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

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.

Ten things they don’t tell you about life with chronic physical and mental illnesses

I live with physical illnesses that cause chronic (ie long term) pain and fatigue. I also have several mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. For all of my adult life, I’ve been regularly seeing doctors and counsellors and therapists and physios and nurses and social workers… all of them somewhat aware of my long lists of diagnoses and treatments. Here’s the important stuff that none of thought to tell me:

1. Becoming physically ill from a mental illness or mentally ill from a physical illness is really, really common.

PTSD can cause chronic pain. Chronic pain can cause or further exacerbate depression. Depression usually comes with anxiety. Chronic fatigue and pain are common symptoms of depression… Basically, human brains and bodies are complex systems and disruption in the functioning of one part will often have repercussions elsewhere. I am not, as I’d feared, somehow especially weak and unable to cope with one illness without developing more – I’m experiencing something fairly typical for people who live through certain kinds of trauma.

2. The brain is a part of the body and mental illness can be whole body illnesses. Likewise, whole body chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia and ME can and do affect the brain and so the mind

While medical professionals talk of me having several different illnesses (with overlapping symptoms) it often makes more sense to think of my mind and body as experiencing one great big illness that sometimes needs tackling at the level of its component parts and sometimes needs to be treated as a whole. Sometimes fatigue and pain and despair need to be tackled as just that, without worrying too much which part of my illness is causing them right now.

3. Being chronically ill, mentally or physically or both, makes it really, really difficult to tell when you’re acutely ill and need to see a doctor
When you wake up feeling like you have the flu every day it gets kinda hard to tell when you actually have got the flu. When nausea, weight gain and a tremor are all symptoms of your illnesses and possible side effects of your medication, it’s easy to ignore them when you should maybe get them checked out (I eventually did, got more pills for the nausea, some disapproving looks about the weight gain and a diagnosis of “benign essential tremor” for the shaking).

4. There is no surefire way to determine whether you’re actually really tired from fatigue or demotivated from depression

The only way to find out is to try to do something, if it hurts and you get post-exertion malaise, it was probably fatigue

5. Depression and anxiety can physically hurt; fibromyalgia and ME can make you cry with fear, pain, despair or anger

6. You cannot deal with only one illness at once, even if that’s how doctors, the dwp, your family and, well, everyone else, seems to think you should deal with it

PTSD flashbacks can steal lots of energy. So can strong emotions from depression and anxiety. Panic attacks can hurt and make your fibromyalgia flare up unexpectedly. Depression will use your new slower, sleepier pace of life against you to call you lazy or insist that other people are talking about it behind your back. Self-harm becomes easier than ever when your body feels pain at every touch and missing a dose of painkillers can guarantee agony. My body and mind are experiencing massive malfunction and problems in one area cause problems elsewhere. Most of my treatments are just fire-fighting as problems spring up everywhere.

7. People will try to tell you you’re just mentally ill or that you’re not mentally ill
Both assertions are unhelpful and reductive. You are ill, both your body and your mind are affected. It’s not your fault but you can’t treat just the body or just the mind and expect the problems to all go away.
8. The illness(es) you’re experiencing is not your fault
No one has ever said this to me and I’ve often wished they would. I didn’t do anything to deserve this – and if you’re ill too, you didn’t either.

9. “Incurable” doesn’t mean “It will always be exactly as bad as it is right now”

I really, really wish someone had explained this to me and I hope you remember it. There’s a huge, huge space between “how bad it is right now” and “how well people generally feel”. Incurable just means you will never get (back) to “well”. You can and will live in the space in-between. You can feel better, you’ll just never be well. I know that still sounds really difficult and scary but it’s more survivable than “I will feel this awful forever”. Mental illnesses like to extrapolate futures full of acute awfulness and I am telling you that’s not quite how it is.

10. A surprisingly large amount of pain and suffering is survivable and can become a “new normal

I know this doesn’t sound like much of a positive but bear with me. As well as medicating my symptoms, which lessens my pain / fatigue / anxiety / panic / despair / involuntary thoughts but never stops them entirely, i have found that as the years go by, previously unendurable symptoms start to seem like normality: like how music and chatter in a shop can fade to background noise. With no real choice but to get used to pain, fatigue and involuntary thoughts, I have settled into accepting levels of all three that would previously have brought be to tears.

 

And one extra:

11. It IS really and truly possible to be happy *and* ill.

I am happy. I love myself, I love my friends and family and, yes, I love my life. I can’t always keep ahold of the knowledge that there is more to my life than pain and fear and fatigue and despair, but I often can and then I am happy. It is possible. I wish someone had told me that. It’s possible to be okay- and more – whilst living with multiple illness, physical and mental.

My Normality – Life with Chronic Illness

The thing that continues to amaze me about chronic illness is the ability to get used to it. Seriously. I, and others like me, live day in day out with pain and illness and suffering that other people experience only for short periods of time, if at all. And yet, we manage and we often do much more than just manage.

And I want to try to write something about that. If only to remind myself of the strange fact that what has become my “normal” is not “normal” for most people at all and if I think I achieve very little compared to others, perhaps that says less about my abilities and more about the fact that there’s a whole bunch of stuff I have to deal with that other people rarely experience.

So, what does my “normal” feel like?
The short answer is: persistent pain and exhaustion, punctuated with sensory overload, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, sheer terror, confusion and, of course, every now and then becoming temporarily completely blind for no discernable reason. That’s my normal. It’s been normal for long enough that I sometimes forget that it ever wasn’t. It’s only actually been this way for a couple of years.

The longer answer:
Imagine being ill enough to take a day off school or work. Muscles aching, hot and cold, deeply tired and not really able to concentrate. Nauseous. Full of pain and tired and not much else. Imagine trying to “sleep it off”. Only it’s still there the next day. And the next. And the next. And… forever. Or imagine that tiredness and aching you get after doing a lot of exercise, the kind that lasts a day or two. Imagine feeling like that from walking down the street to the post box. Imagine feeling like that whether you try to exercise as much as ever or do less. Even if you barely do anything at all. Put those two together, imagine the feeling you might get if you were really quite ill but insisted on exercising a lot anyway and then that pain and tiredness never ever leaving and you might have an idea of what fibromyalgia feels like. And to me, that’s normal. Oh – and also, I feel pain whenever anything touches me – pain from resting my arm on the desk, pain when my partner hugs me, pain when my mum’s dog brushes past my leg, pain from creases in my clothes or my sheets, pain when someone taps me lightly on the shoulder. Even pain as my fingertips hit the keys of the keyboard. This is normal, this is my everyday baseline for pain – everything hurts

My autism has always made my senses hyper-sensitive – I see light brighter, hear sounds louder, smell and taste stronger than most people. So what is tolerable or even pleasant for most people can be overwhelming for me. Supermarkets and crowds upset me. My brain receives more light and sounds and smells than it knows what to do with and sometimes it just gives up all together and all I can think of is getting out – or all I can do is stand there, unable even to work out how to leave. I have my workarounds and coping methods but the basic fact of the assault on my senses and the overwhelmed feelings I get when my brain cannot take in any more sensory information is always there and always will be. My brain is set up that way.

The illness that I have that I never believed would become my “new normal” is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But it has. My sleep is disrupted by terrible nightmares of things that happened a long time ago and things that didn’t happen but might have done if things had been different. I have terribly vivid visions of awful things happening to me and the people I love. Dreams built out of memories, fears and secrets direct from my own subconscious. For a while this was happening only once or twice a month, since moving house it’s been every single night. And every night I wake up from some awful dream that I still can’t tell for sure whether or not it is real and happening now… and I find my comfort objects, breath deeply and remind myself of my name and age and what year it is, where I live and the fact that the people who hurt me are far away, the things that happened are in the past and I am safe. Then I go back to sleep until I wake up again and do it all again. I get flashbacks during the day from time to time. If I can, as soon as I realise that I’m reacting to something that isn’t presently happening, I take myself somewhere safe and explain to myself what’s going on. I can sometimes do this without crying and without anyone noticing. because it’s normal for me. It is normal for me to feel as though my life is danger, to remind myself to take a second look and decide whether or not the danger is real and to find something to ground me and/or somewhere to go to cry  and to calm down by reminding myself who and where I am. My brain is, I know, set up like an over-sensitive car alarm – it goes off at the merest hint of danger. And like that over-zealous car alarm, it’s usually wrong and that’s often apparent at the second look.

I’ve already written about my depression and that too has become “normal”. Walking with a stick has become “normal” – to the extent that I occasionally think other people are strange because they don’t have one.

I’m not sure how to end this because I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m not even complaining. Just… this is what life is like for me and I’m okay with that. And if I maybe can’t do as much as other people, this should go some way to towards explaining why. How much can most people achieve when they’ve got the flu? When they’re in fear for their lives? That is my normal and I do what I do on top of living with that. So I reckon if I achieve more than just surviving, I’ll have achieved quite a lot in life.

NOTE: I am receiving appropriate medical treatment for all of the above. This is not a description of my life before treatment or what my life would be like without treatment – this is my life as i live it taking eight different medicines and counting.