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.

Hanukkah, The Closet and the Assimilation Trap

It’s the fifth night of Hanukkah. My candles have burned themselves out and I’ve not yet started another DVD to aid my continued attempts at hiding from the ever-present Christmas that has taken over the supposedly multicultural country and definitely multicultural city in which I live. I worry from time to time that my friends might get the impression that I hate Christmas… I don’t. But the apparent compulsoriness and seeming inescapability of the celebration is hurting extra hard this year and I feel like I am drowning in Other-ness and alienation.

And so I thank God for Hanukkah and its timely message about what to do in the face of overt and covert pressure to conform and to be something I’m not: hold fast to who you are, to what you are and the truths you hold dearest. Yes, you’re different and that’s okay.
I take Hanukkah every year as a challenge to re-dedicate myself to living my truth as a bisexual, transgender, disabled Jewish man and insisting on being all those things at once no matter how many people tell me I can’t be. I accept the challenge to be who I am as openly as possible; refusing closets and refusing the false comfort of assimilation into the surrounding norms.

Hanukkah reminds me of the miracle of the Jewish people still existing after thousands of years and hundreds of attempts to stop us. And I think also of the miracle that is every LGBTQ person and community surviving and thriving despite the oppression we have and do face. The miracle of Autistic communities and people insisting that we do not have to pretend to be non-Autistic to be acceptable, Disabled communities and people insisting the world change to accommodate us rather than expecting us to change to fit into it. And this year especially I think of Muslim people and communities and of Black communities and People of Colour communities continuing to exist in a world that is increasingly hostile.

I light each flame and watch as they light up the darkness and are not consumed by it. I remember the times I have felt pressured to hide my “light”; times I have been pushed to be less visible, to stand out less, to be more like what surrounds me. I try to picture myself as a flame, burning bright amidst dark surroundings.

I have never “fit in”. Sometimes I have wanted to. Sometimes I have suffered for my inability to stop being “different” from others or Other than what I was expected to be.
Sometimes I have tried to blend in. Let people assume that I’m straight or let them assume that I’m gay. Deliberately suppressed my Autistic body language or desperately attempted to hide my difficulties with numbers and writing. Taken off my yarmulke when it would have been safe but uncomfortable to be recognised as Jewish. I spent years trying desperately to be a girl out of fear of the consequences of admitting that I’m a transgender man.

The message of Hanukkah, for me, right now, is this: Be yourself. Assimilation is a tempting option but don’t let it trick you into being someone you aren’t.

As I’ve explored frequently on this blog, not feeling like I could be openly who I am and trying to at least appear to be something else has caused massive mental harm to me and right this second this same harm is happening to thousands of people. Hanukkah reminds me that one way I can help bring about a world in which no one has to hide the truth of themself away for fear of the consequences of living openly is for me to insist, as much as I can, on living openly now in this imperfect world, letting my light shine to banish just a bit of the darkness.

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.

Where Babies Come From: A Lesson For All Tories, Whether Blue, Yellow or Red

Contains: multiple references to sex, pregnancy, birth control,brief description of birth

I’m writing you all this lesson because you recently voted for, abstained on or were absent from a Bill that will limit Child Tax Credits to two children per family from 2017 and in doing so have shown that you clearly don’t understand how children happen.

Children are small people who are not yet adults. They require adults called “parents” (or guardians) to look after them, feed them, clothe them and love them until they reach adulthood. Adults are people over the age of 18, they are generally fully grown and somewhat capable of looking after themselves. As MPs, you are all adults, whether you can behave like adults or not. When people are very, very young, they are called “babies”. Babies rely on their parents for everything and cannot look after themselves even a little bit. Neither babies nor children can work and much time and money must be spent by the parents to ensure the survival and development of their children. Before you complain that all these non-working babies and children are clearly “scrounging” of their parents and the state, I must remind you that ALL adults were once babies and unless there are new babies there will be no adult workforce in the future. So even Tories like you should love babies and children because even if you can’t see the point of them now, they have the potential to grow up to be “hard-working tax-payers” and you love those.

Right, okay, here’s how babies happen: Adults have sex with each other.

If they don’t use birth control methods or those methods fail and one of the adults has a working uterus and another of those adults produces sperm, the adult with a uterus can become pregnant. Pregnancy is when a new baby begins growing inside a person’s uterus. The baby grows inside there for many months and is then pushed out of the person’s vagina or cut out of the person’s uterus by doctors. Once this has happened, the new baby has human rights, including a right to life. The person/people who take the baby home and name them and care for them and love them is/are the baby’s parent/s.

An arrangement of one or more adults living with one or more children and babies they love and care for is called a “family”. Usually, the family will contain at least one of the adults who had the sex that made the baby begin; sometimes it doesn’t. So: babies come from sex. I’m assuming you all know what sex is? It’s when adults play with each other’s genitals together because it feels good. Got it?

Sex is pleasureable, it’s fun and it’s free. Any collection of consenting adults can play, it’s cooperative, it can fill whole days or fit into a lunch break… It’s something that lots of people do in their spare time. (Spare time, in case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, is time not spent working, sleeping or travelling). People like sex. People are going to have sex – especially if they can’t afford other forms of leisure, like TV, cinema, sports, arts and crafts, tourist attractions, computer games, shopping, the internet, going to cafes and restaurants… When you’re poor, sex is one of the few pleasures that’s still affordable. And sex can make babies.

There are ways to have sex without making babies. And I believe completely that people are using them. But none are perfect. All take time to find and get hold of, many cost money. All require knowing where you can find accurate information on how to use them and where to go to get them for free or low costs. It’s no surprise that people sometimes end up with an unexpected pregnancy. Pregnancies tend to lead to babies.

And babies need love and care (which is free) and milk and clothes and bottles and cots and nappies and toys and prams (which cost money). Until the baby is 5, a parent will have to stay with the baby almost constantly and will thus not be able to work. If/when the parent does go into work, the baby will need to be left with childminders – who need to be paid. The baby needs what they need regardless of whether their parent has enough money saved to provide for those needs or not. This is why Child Tax Credits are paid to families in the first place – so that all babies and children have a decent quality of life, with their needs met, no matter who their parents are or how much money they saved, no matter whether someone had sex with the intention of causing them or they came about without anyone intending them.

Child tax credits were for every child regardless of how many siblings they had too. Because a first child and a third or fifth or twelfth all deserve the same dignity and the same shot at a half-decent life. They all equally deserve enough food to eat, clothes to wear, warm beds, school equipment and, YES, toys to play with and books to read. Because they all have human rights and not one of them asked to be born or played any part in bringing themselves about.

So, when I hear your “reasoning” for what is essentially a cap on two children per family is to “encourage responsible behaviour”, what I hear is: “We want to punish poor children for their parents having sex”.

Make no mistake, this doesn’t reward or encourage anyone, this cap is a punishment. And it punishes innocent children because some adults had sex – which is not itself illegal, immoral, harmful or wrong. So why punish anyone for it?

And why leave middle class and upper class people unpunished for the same actions you deem so irresponsible from people like me? While they won’t get the Tax Credits for their third and fourth children either, they will still be able to feed and clothe them even if not to the standard their first child enjoyed. No millionaire will be over-worried by an unexpected new member of the family while every poor family will be terrified of broken condoms and accidentally missed pills.

You might as well admit it. This was never about the money – children start paying tax from shortly after birth through parents and family buying things for them – this is about keeping us poors from having sex as often as you imagine we do. And it’s about keeping us thinking always about whether we are affordable, thinking of ourselves and our families as “burdens” on a state once designed to support us, a state that would grind to a halt without our labour and our purchases. A state that wants us thinking about our bank balances instead of enjoying ourselves while we have sex.