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.

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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

Why I’m Blunt

Or “Why I talk about my illness and disability so much and why I don’t talk about what my life would be like if I were well”.

I am very straightforward about being ill and how it affects me. I openly discuss diagnoses, symptoms and treatments with friends and I write about my illness a lot on here. Through the number of times my posts on chronic illness are being shared and the comments and commentary I see on and around my posts, I know that what I say here reflects the experiences of other chronically ill people. That recognition of shared experience feels important to me; we are a scattered community and many of us are alone or isolated in some way in offline life.

It’s in my offline life that I am sometimes accused of being “blunt” and I guess I am. Almost all of the time, I don’t pretend I’m okay when I’m not. I can hide a great deal of pain but I won’t deny it if I’m asked how I am. My stick (or wheeled walker) and my gait and other visible signs of disability I don’t hide. When people are getting to know me, one of the first things I make sure to tell them is that I have an incurable chronic pain and fatigue problem and that means I can’t really do x, y, z things and I might need some assistance with p, q, r things. I know I could just say “I can’t do this” and “I need some help with this” but it feels important to me to get the “incurable, lifelong pain and fatigue” said and understood. People don’t like hearing it and don’t know how to react and I can sympathise with that. But I need the people around me to have realistic expectations of what I can do and what my life is going to be like and getting “There’s no cure” and “I am in pain” heard and understood early on stops awkward conversations later on.

The other reason I’m so very blunt here and everywhere about how ill I am and how it’s incurable is, well… it’s a mental defense strategy. I *have to* be okay with being ill, I *have to* make myself comfortable with the knowledge that this is normal now – the alternative is spending my life grieving for a future that never happened, the life I could be living. It’s not that I don’t think about it sometimes, I do. It’s more that my mental energy is better directed at thinking up possible futures for myself *that I actually have half a chance of making happen*. There’s a lot that I can still do, a lot to work towards. I have no choice but to be okay with having all my plans and dreams from “before” fade into nothing and replaced with plans that centre what’s really important to me.

And so I’m blunt with others. To shut those “But what if you get better / if there is a cure / if you try this snake oil?” conversations down instantly. To practice being okay with the word “incurable”. To hand part of the discomfort our society has with illness and ill people to the other person to carry so I don’t have to deal with it.

To make myself into someone who accepts that his reality is real and okay, someone willing to work with what’s he’s got, someone grounded in the reality of his body with all its needs and capacities and limitations.

That’s why I don’t talk about what it would be like to be well. Imagining wellness for myself means imagine something my doctors have told me is virtually impossible. I don’t want to get emotionally invested in an idea of what my life could(n’t really) be because I don’t want to deal with the inevitable frustration and disappointment of never being able to achieve it.

I’m blunt because I’m honest. With myself and with you. Illness is my reality and it’s likely to be my future. I won’t sugar-coat that for any adult person. I’ll be honest and clear and my voice will not tremble or break when I say that this illness is life-long and disabling. I have to live with that. If you want to be part of my life in any way, you have to live with it too.

Addendum: above is entirely about my personal experiences, if you think it’s about you it maybe is but it’s also about dozens of other people. “There is no cure” is a sentence I have actually heard spoken to me by actual doctors, as are the words “incurable”, “chronic” and “progressive”. If you suggest I could “get better” you won’t be the first but you’ll still be wrong.

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.

Religious Abuse

I’ve tried to write this post many,many times and I never manage it because there are parts of my past I still find too desperately painful to write about. But right now I’m seeing both atheists blaming Christianity (or more often “religion”) as a whole for the tragic and avoidable death of Leelah Alcorn and Christians insisting Leelah and others like her could be saved if they only found a different (but still Christian) church or community to be part of, that they ones they are in aren’t “real” Christians and real Christians will love and accept trans youth for who they are… And I need to say something.

I need to say something because I and other trans people, from children to old people and every age in between, have been subjected to religiously motivated abuse from people who “disagree” with our lived realities as trans people. I need to say something because responding to that abuse is NOT as simple as “find another Church” or “stop believing in God”. BOTH of those reactions – and others – can be good decisions for a particular person experiencing religiously-motivated abuse but neither is as easy or as likely to help as those suggesting them as a general solution appear to think.

To those suggesting to hurt and vulnerable people that they just stop going to church or find a different church or stop believing in God, I want you to know:

With very, very few exceptions, anyone who recognises that they are being harmed in the name of a religion is *already aware* that there are multiple branches of their religion. With even fewer exceptions, they are likely already aware that atheism/ agnosticism exists.

Telling someone to just leave an abusive community – whether or not you suggest an alternative community to leave to – is pretty much *exactly* like telling someone to leave an abusive relationship or family. The person in the abusive situation likely knows better than you what harmful consequences would occur if they tried to leave and what they would need to have in place in order to leave – if you’re not offering practical and *unconditional* support to leave saying “There are other options” is close to useless.

Going to reiterate that on UNCONDITIONAL support. If you only plan on being there for someone *after* they take the leap out of an abusive religious community and not while they are still in it and trying to figure out what to do, your support is not really support. Same goes if you only intend to support someone if they make the choice *you* think is best – that’s not support, it’s paternalism. If you want to help people in these kinds of situations, you have to show that you care about them no matter what and you trust them to try their best to do what’s best for them.

Religion often isn’t “just” a belief system – it can be a huge part of a person’s life and identity. It can be their main or only community and family. Leaving one particular Church could potentially mean never seeing almost all your friends and family again – it’s not up to you to decide whether or not that risk is “worth it” for someone else.

You can’t look at a person and see how strongly they feel about their religion or what it means to them or what parts are and aren’t important to them. Telling a Catholic that Unitarians exist and welcome LGBT people is not helpful if the Trinity is spiritually meaningful to that Catholic. Telling an agnostic Jew to give up Jewish rituals that are important to her because her family refuses to accept her gender wouldn’t be helpful either.

Don’t argue scripture with people uninvited. THIS IS IMPORTANT. Don’t argue about scriptural interpretation or different ways of looking at certain passages or practices without explicit consent to do so. More likely than not, they are getting plenty enough of this within their community / family. Make sure they know that YOU will respect their boundaries and won’t try to force them into discussion.

To those who find themselves experiencing a conflict between who they are and what their religious community teaches, I want you to know:

 

First, you’re not alone. Lots of people all over the world, of many different faiths (and occasionally atheists brought up within the moral codes of a religion) are in the same position as you. It’s difficult and there are tough choices to be made but whatever you choose, someone else is doing the same – and maybe with the help of the internet you can find them.

Second: it’s okay if you don’t want to call what’s happening to you “abuse” – and it’s okay if you do want to. Trying to rationalise what’s happening to you by telling yourself that people are just trying to help you or that they don’t know that what they’re doing / saying is harmful is okay too. If it helps you survive, think and feel anything about the people hurting you – they can’t control what you think or feel even if they want to.

The position you are in – seemingly forced to make a choice between your*self* and your religion – is an extremely difficult and complex situation to be in. It’s unfair and it’s wrong and it’s NOT your fault this is happening to you. Anything you can do to keep your self safe and alive is an okay response to this situation.

Staying closeted or going back into the closet can hurt you but as a short to medium term response it can be a good choice.
Being out only with or around particular people and not in general or in specific places can be a good choice.
Keeping your own beliefs in your head and performing the religious practices of the community you are in until you can safely get out can be a good choice.
Losing your belief in God or changing religion can be very scary – it can also be the right thing for you to do.
Finding a way to stay in your religion and still be open about who you are is also likely an option. It might be the best option for you. It also might not.
Leaving and then going back is okay. Leaving and never going back is okay. Drifting in and out of belief in God is okay.
Griefing over losing a religion or belief in God is okay. Not feeling grief at all is okay.
Staying and trying to change things is okay. Burning bridges is also okay.
Wishing you could go back is okay. Being glad to never go back is okay.
There is NO one right way to deal with this.

You are going to need friends. Friends within *and* outside of your religion. Look for groups for people of your religion who are trans / LGBT, look for groups for people who *used to* belong to your religion but left. Make friends that have nothing to do with your religion. Make friends outside of your community so you know that if you do decide to leave, you won’t lose all your friends.

Find someone to talk to about your feelings. Get an outsider viewpoint if you can. Find someone sympathetic who won’t push their own solutions on you – a helpline for people in distress might be a good place to start.

If you are a child / teen, remember that you soon won’t be and you’ll be able to choose your own place to live, study, worship and your own therapists and support when you’re an adult. If your parents or school *aren’t* religious / are supportive of trans and LGB people, they might be able to help you find a supportive adult to listen to you now.

Talk scripture if you want to, don’t if you don’t. I can happily discuss why Judaism is a good religion for me but I still feel terrified and ashamed if people try to discuss Christian responses to trans and LGB issues with me because of stuff that happened to me when I thought I was Christian. You don’t owe ANYONE an explanation of why you do or don’t attend certain services or do or don’t believe certain things.

And finally:
Whatever you feel about and however you experience your gender and/or sexuality is real. Nothing and nobody can take it from you. I and thousands like me will believe you instantly and completely if you say “I am trans” or “I am a woman” or “I have no gender”. No one else can tell you how you feel about yourself, only you know and only you can say. Nobody can make you become someone you aren’t – not even you. Whether it will be easy or difficult for you to find a way to live as your self, there are thousands of us who want to help and support you to do it – whatever you think and feel about God or religion and whether you want to stay in a particular faith or not.

You deserve to be happy and to live your life authentically. Yes, you.

In-between

I’ve got a few spare minutes so I thought I’d write a quick post for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014. There are other posts I want to write about disability, gender and fashion, about internalised disablism and about the questions strangers ask me when they notice that I am a disabled person. Those can wait.

Today I have only a few minutes and one very precise thing I want to write about. And that’s the difference between how people who aren’t disabled seem to conceive of disability and what being disabled is actually like.

Other people seem to think that for any and all “abilities” people can either do them or they can’t. So either you can walk perfectly well or you can’t walk at all. You can either talk or you can’t. You can either see properly or see nothing, you’re either hearing or profoundly Deaf. You’re permanently on the edge of seriously harming yourself or you’re completely fine. You can be easily sorted within seconds into “disabled and thus completely unable to do anything” or “perfectly capable of doing any kind of work without any real difficulty”.

A LOT of disablism seems to rest on this idea which looks very obviously absurd to anyone with any direct experience of being or living with a disabled person yet this idea seems to me to be widespread. Even the draconian implementation of the Work Capacity Assessment here in the UK seems based on this strange dichotomy of “you can either always do something or always not” and “you’re either fit for all kinds of work or none at all”. When people call the fraud hotline because they’ve seen a neighbour walk from their car to their door when they use a wheelchair or scooter to get to the corner shop, their disablism is based in the idea that people can either walk or they can’t and that anyone who can walk can work (btw, if you find me a job that literally only involves walking short distances a few times a day, message me :P).

The reality of disabled life is very different. There is no neat split between “Things I can always do” and “Things I can never do” – almost everything is inbetween. Almost everything is something I can do sometimes under some conditions. Some days I might be able to walk half a mile using a walking stick, other days I literally cannot get out of bed. Under the right conditions and with appropriate supervision, I can cook a meal for six people from scratch. Most days however, I need another person to come in and cook for me. I’m happy and confident and I love my life *and also I’m very mentally ill and in serious danger of neglecting and/or harming myself*. These are not contradictions. This is my reality and that of thousands of other people.

Disablism seeks to reduce me to a list of things that I always cannot do (and there are plenty) and proclaim me able to do many things on the basis of my ability to do them once or twice a year. The reality is more complex and diverse than that. I live in the space in between “can” and “can’t” and if non-disabled people ever really thought about it they’d realise that *they do too*.