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

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.

You’re Not Homophobic But… Actually, Yes You Are

About a week and a half ago, the Supreme court of the United States of America declared that all States had to have marriage available to same gender couples as well as mixed gender couples. And this is probably a good move even though I think a lot of other things would have been much more important to secure for LGBTQ people… but that can always be a different post.

This post is about the rise in online homophobia I’ve seen since the court ruling. Not just the people literally resigning their jobs, threatening to get divorced and crying on camera over how unfair it is to them that people like me have a chance to do something that they have enjoyed relatively freely for decades. Not just them but also the people likely to start a sentence with “I’m not homophobic but..”
But “I don’t accept gay “marriage””
But “Homosexuality is wrong”
But “marriage is between a man and a woman”
But “I don’t think same sex couples should be allowed to marry”
But “Same sex relationships aren’t, like, REAL relationships so why do you need to marry?”
But “I don’t want to explain this to my children”
But “Gay couples can’t have kids so they don’t need marriage like straight couples do”
But “I believe homosexuality is sinful but we can still be friends”

But but but but but…

All these and more have been thrown at me and mine recently online. Often while those same people insist that they believe all humans are equal and bullying and attacking LGBT people is wrong and something they would never, ever do…

But. These people are being homophobic – and often seeking out their gay and bi friends in order to explain to us that while they think *who and what we are* and *who and how we love* are wrong, false, immoral or lesser but we should know that they still love *us*. Just not, y’know, a major facet of who we are and a huge portion of our life.

To spell out clearly why this is homophobic, let’s put it this way:
If you believe that
a) Marriage exists and people should be able to get married
and b) Marriage affords social protections and advantages to married couples and their family
and/or c) Marriage is a way of celebrating the love shared between a couple
and you also believe d) Marriage is only for couples containing one man and one woman

then it follows that you must also believe either that same gender couples don’t need those social protections and advantages or that the love between members of a same sex couple doesn’t deserve celebrating (or worse, isn’t love).

Why would I want to be friends with someone who likely thinks my love for another man doesn’t deserve to recognised and celebrated as love but my love for a woman would? Or who thought my love for a woman should grant me and her advantages over other couples who weren’t man-woman pairs? This question isn’t rhetorical, I really want to know.

I love and have loved other men. I love and have loved women. I love and have loved nonbinary people. My love for current and ex partners who are women doesn’t feel to me to be of any different, special or unusual character compared to my love for current and ex partners who were not women. Society is/was less disgusted and less intrigued by my relationships with women than it is/was by my relationships with men, yes but the actual love and the actual relationships I don’t experience as substantially different by gender.
And when people tell me that loving men as a man is wrong or it’s okay but I shouldn’t be able to marry or it’s okay but not in public… I feel like they are telling me that my love for other men is different, somehow lesser, less real, less important, less worthy; just LESS than my love for women. And it’s not.

My love for women doesn’t need a pedestal to celebrate its social acceptability. My love for other men doesn’t need to be kept behind closed closet doors.

I’m not all that keen on the idea of marriage itself but when you tell me that the gender of the people I fall in love with should determine whether or not we can marry, what I hear you say is “I’m not homophobic but I think your relationships with other men just aren’t love”

Where’ve I been? Getting ATOS-ed, that’s where

I realise I’ve not written here in about a month, quite possibly the longest pause in my blogging since YetAnotherLefty came into being a little over two years ago. I (perhaps vainly) imagine that my readers have been asking themselves where I am and when I’m going to get round to writing something again and while I don’t really owe you guys anything, I feel an explanation is due.

Quite entirely simply, the explanation is “I got Atos-ed”. Again. And it was humiliating and triggering and awful and it harmed my mental and physical health. Again.

I want to try to go into that and expose what it’s like to claim PIP and/or ESA (the two kinds of social security / benefits payments offered to disabled people in the UK). Every person I’ve described the process to in real life has been horrified. Sometimes I wonder if people just don’t know or just don’t WANT to know how their friends, family, neighbours who are disabled are being treated. I know people don’t want to think that it could happen to them – when the various changes to disability benefits in the UK started, I was CONVINCED that they were not relevant to me or to anyone I knew. I was very, very wrong. The illnesses that cause me constant pain and fatigue had already begun. The disabilities I’d lived with from infancy should have got me DLA/PIP if anyone had thought to apply.

For both PIP (a benefit that most disabled people qualify for and that is for people who can work as well as people who can’t) and ESA (basically a replacement income for those too ill or disabled to *seek employment*) you first have to obtain and fill in a paper form. On that form, you will be presented with lists of tasks and the option to tick that you either can or cannot do those tasks. And then you’re expected to write in minute detail exactly WHY you can’t do the things you can’t do and how much help you need and why you need that help and exactly which symptoms of exactly which condition(s) prevent you from doing the thing. For EVERY. SINGLE. THING that you can’t do. There’s about thirty pages to the form, and four or more tasks on each page, many of which have subheadings.
It’s a lot of writing, especially if this is your first such form. Oh, and the space to write in is tiny and they don’t actually tell you that you need to detail the whys and hows of every last thing you can’t do without help.

And then they make you back everything up with letters from doctors and carers and social workers and anyone with a title regardless of whether or not they’ve ever seen you at home.

And then they usually still insist on a face to face assessment. Which amounts to meeting a stranger who’s been given a Cliff Notes (think literal bullet points) version of what you wrote on the form in the first place and then questions you in detail about all your conditions and all the things you can’t do and precisely WHY you can’t do them, give examples of times you couldn’t do this, what would happen if you didn’t have the help you have, but WHY does X condition mean you can’t do Y task? how come you can do P but not Q?… the form all over again but with another person asking the questions and not especially caring about being sensitive or kind (in my last PIP assessment, I think we spent a whole ten minutes talking about my bowel and bladder problems and at least 20 on “But WHHHY does severe anxiety prevent you from mixing with people and going to new places on your own?”).
And then based on a report about the face-to-face (including, no joke, comments on whether or not you “looked anxious” in the waiting room) your medical evidence and the damn form, a complete stranger who you have never met, who has never observed you in person, decides whether or not you’re disabled/ill enough to be given a small but often life changing sum of money.

And I think readers of this blog are probably vaguely familiar with all of the above. I needed to spell out the background because what upsets me most about this whole charade, what explains why I become hazy and distant and slightly more mentally ill immediately before and a short while after a face-to-face assessment or a frantic couple of weeks writing the damn forms (every three to six months I have to do one or the other as I get both PIP and ESA)… is the effect this has on my (and likely others’) sense of self, my identity.
The forms and the system reduce me to a list of “I can’t x without y help because of p,q,r symptoms of z condition”. I experience my life – and my self – as a series of events caused or explained by my inability to do things. My brain processes experiences as potential examples for the damn forms and assessments. I feel like a fraud if I decide to take the pain and the consequences of doing something I really really ought not to do. I feel guilty about spending money because at any moment a brown envelope and a few strangers could take all my money away. I worry about that one picture of me on Instagram where I appear to be standing unaided with a baby in each arm – I know the reality is that I’m seated on a stool and there are two people just out of shot ready and waiting to take one or both babies from me as soon as the photo is done – I still worry about what it looks like.
The logic of the form – that one should be able to work and if you aren’t you better have a detailed explanation of precisely why – permeates my brain. I over-explain why I can’t or won’t do things to friends and strangers who would happily have accepted “I can’t” as its own reason. My depression latches onto things that I can’t do that someone my age “should” be able to do. I feel ashamed and scared to admit that I am “on benefits” and likely will be for the rest of my life.
On my “good days”, my depression and anxiety still interject to make me question if I even “deserve” to get paid to not-work (because anything even remotely like full time work would seriously harm me) and if my more expensive or frivolous purchases are justified given I don’t “earn” my money. On my bad days, lying in bed, my brain idly writes new paragraphs for the damn forms.
The system for getting these payments leaves me constantly thinking about what I CAN’T do and why. That can’t be good for me but I can’t stop it. A few more years of this and I imagine it will become a permanent subroutine in my brain, figuring out what I can’t do, what help I need, why I need help, how seriously I’d be harmed without help.. a huge portion of my brain forever ruminating on something that doesn’t help *me* at all. When I could be thinking about my writing or learning or having fun or…

So that’s where I’ve been and where I’m at. The DWP are basically inside my head and critiquing my every action. And it hurts.

And yet… until the system is fixed, I still advise disabled friends to consider putting themselves through it. Because the money maybe a modest sum but it’s LIFE-CHANGING. It means I don’t have to worry about affording a meal in a cafe or a takeaway when I can’t figure out all the steps to making my own lunch. It means I can get a taxi if I need to. It means I can pay bus fare for a friend to accompany me to a scary new place. It means I can afford food that isn’t beans. It helps but making it happen hurts. Possibly permanently. It’s a bind and I respect the choices people make about whether or not applying for PIP, ESA or both will be “worth it” for them.