesn’t see that as a reason to think I’m a man. I don’t get to be a man in their eyes until and unless I apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate and my application is successful. This effectively means that there is nothing I can do myself to change the “Female” gender assigned to me – even being a man doesn’t disqualify me in any way. Yet if I apply for a GRC, use of names or pronouns deemed not sufficiently masculine could prevent my male gender from being recognised. So could things like being pregnant or breastfeeding, not wanting surgeries, having a “feminine” job… any little thing that suggests that I might not aspire to cis male masculinity. Being a man apparently isn’t reason enough to alter the records to show I’m not a cis woman but any sign of woman-ish qualities could prevent me being recognised as a man. This is a hugely unjust double standard.

I write about gender recognition a lot and I don’t doubt that I’ll continue to do so. Until gender is recognised by self-definition alone, allowing everyone free and equal access to a simple process to change or update their gender information as often as they need to (whether that’s “never” or “a hundred times”) I’m going to keep insisting that we deserve better. Because we do.

Links to my previous posts on gender recognition:
Whose Gender Is It Anyway?
Write to your MP about Gender Recognition

Equal Marriage? Not Really

Words

When I look back on my childhood as a trans, queer, autistic, mentally ill and disabled little boy, I often see the things that were missing. The problem with hindsight, always, is that it can only occur late, very late or far, far too late.

What was overwhelmingly absent, what I desperately needed was WORDS. I lacked the words to articulate my trans, queer, disabled reality. And that makes me angry, even now. Because in many cases those words existed but were kept from me. In other cases, people like me are still working to cobble together words for who and how we are, in order to communicate in a language that wasn’t built with lives like ours in mind.

If you aren’t already nodding your head in familiarity and remembering the times when you couldn’t or can’t articulate who and how you are, then please try to imagine what it’s like. To exist in a world where there is no word you’ve ever heard of for you, where what you are or how you feel or how you experience the world is so unthinkable, so unimaginable, so (it seems) impossible that there are no words for it. You are unspeakable. You exist but… the never-ceasing feeling that maybe you ought not to, maybe what you are is never spoken about because it’s bad. Wrong. Not allowed. Not okay.
Nobody knows that you are how you are. You feel like you should tell someone… and at the same time that you definitely shouldn’t. You don’t have the words for it, anyway. Nobody seems to have the words. You can’t exist.. and yet somehow you do.

I have felt this way about being trans. I also felt this way about being bisexual. And having developmental disabilities. And experiencing mental illness as a child. Even as an adult, I am still not always sure that who I am is “allowed” or “okay”.
From my teens and into the present, I found myself tinkering with words to try to get a handle on who and how I am. To try to communicate it. To try to validate it.

Sometimes that means grasping tight onto existing words like “man” and “love” and “sex” and “independent” and forcefully insisting that my life can validly form part of the meaning of those words. My gender is man, love and sex are part of my relationships with my partners no matter what their gender, I am independent because I see that my own needs are met by ensuring the provision of carers and equipment.

Sometimes I need vocabulary I didn’t have before. Concepts like “trans and cis”, “neurodiversity”, “the social model of disability”, “intersectionality”, “heteronormativity”, “structural oppression”, “sensory overload”, “stims”, “meltdowns” “selective mutism”… become necessary to my continued understanding of myself, my life, the world and my place in it.

As a child, words to describe my own disability were few. Words to describe relationships and feelings other than heteronormative boy-meets-girl were even scarcer. Words to articulate mental distress were not available to me. Words to even begin to understand my gender as a trans little boy? I had none.
Lacking these words did not prevent me from experiencing myself as a disabled and autistic, proto-bisexual, transgender little boy in increasing mental distress.

All it did was make my life more frightening and unpredictable as things happened to me that I could not explain, I had feelings I did not know how to express and I did not know how to get any help or guidance from the adults in my life because I had no words to explain what was wrong.

I scoured fiction and nonfiction books and TV shows for validation, looking for someone, anyone, who was “like me”. I found the occasional gay person or mention of the possibility of same sex relationships. I found a few fictional characters whose mental distress echoed my own (though they never had anything that was canonically acknowledged as mental illness). The fictional wizards, demi-gods, cyborgs, mutants, faeries, changelings, aliens, rebels and rejects of my childhood reading felt more like me than anyone real I ever saw on TV or heard about in school. Erasure of trans and bisexual realities left me feeling alone and alienated. The sparsity of realistic representations of autistic people kept me feeling broken and unreal. I’m scared of over-stating this but also when I look back at my teenage years I mainly see a child who didn’t know how to be because he lacked the words to express himself and no way of knowing that being someone like him (like me) was an okay thing to be.

When adults won’t talk about same sex relationships or LGBQ people or trans people to and around children, this is what it does to LGBT children. When disability is a taboo topic and disabled people are rarely the heroes of their own stories, this is what it does to disabled children. When autism isn’t identified and autistic reality isn’t treated as valid, this is what it does to autistic children.

When children are living in a world of structural oppressions, some of which they are themselves facing, and the adults around them do not acknowledge that this is happening; this is what it does to those children.
Not telling children that LGBT and disabled people exist will not stop them from being LGB or trans or disabled. It will only make things harder for them if they are and harder for their LGBT and disabled peers if they aren’t.

This is a structural problem, built into what we teach in our schools, read in our books, watch on TV, who we hang out with and a million tiny-huge other things as well as what we each say (and don’t say) to the children in our lives. It can’t be fixed with a conversation here and there or a special book or Special Episode. But we have to try.

To be entirely clear:
This isn’t about my parents or my teachers (though it is a bit about Section 28). It’s about the society I grew up in and the resources that were and were not available to me as a child. If you’re reading this as a personal attack, I’m very sorry to have upset you but it really isn’t one. This blogpost describes what it was like to grow up trans and bisexual and disabled in 90s and 00s Britain. I hope it doesn’t describe growing up in 2010’s Britain as well.

Write to YOUR MP about Gender Recognition

Here on YetAnotherLefty, I’ve written about the current state of gender recognition for trans people in the UK, it’s effects on Marriage and contrasts with other countries before. These posts have been widely shared as people came to learn, often for the first time, quite how awful, humiliating and blatantly transphobic the current set up is. People have contacted me to tell me how upset and angry this makes them as cis people and how terrified and overwhelmed they feel as trans people. After another case of someone apparently being denied recognition of her gender by the Gender Recognition Panel *because a magazine reported that she had got her wife pregnant within the last two years*, the messages I’ve been getting have changed from just “This is so wrong!” to “This is so wrong! WHAT CAN WE DO?”

Here is the start of my contribution towards doing something about this awful situation: A Guide for individuals and organisations on the how and why of writing to your MP to stop this awful situation continuing.

You read that right, I’m an anarchist asking you to write letters to MPs. It’s not the only tactic but I think for once it may be a useful place to start.

So: before we go any further, here is WHAT WE WANT
In quiet discussion with a large number of trans people and trans organisations, the following goals seem to be more or less agreed upon.

FIRST: The Gender Recognition Panel should be *immediately* instructed to APPROVE gender recognition for all those currently on its waiting list and to approve Gender Recognition for ALL SUBSEQUENT APPLICATIONS until…
SECOND: The Gender Recognition Panel is disbanded and replaced with a simple method of updating one’s gender based on self-definition rather than medical or social “evidence” of transition. A similar system to that already in place for updating one’s address or name or a single Statutory Declaration would be much preferable to the current system.

How to Write To An MP
1. Find your MP’s contact details here
2. Send a physical letter rather than an email if you can or email through something like Write To Them
3. Be polite! We want to get them onside so if you’re angry be angry but polite with it.
4. If you are going to publish a copy of your letter and/or their reply (such as on your blog) remember to say so in your letter.
5. If you have twitter / facebook / etc tell people when you have sent the letter.

Your letter should include:
– a brief description of the problem,
– how it affects / how it makes you feel and/or how it affects your MP’s constituents,
– what you want your MP in specific to do about it,
– your hopes of a swift but considered reply.

Below I’ll write some stuff to help you write each section. Try to use your own words as much as you can – MPs tend to ignore form letters.

What is the problem?

Problem 1: transphobic and patronising law
The Gender Recognition Act has been fundamentally flawed for the entire decade of its existence. It is built on the transphobic assumption that doctors and lawyers who have never even met a person are better placed than that (ADULT!) person to decide what that person’s gender is.
The process for getting your gender recognised in the UK if you are trans is lengthy, costly, invasive and humiliating. (Consider briefly describing the process in case your MP is not familiar with it).

Problem 2: Coercive sterilisation / invasive focus on medical treatment
There is also increasing evidence that, while no medical procedure, treatment or surgery is required per se, in actual fact the Panel is systematically biased *against* trans people (and especially trans women) who do not have genital surgeries and those who delay or forgo treatment in order to preserve their ability to procreate. This has led to an ongoing situation where people feel that they *must* undertake treatments and surgeries that they might otherwise have not had for several years or even might not have had at all out of fear of the Panel denying them Gender Recognition if they do not. The current situation is one of coerced medical treatment – especially medical treatment that results in irreversible sterilisation. The UN, the World Health Organisation and others condemn forced or coerced sterilisation and the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez recognised forced or coerced medical treatment for trans people as torture. His report is here and a very detailed reflection on his report from The Anti-Torture Initiative is here. As both of these reports are on torture in health care settings, please read with caution and take breaks if you are triggered or otherwise harmed by reading about the actions mentioned in the reports.

If nothing else, the form’s insistence on knowing intimate details of all treatments for Gender Identity Disorder that an applicant has undergone or will undergo needs to be immediately removed from the form as this information is private and irrelevant.

Problem 3: Unnecessary and Unhelpful pathologization
A further problem with the current system is that it unfairly allows only those who have a medical diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder” or “Transsexulism” to have their gender recognised – despite the fact that being trans (ie considering oneself to belong to a gender other than that assigned at birth) is not in itself a medical problem or diagnosis. It is quite possible to be trans yet not be able to get that diagnosis if a person is not greatly distressed by being trans or if the person is intersex. The Liberal Democrats have active policy to remove this requirement – if your MP is a Lib Dem, ask them what the Lib Dems are doing towards this, if they aren’t ask them what their party’s policy on this issue is.

Problem 4: No gender recognition for under-18s or for people of nonbinary genders
The current system also denies gender recognition to children who may need it and provides no recognition at all for anyone who has a gender other than “man” or “woman”. Many people are neither men nor women and they have just as much right as anyone to have their identity legally validated and recorded correctly on any documentation including birth certificates.

Problem 5: No one can work out whether or not I can legally marry *anyone* as myself
Under the current system, it is unclear whether or not a trans person *without* a gender recognition certificate can legally marry any other person without committing perjury by gendering themself correctly during their wedding ceremony. (I’ve talked to several lawyers on this, they couldn’t agree). This essentially leaves every trans person in the UK with at least two years of their life in which they may neither marry nor reproduce and no certainty that those two years so constricted in their right to a family life will yield a usable birth certificate and recognised identity. It’s a high price to pay and thousands of trans people are being left with no option but to pay it.

Problem 6: the Spousal Veto
Another HUGE problem with the Gender Recognition Act as it is currently, is something UK trans people have named “the Spousal Veto”. I find it hard to explain but it essentially allows any person married to a trans person to delay their legal gender recognition *potentially indefinitely* by refusing to either consent to remaining married to the same person under their new gender or consent to a divorce. Sarah Brown explains the situation much better than I could and also goes into a fair amount of the social and legal history that led to UK-based trans people having such a bizarre and draconian set of legal hoops to jump through for basic recognition of who we are. Incidentally, the Lib Dems also have policy against the Veto.

Problem 7: Monetary Cost to individual trans people
The current process requires sums of money that many will simply not have access to (due to discrimination in the work place, trans people are disproportionately under- and un-employed). Two doctors notes (for which NHS doctors may charge up to £200) and a notarised statutory declaration (costing between £5 and £50) are needed in the case of a single trans person (two stat decs would be needed in the case of a married trans person), in addition to the (means-tested) admin costs and the costs of any treatment the trans person has been unable to get on the NHS… It’s an amount of money many will be completely unable to spare yet the cost of going without gender recognition is also high. Being unable to marry, unable to provide a birth certificate as ID and knowing that somewhere the wrong name and the wrong gender are recorded as your identity has a huge psychological and social impact on trans people both as individuals and as a community.

Problem 8: Cost to the state
The existence of the Gender Recognition Panel – a group of people literally employed by the UK government to judge and decide the gender of British and UK-residing trans people – is also costly and inefficient to the state. Trans people can and do legally update their gender details on absolutely everything else, including passports, medical records, the census, work records, school records, exam certificates, bank records etc etc perfectly well without a panel to decide whether or not they can. The panel is simply not necessary and needlessly adds distress and delay to the lives of trans people and their families.

Updating one’s name has always been straightforward in the UK, requiring no court or lawyer or external body to approve or disapprove. The UK trusts its citizens to choose their own names, why not also their own genders?

How it affects you / your friends / other people
Talk about the distress, the delays (at least two years before you can apply, under 18s cannot apply even with parent’s permission, exploding queue situation with applications) monetary costs and the rights to family and private life that trans people cannot exercise with a Gender Recognition Certificate.

Words I’ve heard used to describe the present system include: absurd, ridiculous, kafka-esque, draconian, evil, wrong, repugnant, invasive, degrading, dehumanising, pathologizing, transphobic and inhumane. It shows a complete lack of trust in trans people’s ability to know themselves (ourselves) and what they (we) need. Talk about how it does or would make you feel to have to submit to a Government panel to decide for you who you are. Perhaps ask your MP how they would feel if they had to go through this process.

Even by the most conservative of estimates, something like 1 in 100 people is some kind of trans. There will be dozens, even hundreds, of children in your MP’s constituency who are trans – what kind of gender recognition system would your MP like them to encounter if they ever need one? One based on the assumption that they are wrong about their identity until and unless several doctors and lawyers *most of whom they will never meet* decide it for them? Or one which assumes autonomy and gives them control over their own identities?

If you have gone through the Gender Recognition process, you might like to write about how distressing it was. If, like me, you haven’t gone through it because it would be terribly distressing, invasive and/or costly it is then consider writing to your MP about that. If you are cis (i.e. you are not any kind of trans and consider the gender assigned to you about birth to be more or less correct) please say so in this section and write about why this issue still matters to you because it is e.g. distressing to think of anyone and potentially friends, partners or family feeling forced to go through this awful system.
Mention that there is a general consensus among many trans people and organisations that the Gender Recognition Panel MUST GO – this includes people who have gone through the Gender Recognition Process and people who campaigned FOR the Gender recognition Act.

Mention that Argentina and Denmark now have Gender Recognition on demand and that this has been widely welcomed and celebrated by trans people and their communities.

Perhaps point out that the UK doesn’t tell people what name, race, sexuality or religion is theirs: why should gender be any different?

What Do You Want Your MP To DO About This
There are several things you might ask your MP to do.
-You could ask them to ask in Prime Minister’s Questions what the Government intends to do to solve the many, many problems with the Gender Recognition Act or even to ask specifically if the Prime Minister will agree that Gender is a personal matter that should be decided on by individual people rather than by the State.
-You could ask them to draft an Early Day Motion or (if someone already has) to support an existing EDM.
-You could ask them to arrange to meet with trans people to discuss these concerns.
-You could ask them to do all in their power to lobby for the Gender Recognition Panel to be abolished and replaced with a simpler system based on self-definition and to approve all applications in the mean time.
-You could ask them to publically acknowledge and support trans people’s rights to autonomy over our bodies and our identities.
-You can ask them what THEY plan to do to make sure this awful coercive dehumanising system does not continue as it is. Or what their party plans to do.

Conclusion

Use the concluding paragraph to wish them well, say you hope they will consider your letter carefully and reply within two to three weeks. Remind them again that this issue is very important to a lot of people and you hope they can agree to help in some way. Add a method or two for them to contact you if they need anything clarifying or explaining before they reply. And remember to state clearly whether or not you intend to publish your letter and/or any reply online. If you feel like it, you may want to remind them that the elections aren’t all that long off now and trans people and their (our) supporters will be watching what the various parties do to support trans rights between now and then.

It’s worth saying…

Pretty much everything I said about acceptance in my previous post on autism acceptance applies pretty straight-fowardly to other ways that people can be different from each other.

You don’t need to understand why someone is trans or how transition-related medicine works or how people make decisions about gender presentation to accept that your trans friend is who they are and deserves to be treated with respect. You don’t need to know all about trans issues to learn to use the name and pronoun someone asks you to use because that’s how to treat a person with respect. To accept someone trans as who they are requires you to trust them to be the expert on their own experiences and believe that they feel how they say they feel. If your friend says he feels happier with a different name, believe him and get on with using his new name. It makes him feel happier and all people deserve to be happy.

You don’t need to understand why some people are only attracted to people of one gender, why some are attracted to people of many genders and why some are attracted to nobody at all, to accept your friend with a different orientation from yours. If she says she loves her girlfriend, believe her. Trust that she is the expert on how she feels and what she wants, you’re not.

You don’t have to know whether or not there is a G-d or know very much about different religions or about atheism to accept that your friend has a different belief system from you. Trust them to be the expert on their own experiences.

This doesn’t just apply to your friends, but to everybody. To everybody you must learn to believe that they know better than anyone else what it feels like to be them and that they deserve to be treated with respect.

 

An example: I have a lot of disabled friends. Most of them, I have no idea what their impairment is and those who I do know I often know very little about that condition. We get along by believing people when they say they need help and helping in the way that is asked for. We believe each other when we say “I can’t do that” without needing an explanation of why or arguing.

Basically:
Everyone is an expert on themselves. With very, very, very few exceptions you do not have a better idea of what a person needs than they do. Accept that people feel what they feel, want what they want and choose what they choose. Treat everyone with respect. We’re all only human.